Category Archives: Travel

The Joys of Camping

After an almost unbroken two-month long spell of good weather it was probably inevitable that for the few days we chose to go camping in Scotland the clouds would gather and we’d have a few spots of rain to remind us that British weather really can’t be trusted.  Although ‘north of the border’ probably wouldn’t have been our first choice for a few days away, I have to admit that our destination, Kirkcudbright, on the northern  shore of the Solway Firth, turned out to be a beautiful and interesting little spot that was well worth the journey.

The occasion for the visit was an opportunity to celebrate Jennie’s birthday in company with her and Nathan and to have an opportunity to get to know Steve, Ann, Jan and Gordon – the prospective ‘outlaws’.  As it turned out, the weather threatened rather more than it delivered and we were able to get out and about and see something of what the area has to offer.  Kirkcudbright has an interesting history, not least as the destination of choice for many of Scotland’s early and mid-twentieth century painters – notably the so called ‘Glasgow Girls’; the town celebrates this connection with a series of exhibitions and a huge number of small galleries where their work can be seen and bought.  The Glasgow GirlsFascinating stuff and a couple of hours very well spent on Saturday afternoon prior to the ‘crabbing’ grudge match in which Gordon, more or less ably assisted by Denise, produced an outstanding performance to catch no less than 48 crabs in the space of around an hour!  Jacques Cousteau could have done no better.

 

Sunday was an equally relaxed affair involving an afternoon visit to a local wildlife park followed by an evening beach barbeque accompanied by a little singing and guitar playing.  (note to self … next time learn some songs before you go!)

A quick round of ‘pitch and putt’ on Monday morning gave Jennie yet another opportunity to demonstrate her competitive spirit before we had to say our fond farewells to our fellow campers and set off for home.  Altogether a very pleasant long weekend in good company and in a lovely part of Scotland – who knows, next time we go we may have to take our passports!

Out and About in Bangkok

The flight from Sydney to Bangkok went as planned – fortunately our kamikaze Russian minibus driver wasn’t at the controls.  As we learnt afterwards, our flight over the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam was around six hours after the Malaysian Airways flight to Beijing went missing in the same area – not a nice thought.  Bangkok airport was bathed in bright smog/haze but the temperature was still a cosy 34o with humidity right up there.

After the rural peace and quiet of New Zealand  the Bangkok experience comes as a bit of shock – noisy, not a little bit smelly, crowded as hell and you take your life in your hands whenever you atempt to cross the road.  The moped riders are the worst and the safest thing is to expect them to attack you from any direction at any time.

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Our itinerary (how to squeeze a quart into a pint pot):

IMGP4484Day One.  Covered Market (15,000 stalls, its enormous), Skytrain, River Taxi, Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo.

 

IMGP4647Day Two.  Jim Thompson’s House, the MBK and Pantip Malls (dodgy software), Wat Pho, sat on the riverbank to get an evening photo of Wat Arun and then walked down past the Flower Market to get a street meal in Chinatown.

DSCN7612Day Three.  Made our way to the central railway station and took the train to Ayutthaya (about 70km north, former capital of Siam until sacked by the Burmese in 1787) and toured the temple ruins by tuk-tuk.  Rode an elephant!  Excellent day only marred slightly by my new lens deciding to fall apart for no particular reason.  The railway system is fascinating  – on the way there we went  by 2nd Class train (they have different classes of train , not carriages) which cost the princely sum of 345 bhat each (around £7), coming back we travelled 3rd Class (no aircon, but with the windows wide open it was fine) at a cost of 20 bhat (40p) each.  Wonderful!

Day Four.  Washout – I succumbed to a case of Bangkok Belly and was laid low for much of the day.  We managed a short shopping expedition around midday and an evening meal in a Japanese restaurant but for much of the day my attention was elsewhere.

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Sydney Stopover

We booked our fights with Thomas Cook and were pretty pleased with the price and the service they provided – except that about a week before we came away we noticed that they’d managed to arrange our flights so that we were due to leave Sydney twenty minutes before we would have arrived.  As a result we had to sacrifice a day in New Zealand and stay overnight in Sydney – at their expense.  They booked us into the same hotel in Darling Harbour that we’d stayed in when we visited Australia a couple of years ago, so at least we knew where we’d be staying and could plan a little bit of exploring for yesterday afternoon.

We mulled over whether to take a boat over to Manly or to catch the bus to Bondi Beach, but in the end decided to join the thousands of  kids (anyone between the ages of 16 and 36) showing off their tans on the golden sands of Bondi.  If anything’s guaranteed to make you feel your age it’s to sit on the beach in the middle of  a sea of suntanned flesh trying to hold your tummy in for a couple of hours.  To add insult to injury, as we were sat there a young guy who was going surfing asked us to keep an eye on his possessions – he said that we looked ‘trustworthy’, which I reckon meant that he thought we were too old to be dishonest!

