Monday, 18 February 2008

New Zealand - North Island

To start, we are sorry to let you down with the visuals, but our little Apple laptop has finally given up the strength to travel. As a result, we sadly can no longer add photographs to our blog, because we cannot download the images off our camera's memory cards.

Our flight from Christchurch to Auckland took us along the East coast of the South Island and then along the West Coast of the North island, which fortunately for us happened on a cloud-free day. The views were spectacular, especially the view of Mount Taranaki (2518m), a perfectly conical Volcano that sits just to the South of New Plymouth.

Our first few days on the North Island were spent in Auckland and Orewa, a lovely beach community North of Auckland. Orewa was a good base with a decent kitesurfing scene, we had a bit of wind and managed to spend a bit of time out on the water. It was a nice contrast to our time in Auckland which was spent eating sushi, noodles and turkish food... Yes, this is Auckland, wonderfully multicultural. We also got to see some Kiwi electronica at an our door music festival called 'Groove in the Park.' We are sure that every 17-22 year old in Auckland must have been there, plus a few of us 'slightly-older' folk. It was so much fun to get down to some seriously funky tunes on a sunny afternoon in the park. The neat thing for us was that we received a 'miracle' just before we went in with a couple giving us their tickets just as we approached the venue. The great thing was that we were just discussing that it was probably too expensive, considering we didn't know any of the music and viola, free tickets, awesome!

After having some fun around Auckland we popped by to see Steff's high school friend Matt and his wife Amy. It was great to catch up with them and get some perspective on life in New Zealand from some ex-(Vancouver) islanders.

After our quick visit with Matt and Amy we headed down to Rotorua, where we had a super weekend with another old friend from Vancouver Island, Robyne. Rotorua is a neat place with an interesting smell, yup it is pretty smelly! The whole area around Rototua is a very active geothermal area, with hot steam and water coming out of the ground all over the place. All this steam coming out of the ground is sulfuric, which makes the whole town smell like one giant engulfing fart!! But, smell aside (which you do actually get used too) it is a great place.

On the Saturday we took a trip with Robyne out to the coast and climbed Mount Maunganui for some great coastal views over the area known as 'The Mount' and Tauranga. This area has miles of beautiful beach, including an artificial surfing reef that was built a few years ago to further amplify the existing surf breaks. After a climb on The Mount it was time to go to the beach for a swim, this was about the time when Justin got quickly sidetracked realizing that the wind was up and this site was looking very interesting with the waves. Justin rigged up the kite and went out for his best day of kitesurfing to date, where he discovered how much fun there is to be had in the waves while kitesurfing. Having sorted out some new wave riding skills it was time to pack up and head back to Rotorua for yet another, concert in the park, this time Rotorua style.

We picked up a few important supplies, like wine, cheese, pate, baguettes and crisps and then headed to the park for a night of great music and good people. The concert was a big deal with thousands in attendance and a whole assortment of music, very professional and impressive for the size of the community.

Sunday was one of those relaxing rainy days, where we did a few things but mostly took it easy. In the evening we headed out to a Maori Hangi and dance at a nearby Maori village. It was a great night out and very interesting to learn some more about the Maori people, and the Hangi, which is a meal cooked in a pit dug into the ground, was absolutely delicious, mmm!!!

On our way out of the Rotorua area we stopped for a couple of hours at an area called Hells Gate which is said to be the most active Geothermal area on the North Island. Underneath this fascinating restless piece of earth is a Magma spike that comes less than 2KM from the earths surface. Steam and bubbling pits of mud and water cover the landscape, some of the water reaches almost 150 degrees Celsius (50 degrees higher than the boiling point of water) which is possible because of the unusual mineral content in it. As we walked around this area we imagined that this must have been like scenes of the planet during its restless time of creation, millions of years ago.

New Plymouth was the next destination on our 10 day whirlwind tour of the North Island. Justin has a second Cousin in New Plymouth that he hasn't seen for many years since she and her family lived in Ontario. We had a wonderful visit and it was great to reconnect with Christine and her husband Don. New Plymouth is largely an industrial town with some of New Zealand's best surf breaks, absolutely gorgeous waves with nice barrels!

We then made our way East, across the island and just had to stop in the unique Tonagriro National Park, which has 3 active volcanoes: Mt. Rhuapehu (2797m). Mt. Tongariro (1967m) and Mt. Ngauruhoe (aka Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings films) (2287m). We couldn't resist inspecting the volcanic crater on the highest Mt. Rhuapehu and made the effort to the hike up and over old lava flows to the top. The way to the top was not marked at all, but we were told the general direction and through the clouds we did manage to find the crater and we were very rewarded! The massive crater was full of ice, rock and steam with very jagged hills in the background, almost a moon-like landscape really. Then over one of these jagged hills we had lunch above a beautiful ice blue and steaming crater lake. What a sight! It was a bit windy and the sulphuric smells, so we didn't stay long at the top and headed back down to a more hospitable environment and continued our drive to the East coast town of Napier.

In the Art Deco styled town of Napier, or more specifically, Hawke's Bay, we went wine touring. This region is known for chardonnay and sauvignon blanc wines and we enjoyed touring a select few wineries. The neatest part about this town was connecting with some relatives of Justin's whom we have never met, and what a lovely bunch they are. Ian, Everlyn and their family live in a beautiful home on a hill overlooking some rural hills of Hawkes bay, just outside Napier. The Gearey's were excellent hosts and it was so nice to meet some new family members.

Unfortunately, we only spent a couple of nights with the Geary's and then we were on our way back to Auckland, ready for our next flight.

