Wanderlust in Waikino

November 2020

This trip was first planned for August, but an Auckland lockdown meant it was delayed until November as most flights to Auckland were cancelled.  (As I write this I have just had another trip cancelled because of another Auckland lockdown – probably something we need to get used to!) It was disappointing to have to delay the trip but my first trip to the North Island since I got back to New Zealand was not to disappoint.  Starting with the flight up and the AMAZING view of Mt Taranaki.  As always, I was grateful for my window seat.

I picked up my rental car (currently it seems rental cars out of Auckland are pretty cheap which is great) and had decided to do a bit of a ‘tiki tour’ – that is, taking the long way round to my destination.  This route took me along the coast of the Hauraki Gulf and through cute coastal towns like Kawakawa Bay and Miranda.

By this point I was long overdue a break and something to eat so I stopped at the Buggar Café in Pipiroa, just outside Thames – yes, you read me right, the Buggar Café! Its philosophy is “Laugh a little” and the bathroom in particular had a number of amusing posters and photos. My favourite was detailing “Useful Bugger sayings” (just in case we could not think of any ourselves lol).

Refreshed from my stop, I next drove over the ranges which border the Coromandel Forest Park where I stopped briefly for a quick walk up to a viewpoint, before heading down the other side to the east coast and the small but perfectly formed beachside town of Whangamata.  (Small and perfectly formed towns was a bit of a theme to this weekend lol.)

Whangamata has a perfect combination of sand, surf and native bush which the population of around 5,000 can enjoy year round – in the summer holidays the population can swell to over 20,000!!  I decided it must be time for another break and a quick walk on the beach and look around the shops.  There is something about being on holiday that means I am always eager to buy things that I might not even consider when I am at home – not that they are bad purchase lol!

The final leg of my journey for the day took me through Waihi (where I would return to the next day) and on to Waikino and the rural log cabin that was to be my home for the next couple of nights.  It was a beautiful place, set in a beautiful rural outlook – fields, an orchard full of olive trees and a babbling brook … ok, it was a river but babbling brook sounds so much more literary right?  One of the best (or perhaps the worst) things about the place was that there was no phone reception – total peace.

Despite the sun earlier in the day it was fairly overcast, and the rain set in during the afternoon – I have probably mentioned it somewhere else in a blog, just how much I love rain on a tin roof!  I could listen to it for hours (and I did lol).   When the rain stopped, I went for a short walk down to the river – the fresh, wet farm smell was just so good!  I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea but I love it.

I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with the other ladies on the retreat (did I mention it was a retreat – not that I know what a retreat actually is!) making homemade pizza and mulled wine.  Although we are now well into spring, remember this trip was original planned for mid-winter so mulled wine made sense then.   Both were delicious.

The next morning, I woke early (as I do) so I got up and went out for a short walk along the road just outside the house and passed the Waitawheta Valley tram track walk (the tram track used to provide the gold mining industry with timber).   It was so peaceful and still – only the sound of the river and birds. I had hoped the river crossing on the map (yay for maps.me and their offline maps again) was a bridge, but it was actually a ford and I was not prepared to get my feed wet at this time of the day 😂. Instead I spent far too long taking close up photos of plants with the morning dew on, as the sun came up over the hills. It could not have been a more perfect time to be out and about.

After breakfast we headed into Waihi, a small town founded around the gold mining industry – it actually won New Zealand’s most beautiful small town in 2019.  The gold and silver mining industry still exists today with both open cast and underground mining – giving Waihi the nickname of New Zealand’s “Heart of Gold”.  The Waihi goldmine is actually New Zealand’s richest gold mine!

We started by having a walk around the town centre (it did not take long), starting at the old Cornish Pumphouse.  It was built in 1904, based on the ones used in the tin mines in Cornwall (hence the name) and at the time it was built, it was the pride of the New Zealand mining industry ensuring the nearby mine had sufficient water, providing up to 7000 litres per minute!!

Despite its success, it was used for less than 10 years as in 1913 the Waihi Goldmining Company built the first hydro electric power station on the Waikato river and pumped the water 80kms to the mine.  At the time, the miners did not trust electricity so kept the pumphouse in working order until 1929 just in case it was needed. 

From 1930, the pumphouse was stripped of machinery and left as it was until the 1960s when one of the underground shafts collapsed, leaving the pumphouse on unstable land.  It was fenced off due to the danger but in 2006, it was decided to preserve it and therefore it needed to be moved.  The move of only 300m was an engineering feat in itself.  Today the pumphouse is an icon of the town’s mining heritage.