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We booked a shuttle bus from the hotel to the airport this morning.  I think that the driver must have been a tuk-tuk driver in another life – if you’d think that travelling at 500mph at 35,000ft over the ocean in a thin steel tube would be more dangerous than to be driven though Sydney by a suicidal Russian you’d be wrong!

 

 

Auckland

DSCN7381As New Zealand’s largest city Auckland has quite a different feel to it than Christchurch or Wellington, both of which seem to have retained a bit of small town charm about them as they’ve grown.  Not that Auckland is unpleasant, or at least the bits of the city centre that we’ve seen anyway, but the place has a little bit of big city bustle about it that we’ve not experienced elsewhere in New Zealand.  After five weeks of what’s been a very rural experience it feels ever so slightly frenetic., but perhaps that’s just a sign of a busy town and a healthy economy.

IMGP4465That said, you can’t build a city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean without it taking on a maritime character and Auckland has done that very successfully.  We spent a couple of very pleasant hours this afternoon walking through the harbour area and ogling some of the significant nautical hardware moored alongside.  I’ve avoided calling them yachts because these titanic (!) vessels are about as far away from my experience of yachting as you can get.  No doubt a helicopter is an absolutely essential accessory if you own something that’s the size of village and cost rather more than the GNP of a small country – jealous, me, surely not?

This morning we met with Ed Verner , a chum of sons Richard and Thomas, who made the move to Auckland around three years ago and is now prospering here as a professional chef.  It was great to hear how well he and his partner Laura are doing and to hear something about their plans for the future.  Good luck Ed, and thanks for finding the time to meet up.

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Heading back towards Auckland

We had a bit of a technical disaster the other evening.  Before we set off on our travels I’d cunningly copied a number of films from DVD onto my ‘tablet’ for viewing during the holiday – among them I’d included all 20 episodes of The Killing – in Danish with English sub-titles.  Anyway, we got as far as Episode 13 to find that for some reason the last eight episodes had been copied without subtitles.  It took about two minutes to realize that our command of Danish is limited to two words – ‘smorgasbord’ and ‘sauna’, neither of which seems to come up too regularly in The Killing. So now we’ll have to wait until we get home to find out whether Troels did the dirty deed, whether Sarah Lund will marry Bengt move to Sweden and live happily ever after, and if Meyer is going to smoke himself to death before the end of the series.

For the last two days we’ve been heading south back towards Auckland.  Tonight is our last night in the van and then we’ve got a couple of nights in a hotel before we fly off to Bangkok with a night’s stopover in Sydney on the way.  Time for reflections then……..

  • New Zealand is a truly fabulous country – virtually everywhere we’ve visited has been absurdly stunning, in fact I can’t think of one part of the country we’ve seen that I wouldn’t be happy to return to, or recommend to others.
  • The North and South Islands have their own characters but the differences are more subtle than you’d expect – the South is probably a tad more spectacular and wild but the North is no less beautiful and perhaps has the edge when it comes to beaches.  The fact of the matter is that it’s not a question of either/or …. if you’re coming all this way, make the time to do both North and South Islands.
    • People talk about New Zealand as being like stepping back into a UK of 20 or 30 years ago but I’m not sure that’s quite right.  Yes, it’s much quieter, less crowded and more relaxed than the UK of 2014 but there’s something else as well.  I can’t recall the UK as ever being quite as ‘chilled’ as most of the Kiwis we’ve met have seemed to be.  I’m sure that it’s not perfect and as a nation they have some social and cultural problems, but the national character and very obvious focus on enjoying and protecting their environment is hugely attractive.
    • ……….and contrary to expectations it has been possible for Denise and I to live in the confines of a campervan for five weeks without coming even remotely close to killing each other!

      Denise in one of her moods after four weeks in the campervan with John
      Denise in one of her moods after four weeks in the campervan with John!

Hokianga Harbour and the Kauri Forests

For most of our time in New Zealand we’ve tended to spend every third or fourth night on commercial campsites and in between we’ve ‘freedom camped’ on sites provided either by the Department of Conservation (DOC) or by the local town or regional authorities.  These vary in providing absolutely no facilities, other than the space in which to park your van or pitch your tent, to well organised campgrounds with toilets and some even provide showers, kitchens, power etc.  Even the commercial sites are inexpensive by European standards, with most charging around $20/adult whilst the DOC and other sites charge around $10, or in some cases are free.  It’s a good system and means that there’s no real need for campers to stop where they’re unwanted or to pull over on the roadside for the night.  One word of advice; if you are going to use the DOC sites be sure to get there in good time as even out of peak season the better ones tend to fill up by gin time.