We had one more quick little stop up our sleeve, a nice way to round off our North Island experience, Zorbing!!! We have wanted to try this for years. Zorbing is basically putting yourself inside a big inflatable ball and rolling down a hill, what could be better? Well, it can get better! Chuck a bunch of water inside the ball and then hop in! With this method you can slosh around like being inside a giant washing machine, great! So, we both had a go of this slightly bizarre, but uniquely Kiwi thing to do, it was a blast, but like many good things ended to quickly. Satisfied with our Zorbing we headed up to Auckland and boarded our next flight, for the island of Tongatapu in the South Pacific.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

The South Island of New Zealand

We wouldn't normally mention much about the actual arrival to a place, but this one is worthy of a mention. Our flight had us flying into Christchurch, where the plan was to land, grab our bags and then find a phone to get in touch with our friend Jo and find out where she lives. As it turned out there was no need to phone her, she had figured out what plane we were on and welcomed us at the airport, what a surprise!! We had met Jo several months before while in Varanasi, India and it turned out that she was on her was back to New Zealand after working in the UK for 2 years, like us. The funny coincidence was that she had been working in Manchester as well and had in fact been living just up the road from we had lived. After chatting over a few days in Varanasi we parted ways, only to meet up again, by complete coincidence on a street in Katmandu, Nepal. Anyhow, we went went raftng for a few days in Nepal and she had then invited us to look her up in Christchurch when we arrived.

After our surprise pick up at the airport we headed back to her place for a lovely cheese board, crackers and bread, and always welcome, gin and tonics- excellent. Shortly after our arrival at the house, Jo's boyfriend Sean and his friend Wayne (great Kiwi Blokes) showed up and the real feast began, all sorts of yummi-ness, including green tipped New Zealand mussels which were absolutely outstanding, those who have enjoyed these will not easily have forgotten them. All in all this was the nicest, warmest welcome we had had to any country since leaving the UK.

We spent a few days in Christchurch, which is picturesque little city with great access to beaches, mountains and the very interesting, nearby Banks Peninsula. On our first day we spent the day out exploring the Banks Peninsula, an unusual land formation created by two volcanos. The cap of one of the Volcanos has created a small island inside a well protected ocean inlet near the town of Lyttleton. Interestingly this little island was the place where the first Antarctic expeditions of Shackleton and Scott made camp to prepare for the journey south. If you look on a map of New Zealand the unusual geography of Banks Peninsula is immediately obvious, it is a round, mountainous piece of land just south of Christchurch, unusual since the rest of the land in this part of the Canterbury region is totally flat. The whole peninsula is carved by deep inlets around all of its ocean-exposed coastline. Of special interest to those epicureans among us, there is a wonderful cheese factory in the Banks Peninsula called Barry's Bay which makes a wide selection of delicious cheeses, very nice. Also, on our way out of the peninsula (exiting back to Christchurch through a long tunnel which began in Lyttelton) we stopped at a 'Dairy', which is the Kiwi term for a convenience store or corner shop that will almost always have an ice cream counter. This was the first of many delicious ice creams that would be enjoyed in our journey around the South Island. It turns out the Kiwis are quite fond of there ice cream, which is readily available everywhere, so doing as the locals do here would be a very good thing to do, especially with favorite ice cream flavors like Hokey Pokey and Boysenberry- yum!!!

Leaving Christchurch in our sleeperized Nissin station wagon we began our counter-clockwise journey around the South Island. The landscapes were a stunning, gorgeous geography of forests and arid mountains with coastlines of water that seems an impossible colour of blue. Just before the town of Kaikoura we stopped to look at the water and were greeted by a few New Zealand Fur seals who were lazing about on the rocks beneath the road. Here for the first time since we were in British Colombia we saw masses of Kelp forests, there tops swirling about in the waters near the shore. The water seemed to be healthy and full of life. Apart from the insane shade of blue, reminded us a lot of home.

We did a great tramp around the Kaikoura coast line ('tramp' being the kiwi word for a hike, walk or ramble. Not the North American term for a slut, street person or prostitute, 'doing' one of those would certainly be very different to 'doing' a tramp in New Zealand!). The coastline here is very exposed and windy, the shores are covered in Seals, thousands of them. The rock formations here are interestingly carved chunks of limestone, weathered, worn and shaped by the extreme environment where they sit. We had a great walk, satisfied our appetite with a order of fish and chips from the local 'chippy' which was surprisingly inexpensive. But i suppose it can be cheap when they don't give anyone any utensils (that's right, it seems that the Kiwi way of doing fish and chips is to eat it all of a piece of paper with your fingers, hmm) and you also get charged extra for any condiments, tomato sauce, tarter sauce, even vinegar! At 0.50 cents per condiment packet the extras soon add up. None-the-less it was tasty and were were on our way to find a nice quiet piece of beach front to spend the night.

The next area for us was to explore was the world famous Marlborough wine region. This hot and arid landscape of vines is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc wines, which after touring some of the wineries in this region, were remarkably consistent and lovely. I think it would be fair to say that if you wanted a nice Sauvignon Blanc wine you could fairly choose one from almost any of the wineries in this region and it would be good. Certainly our favorite winery here was Cloudy Bay, a large winery whose wines are readily available in the UK and Canada, as well as many other countries around the world. I am not sure why, but a part of us almost wanted to be disappointed by Cloudy Bay, maybe because we wanted to be wowed by more by some of the smaller, more boutique wineries in the region, rather than this massive producer. As it turns out we were not disappointed at all, in fact it is the only winery that either of us have been to where we really liked all of the wines! Unbelievable, these guys were certainly masters in the art of wine making, beautiful wines. We spent a couple of days in the region, had a lovely afternoon picnic, with of course a carefully selected bottle of wine, and enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere of the region.