If you walk up the small hill next to the pumphouse you can look down on the vast Martha open cast mine.  You really can only tell the vastness of it when you see a truck halfway down which looks absolutely tiny.  There is also underground mining that tunnels underneath the town, which have caused some concern to the people who live above it.

After our short history lesson, we headed to ‘Laughing Pottery’, where we were to learn how to ‘pot’ lol.  Andrew, chief potter (not sure if that is actually a thing) taught us all about the origins of his clay and the process it goes through to get from the clay you dig out of the ground to the clay your make things out off – it was a surprising long process that I won’t bore you with!

Next up was learning how to make things.  I can firmly state it is definitely not as easy as the pros make it look!!  Nevertheless I managed to make 2 pretty decent looking bowls and a mug which will be fired and glazed (in a colour of my choice) over the next couple of weeks and sent on to me.  It was a fun experience, and I can’t wait to see the finished products (Finished product is included in the photos above – not to shabby if I do say so myself lol.

We had time for a walk around some of the cute shops in the busy little town before we were back on the road and into the nearby Karangahake Gorge and the quirky Talisman café for lunch.

Just across the busy road from the café is the start of a number of walks around the Karangahake Gorge itself.  These days the gorge is mostly a thoroughfare to get from Paeroa to Waihi, or perhaps somewhere to stop for a short walk, but it was once a bustling gold mining town.  The walks take you past some of the remains of buildings, along the old mining tram ways and through some of the old tunnels.  We did the short Windows Walk which is one of the favourites, not only because it is an easy 2.5km loop, but because of the wonderful views of the gorge through the ‘windows’.

Having had a bit of walk, we were ready for the next stop at the Karangahake Winery Estate.  A lovely winery set just up the hill from the river.  Despite the forecast, it had turned in to a lovely warm day, so we sat outside in the sun enjoying some lovely nibbles and a freshly brewed Mead – “Session” Mead as opposed to “Sack” Mead which I had sampled in Kyrgyzstan (feel free to check out that blog – All things Kyrgyz 101).  Chantelle, the owner and brewer of the mead explained that “sack” mead is what you drink before you go and sack a village (going back to its Viking roots).  It is very strong and very alcoholic 😂!!  “Session” mead on the other hand is something you could drink for a “session” – so it tends to be much lower in alcohol, lighter and fizzier – it was delicious and refreshing and definitely more drinkable than the Kyrgyz sack mead! 

Chantelle said it was her best batch yet!!

Our final stop for the afternoon was at the beautiful Owharoa Falls, in the Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park and just off State Highway 2.   From the road it is just a short walk to the waterfall’s base were you get a view of the small but perfectly formed falls.  Now I mentioned previously that it was much warmer than I had expected it to be, but it was definitely not warm enough for swimming as a couple of people were doing lol. I was definitely not inclined to join them.

It had been a busy day and we had a couple of hours downtime before we headed back to Waihi, this time to Waihi Beach for dinner at the beachside Flatwhite Waihi Beach.   It overlooked the beautiful long stretch of Waihi Beach, despite the overcast weather it was still beautiful.

The rain set in during the evening and back at the log cabin, I fell asleep to the wonderful sound of rain on the tin roof (again).

The following morning was the last of my short getaway and we were back at Waihi Beach for a morning Yoga session at The Nest.  Now, I am not really a yoga person, but the yoga tent was in such beautiful gardens and it was so peaceful I found it all very relaxing … until the ducklings started running around the deck around the tent 😂 the pitter patter of their little feet round and round just made me laugh.   😂 

After yoga I had time for a coffee and a short walk on the beach – after the rainy night, it was a beautiful day, and you could see as my Mt Manganui … I just wished I could stay longer, but sadly no.  I had to get back to the house to get packed up and head back to Auckland.  Thankfully I did have time for a quick stop in Paeroa, the home to the ‘world famous in New Zealand’ Lemon & Paeroa and get a mandatory photo of the giant L&P bottle.

Yet another great long weekend, exploring my big back yard.

Roaming Rakiura – Part 2

October 2020

After a late night, we were up early for our visit to nearby Ulva Island.  A must do when visiting Rakiura and again, this is something you can easily do without a guide but I always like to know about what I am seeing and of course they know where to look for things lol. We met our guide, Leah, (again we used Ulva Guided Walks) at the small wharf in Golden Bay and the caught the water taxi across Paterson Inlet to the island (passing a few Little blue penguins bobbing around in water) – just a 7 minute journey.   