Sunday night we were on a well-provided DOC site on the edge of the Trounson Kauri forest sitting just to the side of Highway 12 which runs down the west coast of Northland.  Much of Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula were once covered in mixed forests dominated by the mighty kauri, the world’s second largest tree, but by the early 20th century nearly all had been felled, either for their magnificent wood or to make way for agriculture.

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The only two remaining extensive pockets are the Waipoura and Trounson forests which are well worth a visit just to marvel at these enormous trees, the largest of which can live for 2,000 years and reach 50m in height and 20m in girth.  It’s an interesting fact (not a lot of people know this) that it’s now illegal to fell a kauri except in particular circumstances which include culling a diseased or dying tree, or when constructing a ceremonial war canoe – imagine explaining that one to the Cotswold District Tree Protection Officer!

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Hokianga Harbour is one of those places that needs to be seen in the sunshine.  Fortunately the clouds parted and the sun broke through just as we arrived, so the view from the café as we tucked into our daily latte and muffin was to die for (we’re easily pleased these days).

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Waitangi and Matauri Bay

IMGP4341We all know and understand that Britain (with or without Scotland included) is the centre of the known universe; so we probably shouldn’t find it surprising that key events in British history are taught in New Zealand schools – you know, Kings and Queens, how we beat the French (several times), how we built and lost an empire, that sort of thing.  So how much do we Brits know about New Zealand’s relatively short history?  Not much if my meagre store of knowledge is anything to go by.

Anyway, all that was put right today by our visit to the very beautiful Waitangi Treaty Grounds where we were given an excellent summary of ‘everything you need to know about Kiwi history but were afraid to ask’, followed by a very enjoyable ‘cultural experience’ which included, among other things, half a dozen scary looking Maori boys and girls sticking their tongues out at us and threatening us with clubs and spears.

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Not your usual welcome, admittedly, but really well done and very effective.  In point of fact it would probably have been even more effective if it hadn’t coincided with a powerboat race taking place on the Bay of Islands and passing within 400m of where we were stood.  Sadly, when it comes to volume even a Maori Haka can’t compete with forty or fifty 350HP Mercury outboards at full chat and a slack handful of low flying helicopters screaming overhead!

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Our drive up the coast from the Bay of Islands took us to the beautiful Matauri Bay where we swam and explored yet another practically deserted, fabulous beach.  Overlooking the bay is the monument to the Rainbow Warrior which, those who remember the 80s will recall, was sunk by the sneaky French Secret Service in Auckland Harbour – need I say more?

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Getting into Hot Water, Tractors and a Deflating Experience

Hot Water Beach on the eastern coast of the Coromandel Peninsula is apparently rated as Number 4 among the world’s top 10 ‘bathing experiences’ – I shudder to think what the other nine may be, or for that matter even to imagine how the judging was done and on whose evidence.  I do, however, remember a club in Hamburg many years ago where members of the audience could sit in a tub and have their backs scrubbed on stage if they were brave enough (no, I wasn’t – but I could name names if pressed) – that must surely rate as one of the ten?

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Anyway, Hot Water Beach is a totally different experience; all you have to do there is stand on the beach at low tide and the volcanic gases bubble up through the sand at 60oC, which is hot enough to broil your toes if you stand still long enough.  Those who know the score come along with shovels and dig their own Jacuzzis whilst the waves do their best to spoil the fun.  Another unique Kiwi experience not to be missed.

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Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove

New Zealanders really love their tractors.  I’m not entirely sure, and haven’t done a count, but reckon that every adult male Kiwi must own at least one tractor.  Big tracked ones, small grey antique ones – it doesn’t really matter what your particular penchant may be, there’s a tractor to suit each and every one in New Zealand.  On our travels we’ve seen them just about everywhere: in fields (obviously), on the roofs of buildings, even as ornaments in gardens – a sort of gnome substitute.  In a couple of the towns we’ve visited it seemed as though the only thing you could buy was tractors and things to fit on your tractor – you know, furry dice, seat covers, go faster tractor stripes, that sort of thing.  When we get home, perhaps I should get a tractor?

Sunset at Thames on the Coromandel
Sunset at Thames on the Coromandel

A flat tyre in Whangerei almost marred today’s drive from the Coromandel up through Auckland to the Bay of Islands – fortunately the spare was serviceable, the jack worked, I avoided having a heart attack and the guys in the local tyre repair shop were really helpful .  Ninety minutes and a little perspiration later and we were back on the road.