Our trip around the South Island continued with a trip to Queen Charlotte Sound, a beautiful hilly area with a maze of ocean inlets. The area is home to some excellent walks and super kayaking. We decided for an afternoon of kayaking to explore some quiet little inlets and bays, our starting point was the town of Portage which follows an hour drive from Picton along an impossibly tiny, curvy road. Picton, is a lush, picturesque little town which also serves as the ferry terminal to and from the North Island. As a little comment here, it is worth noting that unlike in British Columbia, there is more than one ferry company operating a car ferry service here, consumers in BC would no doubt be better served with a little ferry competition between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Anyhow, the Queen Charlotte region was fantastic, very picturesque and plenty of outdoor pursuits to keep you busy.

Our next stop was the northern city of Nelson, a great little city which felt almost tropical. Justin was a happy guy here since there was a great Kitesurfing scene here so he wasted no time in rigging up the kite and heading out in to some very choppy water. The water was lovely and warm, the sun was shining and the wind was 'on.' After a great day of Kitesurfing and chatting with some very friendly locals, we made our way up towards the trail head of the Abel Tasmen Track where we would walk along a 54km stretch of coastline camping on the beaches as we went along. The night before we arrived to walk the Abel Tasmen trail we had one of our best car camping spot to date, a not yet completed green of a golf course that sat precariously on top of a cliff with stunning views out over the sea. We woke the next morning to our fantastic setting and drove down the road for a cup of fine coffee and fresh fruit ice-cream for breakfast, this is surely what the good life in NZ is all about!

The Abel Tasmen walk is one of several famous multi-day walks in New Zealand, the beachy landscape of the trail attracted us. The trail was pretty straightforward and we had allocated 3 days to do it. The trick to getting this trail right is timing your walking so that you hit the multiple intertidal zones at low tide. Some of these intertidal zones are quite large and do not have a high tide option for avoiding them, so planning where to spend the night and how far to walk during the daytime is essential. We managed fairly well and were never more than thigh deep in water, it is not difficult really, but it is important to keep an eye on the time. The camping was very nice, but over all the trail and nearby beaches were a little busier than we would have expected. One thing that the Kiwis are very good at is tourism, which i guess you would be too if you had 2.5 million visitors each year. But sometimes part of being good at this tourism is knowing how to get plenty of people into a particularly nice area. In the case of the Abel Tasmen, one of the popular things to do is to do day hikes where a water taxi will drop you off on one beach, you walk a few hours and then get picked up at another, and there were quite a number of people doing this. Also, on the beaches you've got more people with their private boats hanging out for day with families, water skiing, jet skiing and so on. All of this business would have been fine, but i guess when we decided to spend three days on this undeveloped protected coastal park, we thought it would be a bit more remote. The flip side to our slight disappointment here is that the Kiwis are doing a great job of getting people out to these areas and running some great tourism businesses, other naturally beautiful areas of the world would be good to pay closer attention to the way tourism in general is managed here in New Zealand, because overall they are very very good at it. No wonder it's such a popular destination, but bring a thick wallet if you come!

At the end of our 3 day walk on the trail we had arranged for a late afternoon pick up on a beach. The speed boat ride back to the start of the trail turned out to be quite the event when 20 minutes in, our boat slowed to a stop when the captain realized that we had been completely surrounded by hundreds of bottle-nosed dolphins who had decided to have a little play with us and put on a show. They darted all around the boat and a few came flying right out of the water like hasty circus acrobats, anxious to please the crowd, this was a very special experience. Shortly after our Dolphin encounter we came across a load of seals lounging on some sunny rocks of a small uninhabited island. What made this unique was that there were a number of small seal pups, only a few weeks old and you could tell they hadn't quite figured out how to move their awkward bodies yet and were funny to watch. I am sure they would one day realize that flopping about like a person trapped inside an awkward overstuffed bag of lard is very much a normal part of being a seal.

We arrived back to the car and treated ourselves to a nice coffee, fruit smoothy and a warm sunny patio, where we planned our next move. We would end up that night in an end of nowhere campground, which we choose instead of free camping so that we could charge up the camera and computer batteries. The next morning we woke up feeling fine, but all that was about to change. We are not sure whether it was the apple juice or the campground tap water, but something was very wrong. Both of us fairly quickly became rather ill feeling and what followed was a good four days of fun crushing, explosive diarrhea and stomach pains. Justin actually ended off pretty bad and became the most sick he has been on our whole trip. A strong course of antibiotics ended up putting him back on course. Steff's body seemed to have a good handle on the situation, while she by no means escaped whatever evil little guy had gotten into us, she had faired much better. Turns our the cause was giardia.

The illness had put a little damper on our trip down the more remote West coast of the South Island, which was very beautiful and full of life, including---Sand Fleas. Now, I don't know why previous visitors to New Zealand have left out details regarding these horrible little creatures, but we will certainly not subscribe to any such omission, they irritate to no end. Sand Fleas look like over grown fruit flies and love to bite people. Despite their name they don't just live in the sand, they live pretty much everywhere that you would like to be. Fortunately Deet based bug repellants seem to keep them at bay, but if you forget to put some on and decide to leave the safety of you vehicle, watch out! Now some areas are worse than others, some times of day are worse than others, but the West Coast definitely has plenty of the little buggers. The sad thing is that if you are not effectively covered in DEET they really threaten to ruin an otherwise great time. Anyhow, they have been mentioned and we will leave it at that.