Today, Ulva Island (named after an island in the Scottish Hebrides islands) is a predator free sanctuary just off the coast of the Stewart Island mainland.  It became predator free in 1997 and is one of the few sanctuaries in New Zealand that has undisturbed podocarp forest – it really is like stepping back in time. 

Visited occasionally by the local Ngāi Tahu Māori, the island was occupied in 1872 by Charles Traill (from the Orkney Islands) who established the first post office in the region – he called the bay he lived in Post Office Bay and this is where we arrived on the island.  When the mail boat arrived, he would raise a flag and the locals would put on their finest clothes and make their way to the island to collect their mail and catch up on the local gossip.

Charles was a keen botanist and conservationist and established extensive gardens in the area around his house and the post office/shop.  Some of these exotic tree species still remain and are the only non-native trees on the island.  In 1922 the island became the first scenic reserve in New Zealand, and he post office operated until 1923.  Today, the island is managed by the Department of Conservation, except for the 7 hectares of privately owned land where the homestead still remains (256 hectares in total).

We were greeted by some very early blooming rata trees (apparently is a sign of a long, hot summer) and a very inquisitive Kaka who got so close I thought it was going to take my phone (which I was videoing it on) right out of my hands!  According to Leah, the Stewart Island Kaka have their own dialect, distinct from those on the mainland – of course, I do not speak Kaka so cannot confirm or deny this but what I can say is they like to make their presence known!!

As the island is now pest free (no stoats, mice, rabbits etc.) it has a great population of many of New Zealand native birds that are struggling elsewhere.  Kākāriki, kererū (wood pigeon), korimako (bellbird), pīpipi (brown creeper), miromiro (tomtit), pīwakawaka (fantail), tūī, Stewart Island tokoeka (brown kiwi), Tīeke (saddleback), mohua (yellowhead), toutouwai (Stewart Island robin) and tītitipounamu (rifleman) can all be found on the island. 

The current population of robins were founded by 20 individuals released in the late 90’s – today they are thriving and on almost every walk on the island you will be visited by at least one robin. They are incredibly confident and appear to have no fear as they dance around, trying to mimic rain on the earth to disturb the insects which they feed on.  They are also a fan of you scuffing up some of the earth with your foot to help them out. 

Another fun fact about the birds of the island, Tieke (or Saddleback) here are unique as they do not develop their ‘saddle’ until adulthood, the North Island species on the other hand are born with it.  Also, relatively unique in the bird world, the juvenile will stay with their parents for a year and will help gather food for the following years chicks before leaving the family.

Ulva is so small it is easy to cover most of the island in a day, depending on how much time you want to spend watching and listening to the birds and studying the plant life.  I like to spend a lot of time doing that and therefore we only waked a couple of the tracks.  And there was a bird symphony – Leah could identify Mohua (sometimes called a bush canary), brown creeper and grey warbler – unfortunately we could not see them all as they were high in the canopy.

We saw Red crowned kakariki ❤️❤️ eating last summer’s berries off grown, Tuis feeding on tree fuchsia (the largest species of fuchsia in the world).  We had a brief glimpse of a Yellow crowned kakariki and a Mohua (Yellow head) who apparently are often seen together (perhaps all the yellow headed birds stick together lol).  And we spotted another juvenile saddleback which had its wattles and saddle just coming through.

The bush is stunning, and as I previously mentioned, a perfect example of an ancient podocarp forest (one of the best in the country as it has never been cleared or milled).  There are towering Rimu and totaras – apparently if a grown man can reach their arms around the Rimu and touch it is around 250 years old.  The ground was full of beautiful umbrella mosses ❤️and Leah pointed out a so called dinosaur plant – a fern ally which is 400 million years old (perhaps not that exact plant, but the species itself)!    We saw Spider Orchids, just starting to flower and bamboo orchids, not quite in flower yet and beautiful crown ferns with their connected root system.  And don’t forget the cute Hen & Chicken fern whose spores grow as miniature ferns on its fronds before they drop off to set out into the world on their own lol.  We were grateful to have Leah tell us lots of wonderful stories about the trees and plants – some fact, some a little more mythical.

One of the most fascinating stories was that of the Ulva Island postcard tree – which despite its name, has had numerous uses.  Not surprisingly, its broad leaves used to be used as postcards.  They could be written on and posted (even internationally) until the 1970s!!  Other uses include toilet paper (as good as 3 ply apparently) and a crash pad for Sooty Shearwaters who are not great at landing to use these trees to soften the blow so to speak. lol

One of tracks took us out on to Boulder Beach, where we watched Weka feeding on crabs (sometimes with a little assistance by lifting rocks to expose the crabs).  As typical with Wekas, they had little fear of us, and just carried on their own business.