 

The Wai-o-tapo Thermal Experience and a big hole in the ground

We decided to drive cross-county from our overnight stop at Mangakino to the area just south of Rotorua where many of New Zealand’s thermal ‘experiences’ are to be found. Our route took us through an area shown on the map as the ‘Hidden Valley Thermal Area’, but whoever was in charge of doing the hiding had done an exceptional job because we saw no signs whatsoever of anything even remotely geothermal until we reached Wai-o-tapu – unless you count the temperature gauge of the campervan as we crawled our way up some pretty steep gravel roads along the way.  All very beautiful, but we were pleased to be back on sealed (tarmac) roads if only to end the incessant rattling of our 10 year old VW boneshaker.

Inevitably, most of the more spectacular geo-thermal sites are in private hands and the owners are understandably keen to make a few bucks out of the tens of thousands of slack jawed visitors who flock to gape at geysers and marvel at mud pools.

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Denise getting a little steamed up about something .....
Denise getting a little steamed up about something …..

That said we thought that the ‘Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland’ was pretty good value and it would have been better still if we’d managed to arrive in time for the daily spectacle of the Lady Knox Geyser being induced to do her thing when a member of staff pours soap down her vent (no way to treat a lady!). Nevertheless, the 90 minute walk around vents, craters and a succession of multi-coloured, bubbling pools was excellent and gave us a fascinating insight into the world just below our feet.

Perthy's trying to work out just how much of this custard he can manage!
Perthy’s trying to work out just how much of this custard he can manage!

We stayed last night at Waihi Beach and started this morning with an hour and a half’s gentle walk up the deserted beach collecting a variety of seashells along the way.  Getting back on the road again we stopped for our usual mid-morning coffee and cake at Waihi, which is a pleasant enough spot but seemed pretty unremarkable until we wandered up to look at an unusual and rather ugly monolithic building which sits in the centre of the town.

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This turned out to be an ‘historic’ pumping house built at the beginning of the 20th century to keep the local gold mine dry – in fact it was judged to be so iconic that in 2006, when the 1,860 tonne building was threatened by subsidence, the mine owners moved it (in one piece) by 300m at a cost of $4.2 million just to preserve it for the community.  All very worthy no doubt, and symptomatic of New Zealand’s yearning for a history of its own, but talk about clutching at historical straws!

Yes, it's gold Perthy, but not as we know it.....
Yes, it’s gold Perthy, but not as we know it…..

Just behind the building, and almost in the heart of the town, is the gold mine itself.  Now operated as an open cast mine they reckon that they have to mine 1 tonne of ore-bearing stone to extract 11 grams of gold – that’s a concentration of 11 parts per million.   It’s already 190m deep at the centre and when they do finish mining they’ll have to leave it for 20 years before they can let it fill with water (which will take 5 years) and then the town will have its own lake – just what every self-respecting  New Zealand community needs.

Taupo, Wakapapa and then up to Mangakino

The drive up from Napier to Lake Taupo was pretty straightforward.  The wineries and serried ranks of vines stop pretty abruptly as you leave the Hawke’s Bay region and as the Thermal Highway climbs steadily back into sheep and cattle country.  There are a lot of sheep in New Zealand, but not, as we’ve been told, as many as in years gone by – it seems that the Chinese demand for dairy and beef products is growing at such a rate that New Zealand farmers can’t change quickly enough and the effect on the landscape is becoming obvious.  More and more irrigation to produce the lush pastures, hay and silage that cattle need and with it a progressive taming of the landscape – still, they have a lot of it!

The Huka Falls just north of Taupo
The Huka Falls just north of Taupo

Lake Taupo is the result of an enormous volcanic eruption in 186 AD, which is practically in living memory in geological terms.  The Taupo volcano spewed out 24 cubic kilometres of rock and ash (at least ten times more than Krakatoa and Mt St Helens combined) and covered much of the North Island in a layer of pumice.  Ash from the eruption was carried around the world – the Chinese noted a blackening of the sky, the Romans recorded that the skies turned blood-red and I imagine that flights in and an out of Heathrow would have stopped for a few days ………  Anyway, the crater it left behind has filled to become New Zealand’s largest lake, which is roughly the same size as Singapore.

Perthy explains about volcanos to Stella from Rio de Janeiro (some bears have all the fun!)
Perthy explains about volcanos to Stella from Rio de Janeiro (some bears have all the fun!)

We stayed overnight near the wonderfully named Wakapapa Village which was comfortable but cold!  If we’d thought about it we’d have realised that with the site at 1,200m it was bound to get a little nippy – but the ice on the windscreen in the morning was a bit of a rude awakening.

We spent this morning walking/climbing the 17km round trip from Wakapapa Village to the Tama lakes which sit in the southern face of Mt Ngaurahoe – no, we don’t know how to pronounce it, but with clear skies and bright sun, the views were spectacular, though we were completely knackered by the time we got back to the van.

A two hour drive this afternoon has brought us to Mangakino for a bit of well-earned rest and recuperation in preparation for ‘doing’ Rotorua tomorrow – pass me another glass of wine please Denise, I don’t think I can move!