While on the West Coast we visited the Franz Josef Glacier which is a wonderfully accessible, rather large Glacier that starts up in the peaks around Mount Cook (3755m), the highest mountain peak in Australasia. We spent an afternoon at the base of the Glacier and enjoyed the views. It was neat to watch the hundreds of clampon-clad tourists get led onto the glacier for a quick visit on the ice, lead by the glacier mountain guides. Remember the comment about how they are great at the tourist business here, well this was one of many great examples of this. We had initially planned on Glacier walking as well but didn't end up doing it for a few reasons, not the least of which was still being ill. But take note, those living near accessible glaciers, this glacier walking tours is a super money making business!

We continued our way down the West Coast and eventually headed back inland to the arid town of Wanaka, somewhere we had been looking forward too. We spent a few days in the area, just enjoying not moving around for a bit. We enjoyed some of the amenities of this quaint little town on the lake. Great for swimming, walking, a little wine touring and some mountain biking, not to mention one very unusual local cinema. The region has a very well organized set of mountain bike trails that are all graded and mapped. We visited the areas local downhill style mountain bike trails and then did a cross country style ride along a beautiful stretch of river. It was a great day out and since we were finally on the mend, good to get our bodies moving again with a bit of exercise.

Following a few days in Wanaka we drove down to Queenstown the whatever-adrenaline-pumping-activity-you-can-create-that-you-can- charge-tourists-heaps-of-cash-for destination. And that pretty much sums it up. Queenstown sits on a beautiful lake with a gorgeous mountain back drop, an unique looking mountain range called the Remarkables. For us the town felt overly contrived and while the activities it offered were interesting you couldn't help but feel like it was all just an elaborate tourist trap that could just leave you feeling, well, broke! We moved on, Milford Sound here we come!

With our trusty, but seriously under powered Nissan plodding on we started towards Fiordland, a large park in South Western New Zealand that is very rugged, wet and lush and deeply cut by mountain fiords that have made the area famous. (Just as a side note here, those who are sharp and up on their geography terminology will note that in the last paragraph I had said 'Milford Sound here we come,' Milford Sound is actually on of the most spectacular Fiords in Fiordland, it is actually a mistake that the name has never been corrected. Now, for those who are confused, as Justin would have been before learning this little tidbit, a Sound is ocean inlet that has been formed by an ancient river, while a fiord is an ocean inlet that has been formed by an ancient glacier. Milford sound is actually Milford Fiord, incorrectly named. But really whatever you call it, it's a pretty amazing place to check out).

The drive into Milford Sound must surely be one of the world's most spectacular drives, sheer mountain sides, deep rivers, waterfalls rainforest and glaciers are what defines this region, absolutely stunning. Nearing Milford Sound there is a long tunnel to drive through that is really only wide enough for one lane of vehicles which is why they use traffic lights on either end of the tunnel changing in 15 minute intervals. After popping out of the Milford side of the tunnel the road begins to wind its way down an amazing valley that begins as an impossibly huge rock amphitheater, this is road trippin' at its best.

Once we arrived in Milford Sound we made our way to the docks where we would join a small boat tour which we had booked a few days prior. The glacially carved rock formations, including a spectacular hanging valley were fascinating to view. The sides had many waterfalls dropping from the cliff tops, one of which we went under with the boat. One of the interesting features in this region is the short forests that cling to the rock faces. The forests of beech actually don't really have any soil to set their roots into so they have adapted a remarkable way of intertwining their roots into surrounding trees so that the whole forest is tied together they can cling to the steep rocky sides. What results from these type of forests is the occasional tree avalanche, where a whole group of trees sometimes slides off the rocks and plummets into the cold waters below, bizarre.

Milford Sound was fascinating, but it was time to make our way to another destination on our hit list, the Central Otago Valley. The Central Otago valley is another hot arid wine region here on the South Island, famous for its Pinot Noir wines. The Bald Hills winery from this region won the 2007 red wine of the year at the London International wine awards, so we felt there would be some excellent tasting to be had. We learned a couple of important things in the region; first of all we found that neither of us was a great fan of the Pinot Noir wines, even the best of them, and secondly that maybe wine awards aren't all they're cracked up to be, a point which we discussed with people at a few of the wineries, they all felt the same way. But, wineries are very interested in getting awards because it's great for business, even though they may not necessarily agree with the judges. We put a real dent in the list of wineries around here, Justin was hot on the pursuit of a great wine and Steff was drunk! Justin, being the designated driver here was making fine use of the spittoons provided, spitting out all, but the absolute best of the wines. Steff meanwhile, having her place in the passenger seat was getting increasingly chatty and rosy in the cheeks. After a while Steff had felt the touring should end before things got out of hand, Justin meanwhile was not satisfied that the nicest wines had been sampled. It wasn't a case of 'Lets Get Steff Drunk' or anything, it was actually that we were invited to a lovely roast chicken dinner the following evening and were determined to fine the perfect bottles of wine to go with the menu. We had decided on white, but were in a region famous for its reds. But alas at winery number seven our efforts were rewarded with a couple of stunning bottles of white, Justin was happy that suitable wines had been found and Steff was happy that there would be no more wines to taste. Following an hour or so of chin wagging with other wine touring folks at Olssens winery, we were on our merry way.

After a night in super free camping spot number, uhhhh we lost count, we made our way back to Christchurch for our tasty meal and preparations for the next phase of our South Island adventure.

We had traded in our reliable little Nissan station wagon for something a little more exciting- a motorcycle, where the plan was to spend the week cruising around roads we had selected for their motorcycle friendliness, namely that they didn't continue in a straight line for too long. We picked up a Honda 750 Shadow, American Cruiser Edition, which basically means that it looks much like a Harley, but is not as noisy and I suspect more reliable. The afternoon we picked this up was interesting as the car rental place hadn't provided enough riding gear for the two of us, so Steff was asked to drive a car back to the owners house to pick up the remainder of the gear, while Justin rode the motorcycle behind. The interesting thing here is that Steff ended up in a hot silver convertible, a Mercedes SLK230 Kompressor, this was one fun journey. It was a gorgeous sunny day, so Steff with the top down (on the car that is) in her cute pink t-shirt and blond hair blowing in the wind, drove with Justin on the New Honda cruising along beside her... Uhh, somebody refresh my memory here, aren't we supposed to be backpacking?!!