Further on we came to Sydney Cove, a stunning tropical looking beach of golden sand and turquoise water.   Here we were greeted by a huge sea lion, who had just hauled himself up the beach.  He was the biggest I had seen and even the biggest Leah (our guide had seen) so we had to be careful to get past him.  The rule is to never cross between a sea lion and the sea, effectively cutting off their escape route, however this guy left us no option, so we moved quickly and quietly around him. 

Our final stop on Ulva was at Flagstaff Point, not surprisingly, the point where Charles Traill use to raise his flag to advertise that the post had arrived.  Today it is a lovely lookout over Paterson Inlet. 

It was a wonderful morning spent on Ulva Island and we were so happy we had Leah to guide us around   – we would have missed out on so much had we gone on our own.

Back in Oban, we decided to hire a couple of e-bikes to explore a little further.  First, we headed one way out of town and at the end of road we found ourselves in Lee Bay, the starting point for the Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s Great Walks).  It is also the site of a huge chain that goes into the sea –Te Puka, the anchor stone.  As the Maori legend of creation has it, Maui (now of Moana fame) used Rakiura as an anchor for the great ancestral canoe (Te Waka o Aoraki – the South Island).  (FYI – the North Island is the fish he and his brothers caught.) 

As it turned out, we were actually not far from where we were kiwi spotting the night before and could see the predator proof fence as it went up from the sea.  It was so peaceful to just sit on a beach for a bit, taking in the sun and listening to the bird song. 

Back on the bikes and we head back through town, out the other side and along to the end of the bay to visit Ackers Stone House.  Lewis Ackers was an American whaler who settled on the island in 1836, before Oban was established.  He built the house himself to house his Maori wife and their 9 children.  Apparently, they had bunk beds stacked 5 high to sleep everyone in the small house!  They certainly had an amazing view (on a nice day)!

We zoomed back into town using the throttle and hardly pedaling at all – it was my first time on an e-bike, and I do not think it will be my last lol.

For our final morning, we had thought about doing another walk but decided just to relax.  After dropping off our bags at the plane ‘depot’ (a small office in town), we wandered around the shops (all 3 of them lol).   We walked up the hill by the church and over the small headland to a view over bathing beach -it was a beautiful golden beach though you must have to be careful not to be caught at high tide!!

Back to town and we went back to the DoC office to watch some of the videos about the island history that they play on loop until it was ready to board our flight back to the mainland.

What a wonderful place Rakiura/Stewart Island is.  Oddly, it is somewhere they New Zealanders don’t tend to go, and the vast majority of their visitors are passengers on cruise ships.  Of course, 2020 changed all that and they are one of the few places in New Zealand that have managed to sustain their tourism industry with New Zealanders who are exploring home more rather than going overseas. Even the flight in and out is worth the visit.

I will leave you with a quote from Leonard Cockayne (considered New Zealand’s greatest botanist and a founder of modern science in New Zealand) in 1909 “The face of the earth is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of primitive nature left.  In the Old World, it is practically gone forever.  Here, there is Stewart Island’s prime advantage, and one hard to overestimate.  It is an actual piece of the primeval world.”  He was not wrong!

Rakiura … the land of glowing skies

October 2020

Somehow, I had not been to Stewart Island before, despite it being New Zealand’s 3rd largest island – and then I manage to go twice in one year lol.  There will be more about my second trip in another blog post (something to look forward to lol). I had also intended this to be one post, but after writing it, it seems better suited to two – I don’t want to bore you more than necessary lol.

For the first time since I returned to New Zealand in February as the world shut down, I was back at the airport and on a plane (I must admit I missed it) and it was a beautiful day for flying. Firstly a flight from Christchurch to Invercargill (around 1 hour 20 minutes), New Zealand’s most southerly city, and then the short hop from Invercargill to Oban, the only town on Rakiura (only 10-20 minutes depending on the wind).  The beautiful day lead to some lovely areial photos (I must always have the window seat for this reason!)

Invercargill is truly a small city airport and Stewart Island Flights is most definitely a small town airline.  They fly only between Stewart Island and Invercargill on their two Britten Norman Islanders which take just 10 passengers (including the pilot) – they also have a Piper Cherokee which is even smaller.  The pilots end up doing much of the work, including taking the passengers to the plane (we had to walk through the baggage area to get to the plane 😂), loading the baggage and of course do the inflight safety briefing. 