After getting everything sorted out with our gear we were on the road and making our way towards the popular Hamner Springs for a bit of hot spring soaking. The bike proved to be very comfortable and we were excited about the next few days of mountain roads. For those of you who are somewhat familiar with the South Island i quickly outline the route plan. We left Christchurch for Hamner then continued along the Lewis pass to Greymouth and then back across the mountains through Arthur's Pass before connecting up with the inland scenic route south before connecting with the road into Mount Cook. For those unfamiliar with the region, this is a pretty and scenic route. Well, a few days in the weather turned unpleasant and it was looking like we were not going to be seeing much of Mount Cook, so we changed our plan, came back to Christchurch and enjoyed a day riding around some stunning motorcycle roads in the Banks Peninsula region, what a super day, including (no surprise here) more yummy cheese and ice cream. As a great finish to our motorcycle adventure, Jo's friend Wayne lent us his BMW FS650G Dakar motorcycle to ride for the day after we returned the Honda, really nice to compare such different machines. I had been considering the idea of getting one of these BMW's at some point so it was great to have a first hand experience of riding one, unfortunately we only rode it around town since i think we were just a bit worn out from spending so much time cruising around the island on the Honda.

As a final bit of fun on our South Island adventure Jo had planned a two day tramp into the mountains near Arthur's pass where we would stay at a newly constructed mountain hut. The weekend turned out to be a great success with beautiful mountain scenery, good friends and a fantastic curry meal made be Sean, Jo's boyfriend. A super way to finish off the South Island tour. Tomorrow morning we head to the airport where fly up to Aukland for a little more Kiwi fun!

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Australian Road Trip

Yes, we are still alive! Despite a lack of regular updates on the blog we are still traveling around and enjoying ourselves along Australia's east coast. Since it has been awhile, will give you brief updates of various places along our slow meander up the East Coast. There will be a fair bit more than a normal update here, so you might want to grab a nice hot cup of tea and travel with us for a bit.

It began in Sydney where Justin finally met up with Steff after a 2 week absence for his sister's wedding in Ontario. It was so amazing to be back together again! It really wasn't so nice having to be apart. Anyhow, we met at the airport and then headed into the cute little borough of Sydney, called Glebe where we checked into our hostel in this historic residential area. Being Spring, the streets were lined with trees in full blooming colours of purple, pink and red! Sydney was an amazing city, very clean, well laid out, first class as far as cities go. After a few days there, looking at some vehicles we finally settled on a GIANT Ford Falcon station wagon with a mattress in the back, which was sure to save us a fortune on accommodation expenses. The car also came complete with a stove, pots, pans, water jug, tent, chairs, folding table, the works! Plus the car has power everything and floats down the road, and we've nick-named it 'The Mayflower' due to its large size and a faint creaking (like a large wooden boat) we can hear as we go around bends.

We left Sydney for the long road trip north, but actually only made it to Freshwater Beach near Manly, at least 25 minutes away! It was just so pretty around there, so we couldn't pass by without stopping. We spent a couple of nights with our friends Bex and Andy, who we met in Vietnam. When we met them in Vietnam they had just been engaged in Paris and they were on their way back to Australia where they live (but they are actually British). While we stayed with them they had their engagement party which involved, not surprisingly, a massive BBQ with lots of meat and lots and lots of beer and a touch of wine, good fun with some great people. Wine is what led us to our next destination, the Hunter Valley, a few hours north of Sydney.

The Hunter Valley is the closest wine region to Sydney and we just had to check in out. We spent a two days exploring the region and tasting wines made from grapes grown on local vines and also from grapes grown in the more famous Yarra and Barossa Valleys. Overall the Hunter Valley wines did not impress us as they lacked any real full bodied flavour that we have all come to expect of Aussie wines. The Hunter Valley does not get as hot and dry as other wine regions, which is why they do not produce the flavours we were looking for. Also, many of the Australian wines available overseas are not from this region, so the flavours of the Hunter Valley wines did not meet with our expectations for Australian wines we have had in the past. We left a little disappointed with only two bottles of wine, but we did have fun with all the wine tastings to find those two!

After the Hunter Valley we headed back to the coast where went in search in kite-surfing spots for Justin. We found the the ultimate spot in a small, off the beaten track coastal town called Old Bar. It's a cute little town with a tight community of talented local kite-surfers who warmly welcomed us. We spent a few days here while Justin worked on improving his kite-surfing skills, checking out the local beautiful waves and making new friends. As hard as it was to leave, it was time to get up to Port Macquarie to visit our friends April, Sarah and Olivia.

Port Macquarie is a beautiful coastal city where many Aussies come for a relaxing holiday or to retire. The temperature is just perfect; warmer than Sydney, yet not humid as it is further North. There are many beautiful beaches and rocky cliffs overlooking the sea, and of course great waves for surfing, the national past time of Australia. We really enjoyed spending time with Sarah and April, who we lived with in Vancouver during 2000/2001. Olivia is Sarah's daughter, aged 3 and she is great fun to hang out with. We were the first Canadians that little Olivia had ever met, so she asked Steff, "Why do you talk like that?" referring to the Canadian accent and also asked, "Do you have two voices?" wondering if we could also speak like her in an Aussie accent as well. It was a very cute moment!

After our visit in Port Macquarie, we continued our drive North along the coast and stopped in Yamba, famous for it's point breaks (surfing) and where we were had the opportunity to get up close to wild kangaroos and observe them for hours. One evening, while exploring some small roads in search of a kangaroos and not finding any at all, we met a friendly lady, named Nerida, who wondered it we were lost. We said no, but that we were (yes, at the age of 30+) searching the forest for kangaroos! We felt a bit silly, but our honesty paid off and she invited us back to her remote 100 acre island that has a massive kangaroo population! Fantastic!! So off we all went and she gave us a great tour of her property, showed us how to interact with the kangaroos and welcomed us to camp on her property for the night, so that we could photograph the 'roos in the morning when they are most active. we kindly accepted and at sunrise took some great photos up close and even observed the two largest rivaling males have a boxing match. Not sure who won, but it was exciting to experience. Interestingly, Nerida's 100 acre property houses many endangered plants and is home to not only 100's of 'roos, but also acts as a sanctuary for birds, yet only a few years prior a Japanese company had owned all the land and vicinity. The plan was to build an adult playground with an airport, resort and casino strictly for the Japanese. The whole project was cancelled as the Japanese Yen had plummeted and thankfully the kangaroos were there waiting for us! It was lucky that we had the opportunity to observe all those 'roos, as throughout the rest of our travels in Australia we only saw dead kangaroos flattened at the side of the road.

Our next major stop was in the beautiful Queensland city of Brisbane. We visited with our Canadian friend, Zoe, who also introduced us to all her friends, which was great fun! Turns out Brisbane is very picturesque, also very artistically oriented and mixes the older colonial and unique Queensland architecture with wonderfully modern homes and buildings. We loved the feel of the city and only left it because Zoe and friends had invited us to join them up in Noosa for a party weekend in a grand, luxurious house. Naturally of course, we had to join in and subsequently spent almost a week in Noosa, not just a weekend. Noosa is to Brisbane, as Whistler is to Vancouver- a party, relax and enjoy type of town. Of course the kite surfing opportunities made it a good place to be as well!

But, the luxurious time in the house had to come to an end and we returned to our car camping lifestyle. We drove from Noosa up to Hervey Bay near the famously touristic Fraser Island. We spent 4 days staying at a lovely little campground on the beach. Lots of relaxing, reading, swimming and looking at the Southern Hemisphere constellations in the evenings, while enjoying a glass of wine on the beach, very civilized. Harvey bay would have been a prime spot for Kitesurfing too, but sadly in the 4 days we were there the wind failed us, teasing but never quite building up enough to get out on the water. The beach area was lovely but what lay slightly inland from the lovely beach areas is strip mall hell, which seems to be spreading over Australia like a disease. While in the midst of strip mall hell we could have been anywhere in Canada or the US, kinda sad really.

From Hervey Bay we began the long drive up to the Whitsunday Islands near Airlee beach. The drive was pretty dull actually. We spent a night parked up in the country side near the town of Rockhampton, a place with some interesting residents, we left pretty quick. The last hour or two before Airlee beach, the launching spot for the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef, was very beautiful and finished with a drive into Airlee where the unbelievably coloured water hugged the beaches. It was a challenge to get ourselves booked on a tour that included everything we wanted to do as it was Christmas and Summer Holidays and very busy. We found one, but unfortunately it was all to happen in a single day rather than the 3 day tour we had envisioned, nonetheless we were EXCITED about it!!!

After sorting out our tour we made our way to a lovely campsite in a mango grove (yummy!!!) that was full of great travelers from all over the world. We had a couple of days to check out the local area before our day trip. We traveled a little bit north to visit some quiet deserted beaches and had a lovely time wandering around in the white sand. No swimming in the water here though, the waters at this time of year have some very unpleasant, in fact deadly, jellyfish. You get the usual box jellyfish, which can kill you, but you also get some very nasty and dangerous tiny ones that you pretty much can't see, often less than 3cm long! Despite the beautiful looking but potentially dangerous waters we still enjoyed some lovely romantic beaches all to ourselves.

It was the morning of our big day out, and it was raining, how disappointing. We were about to blow all our budget for this part of the trip in a few hours and the weather sucked. Fortunately as it turned out, it was only on the mainland and not out on the islands or reef. One of our goals for the Great Barrier Reef was to see it from the air, in our mind this was really the only way to get a sense of scale for this, one of the Earths great wonders.

We headed over to the Whitsundays airport where we boarded a Cesna Caravan, which is a small 8 seat propeller plane that had been outfitted with pontoons and retractable landing gear, making it completely amphibious. We first flew out to a small island off the coast where we picked up the other 4 guests, we got some extra flying in since we had to first fly out to this small island. From there we took off from the small tropical bay and flew for about 15 minutes until we were over the gorgeous white silica sands of Whitehaven beach. We did a few circuits before we landed just at the edge of the shore and went for a walk onto a secluded section of beach. Arriving on the beach our pilot brought out a lovely champagne picnic, complete with cheese, crackers, fresh fruit and cakes, wow! this is the life! We spent about an hour and a half on the beach before heading back over to our plane for the next part of our trip. We all boarded the plane, buckled in and the we took off again from the water flying low over another beach and some island hills. This time our heading would be for a section of the great barrier reef, 60 miles from the main land and another 15-20 minutes from Whitehaven.

The first bit of the flight was just over deep blue water, but then the Great Barrier Reef came into view. The white water crashing on the edge of a giant section of reef. Before landing we were able to do a couple of circuits over the reef and got to see the famous Heart Reef. After enjoying the views from the air it was time to touch down so we can see what things looked like under water. Our plane touched down in a completely enclosed section of the reef, only accessible by special permit to small groups since much of the reef is now under protection.

As we touched down on the water i could see through the windows that our landing strip was a carefully picked line through clumps of shallow coral, the colour was beautiful. The plane eventually came to a rest at a small, semi sub, (half small boat, half submarine). As the plane was anchored we pulled away in the semi-sub and began to cover a small distance towards another section of the reef. We could go inside the semi-sub and sit in the darkened gray carpeted submarine part of our craft with big windows looking out into the water. We were getting pretty excited looking at all of the hard coral under the water, some of it bright blue but most of the colours were mauves and yellows, and of course there were tropical fish, big ones! Shortly we came to a stop where we got set up with our snorkel gear and hopped in the water, it was pretty neat that there was no land anywhere in sight yet here we were on the reef with a maximum depth of no more than 15-20 feet. Now, those who will remember something i mentioned a few paragraphs ago might be thinking; 'hey, what about those deadly jelly fish you mentioned?' Well, the great thing about the reef is that the jelly fish don't really hang out there, they prefer to be terrorizing tourists at the beach, so we didn't need to worry, we did wonder about some of the huge fish we saw though, they looked like they could do some real damage.

After a couple of hours our date with the reef had come to an end. We climbed out of the water back onto our semi-sub where we were greeted on the outer sun deck with some more champagne, great! I was thinking that the only thing better would be some more cake, then, out came the cake... Can we do this everyday???

The flight back was lovely, the late day sun made everything look golden. We swung north for a view looking South over a large section of reef, very large boats near the reef looked like tiny white dots, this was exactly how we had hoped to see it, from the air. We touched down on the small one hotel island of Hayman to drop off the other 4 guests and then got ready for another take off. Justin climbed into the copilots seat for a different experience on the way back, Justin taking the controls was pretty much out of the question, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.

Like all great things, this day had to come to an end, it really was one of our best days so far on our whole trip. We left the airport and went back to the campsite and treated our selves to a really great meal and a tasty bottle of Australian wine. Waking up the next morning the whole thing seemed like a lovely dream, but flipping through the images on the camera confirmed that it really did happen.

We had a nice slow departure the next day and began to head inland for our route back South. We selected something a bit different for the drive back, roads that were a few hundred kilometers inland from the coast, so we could see some different geography. It sounded like it would be a great idea, at least that's what we thought. What ensued was 3 days of fairly repetitive scenery. It was pretty different geography and landscapes to the coastal areas, but after looking at it for a couple of hours it gets pretty tiring, only there is more 2 and a half days of it left to go. We needed things to keep it interesting, the iPod battery was dead, our 4 CD's had been played too many times, we began to stop for a look at some of the heaps of roadkill, just to keep things interesting, oh yeah, we were bored. But it did all eventually come to an end when we finally popped back out on the coast, amidst acres of banana trees, near Coffs Harbour, a couple of hours north of Port Macquarrie.

We spent one last night on a cliff top in a place called Scott's Head before heading back to our friend Sarah's place in Port Macquarie the next day.

We spent Christmas in Port Macquarie with Sarah and April's family which was really lovely, we felt really lucky to be part of a family to celebrate Christmas, Aussie style. We relaxed, ate, drank and played games over Christmas day and on Boxing Day enjoyed a mid day party at Sarah's, really good fun.

On the 27th of December the wind was up and Steff and i headed down to Old Bar (our favorite Kite-surfing spot on the coast) to start Steff's Kitesurfing lessons. Not happy to just sit at the beach watching all the kiteboarding fun Steff needed to be out there rippin' it up. While Steff was having lessons Justin was out on the water working on his Kitesurfing skills too. It will be great to get out on the water together and enjoy flying along under kite power, yipee!!!

Hope you enjoyed our Australian update and there are many new photos for you to view in the Australian Photo Gallery. :-)

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

On My Lonesome....

It's Steff here, reporting from Sydney, Australia and ahem, on my own. Yep, alone, just me holding the torch continuing on our world travels. Justin has flown to Toronto to attend his sister, Krystal's wedding and for a family reunion. A worthy cause for sure. Sydney is a beautiful city, but at the moment, i am suffering a bit of culture shock, or P.A.D.- Post Asia Depression. After having been in Asia for the last 8 months, it is certainly a shock to the system to re-enter into 1st World living standards, lifestyle and pricing. I suspect it will take about a week to adjust, just as it took about a week to adjust to India after we left England.

Sydney is a beautiful cosmopolitan city and from what I can tell so far, life here and the history as well, is a lot like Canada, which may be why we Canadians and Aussies all get along so well. And I must say that Australians are definitely a very friendly bunch indeed.

I've also had a wonderful opportunity to spend time in Port Macquarie, a chilled-out seaside town, 4 hours up the coast from Sydney. Our friend April and her family have warmly welcomed me into their home and have kept me well entertained. We lived with April years ago in Vancouver and it has been absolutely great to catch up with her. April and her sister, Sarah have been introducing me to Australian music and we had the fortunate opportunity to go see a band in concert called 'Kid Confucius'. We all danced like maniacs which was fabulous! The sandy beaches here are beautiful and there are great waves to play in.... when the water gets a bit warmer! It's only Spring time here, so wet-suits are still needed for surfing and boogie boarding.

I was very keen to meet some kangaroos and koalas, so we headed out to an animal reserve with Sarah's 3 year old daughter, Olivia. I was just as excited, if not more than Olivia to see kangaroos and wallabies bouncing around everywhere. We even had the chance to pet and feed them corn. We also visited with the koalas, which are a very cute and funny animal. They are so sleepy, despite sleeping 18 hours of the day and this is because the eucalyptus leaves that they eat have very little nutritional value (like white bread!) The koalas just recline and laze the day away in their trees and sometimes fall out on account of being so dopey from such a poor diet!

After two weeks, I took the train back to Sydney to meet up with Justin and continue on with our travels.....together. :-)

Town of Ubud, Bali

Our last 3 days in Indonesia were spent in the town of Ubud, right in the centre of Bali. It is a very touristy town with gift shops galore, glorious coffee shops and tasty restaurants, so we didn't mind it, especially after being on rustic, isolated islands. Ubud it is touristy for a reason. The charm of the town is present on every street with its intricately decorated temples, beautiful tropical gardens among them and lush, green rice paddies surrounding the town. Every morning the Balinese Hindu women carefully place small offerings of flowers, rice and candy in strategic spots to ward off the bad spirits from their homes or businesses. Women wear a traditional, patterned long skirt and a flower in their hair while performing elegant, dance-like moves of precision and thinking a short prayer. It was truly a lovely aspect of the culture to observe.

We hired a shooter one day and explored one of Bali's two volcanos. We drove our little scooter right to the edge of the volcanic crater and to our surprise, there were roads, farms and villages located inside the crater!!! Not exactly our idea of the ideal place to live!! Oh and yes the volcano is active, but hasn't exploded since the 1960's. So of course, we had to go and venture down into these towns just to see what life is like. The roads were totally funny to drive on, because they were laid on old lava flow which made the roads feel like a mini roller coaster ride, dipping up and down like a wave! totally bizarre. Land has got to be cheap here!!

Overall, our time in Ubud, was a picturesque, relaxing, tasty experience.

Please check out a few photos in the Indonesian gallery.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

The Gili Islands

It took us a couple of days to get from where we were on Bali over to Gili Air, our first island stop. We arrived within a few days of the end of Ramadan, Islam's 30 day annual fast, so things were not exactly normal. These islands, much like Lombok are basically totally Muslim, unlike the Balinese Hinduism found on Bali. We rather enjoyed talking with the locals on the island and learning more about Ramadan and Islam in general. Steff was not a big fan of the seemingly never ending stream of prayers and singing (raher make that whaling) being pumped out of the Mosques loud speaker. Also, it was not like we could get away, these islands are tiny little things, we could even hear it snorkeling with the fish, what do they make of all this?. We have heard Muslim singing/prayers in other places and to be honest, these guys were far from the next auditions for X Factor, they were awful.

The singing was really a very minor thing, everything else was super and the snorkeling and diving were out of this world, amazing. These islands have a far greater variety of underwater life than we've ever seen anywhere, there is something like 3500 different types of fish here. Plus there were the Turtles, we had several wonderful encounters with Hawksbill turtles which are amazing creatures. Lots and lots of fish, everywhere you look underwater. One of the reasons that the underwater life is so interesting here is because of the strong currents that move through these islands, these currents can also make being in the water a bit humbling. Most of our time in the water would be planned to go along with a current. This usually meant dropping in the water on the North end of the island(s) and drifting south with the current, very nice once you get used to it. But once you try and swim into the current you quickly appreciate its strength. The beautifully coloured waters around these islands were the main attraction, the accommodation was simple, as was the food.

In total we spent 6 days on Gili Air, an afternoon on Meno (which was plenty given its reputation for Malaria and Dengue Fever) and 3 days on Trawangan before making the long day trip back to Bali, via Lombok Island, where we made our way to the Town of Ubud, Bali's artistic and cultural heart.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Southern Bali

We left Singapore for a relatively quick flight to Bali where we arrived at night time. We sorted out a hotel on a part of the island that was supposed to be good for kitesurfing. We spent 4 nights in a lovely garden bungalow on the East coast of Bali, waited for some wind (which sadly didn't arrive) and rode around on a motorcycle we rented.

We did a bit of surfing over on the West coast. We found a good sand break with some forgiving waves and had a few nice rides there. We did also head down to Uluwatu one day to look at some of the big wave surfers do their thing. Uluwatu was particularly good because you can stand up on a cliff and look down on the surfers ripping it up in the beautifully coloured water above the reef. These were super waves complete with barrels, much more amazing to watch for real than on a surf film. We enjoyed lunch at a little surfer restaurant on the cliff while we watched surfers down below, some having some incredible rides and others getting eaten alive by the liquid beasts.

After our afternoon of surf watching we went to a nearby temple to watch a Kecak dance. This is a traditional type of Balinese singing/dancing that is pretty amazing (for those of you who have seen the film 'Baraka' you will have seen a little bit of this already). The dance features an a cappella chorus of around fifty men, often making fantastic sounds accompanied by unified movements of their upper bodies and arms. The setting for this was really beautiful, while looking at the 'stage' you could see the sun setting behind over the ocean, we were at the top of a sheer cliff a few hundred meters above the water. The performance was timed to coincide with the setting sun and take us from light to darkness, very dramatic. It was well worth watching and after an ever increasing list of lame 'traditional' songs and dances in other countries this was refreshing.

Realizing that this was not a great place for Kitesurfing we decided to change things up a bit and get off Bali. We did enjoy Bali but in actual fact it wasn't as good as we were expecting. It is overpopulated (2.1 Million plus many thousands of tourists), busy, dirty, overly commercial and in places feels like a burnt out tourist destination of years gone by. This is how things are on the main Southern half of the island. Where was this lovely tropical and exotic island we were expecting? It certainly wasn't Bali. Fortunately it can be found not too far away. We made a break for the Gili Islands of Air, Meno and Trawangan. These tiny little islands off the coast of the bigger island of Lombok turned out to be just what we were looking for, three tropical, laid back islands ringed by coral reefs, perfect.
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