The flight was a little bumpy and we did not seem to be very high above the ocean …. but why would you go high when you are landing in 15 minutes!  It took us out over the small town of Bluff as we said  goodbye to the mainland (as we South Islanders like to call the South Island) and across Foveaux Strait on to the first amazing views of Stewart Island with its bush covered hills, perfect half- moon bays with clear  turquoise water.

We landed on the airstrip just outside of Oban and the plane was quickly unloaded (and reloaded for its quick turnaround and flight back to Invercargill) and we were bused in to the depot, a short walk from the South Sea Hotel where we were staying.   If you get the opportunity to travel to Stewart Island, I would highly recommend the flight – not only is it quick, you get amazing views and avoid having to travel to Bluff and then ferry (a far longer journey).

Stewart Island or Rakiura (meaning ‘glowing skies’ after the Aurora Australis you can sometimes see from the island) has a long history of Māori habitation (around the 13th century) and was then settled by European sealers and whalers from around 1800 and subsequently loggers who set up a number of large timber mills on the island.  It got its name Stewart Island from William Stewart, the first mate on one of the early sealer ships.  Thankfully in the 1890’s a large part of the island was protected from milling or development which leaves us with the beautiful bush covered island we see today.

Oban itself, is named after Oban in Scotland (which means little bay) and is based around Halfmoon Bay and has around 380 permanent inhabitants and as we wandered around the town (it does not take long) it was filled with bird song.  Although it was a beautiful sunny day, this gave an impression of a much warmer day than it was, and the wind was bitterly cold.  Despite this, the local children from the school (just across the road from the waterfront) were wearing shorts and t-shirts and playing in the water!! 

We stopped by the Department of Conservation (DoC) office to check out the local walking tracks and I was drawn to the beautiful carving they have outside.  It tells the tale of Kewa, a great whale who chewed through the South Island, separating Stewart Island/Rakiura and creating Te Ara a Kewa or the pathway of Kewa, also known as Foveaux Strait.

We had overheard an a conversation in a shop (there aren’t many of them) where a couple of the locals discussed how lovely the day was and that it didn’t happen very often! Upon hearing that, we were determined to make the most of it and headed out on a couple of the short walks around the town.  They were lovely walks and I was amazed with the amount of tuis were saw.  As usually, I spent far too long taking photos in the hope of that perfect shot.  I think I did ok lol

For dinner we headed to the local pub, one of the few places there is to eat outside of peak season (although there are not many more options in high season), and it was very busy.  We were lucky to get a table (as we had not booked) but managed to enjoy a good meal.   Not only was a good meal but it was a big one and we struggled with our full bellies up the hill behind the town to Observation Point to see the sunset over Paterson Inlet.   It was so beautiful and peaceful (except for the occasional tui or kereru) and well worth the struggle.  By this time, the wind has also dropped so it was significantly warmer.

On the way back to town it was clear the South Island Kaka (one of New Zealand’s native parrots) were out living it up for the evening.  1,2,3,4 on the trees … and lots flying around.  It was amazing to see.  And to round off the day – we headed to the wharf to spot a few little blue penguins coming in for the night.  Sadly, it was too dark for decent photos, but it was great to see them.

We were actually staying in the accommodation attached to the hotel (just across the road from the wharf) – we were in a motel style room out the back, but there are also options to stay in the pub building itself which might be a little noisy if you were not planning on joining the drinking in the pub just below you – that said, you would get to enjoy the sea view.

Our first morning on the island and we up to what looked like some amazing light.  Never one to miss out on a photo opportunity, I threw on my shoes and coat over my Pajamas and quickly walked the short walk to the water front and it was well worth it, the sunrise was beautiful – so moody and colourful.  The forecast was for rain and it looked like it might be coming later in the day but not yet, so we definitely wanted to get out early.  

We did two 2 walks – Fern Gully and Ryan’s Creek.  Both walks you can do from Oban and about 10 km in total.  The tracks were good with just a few small some muddy areas, thankfully nowhere near as bad as it was for some friends who had been here just a couple weeks before.  There were not so many birds on these walks, but we did spot a bellbird and some oyster catchers when we made it down to the sea… 

At one point it appeared to be raining bark on the track, we looked up to see a Kaka ripping apart a branch and throwing the discarded bits to the ground. Typical Kaka (and their cousin Kea) behavior and they are well known for their destructive nature!  Again, it was a bit dark for any decent photos but amazing to stand and watch for a while. 

Back in town and we had lunch at the small café – as I mentioned before, at this time of year there are only 3 places to ‘dine out’ and the small supermarket where you can buy sandwiches and groceries etc.  We were sure to spend money at each of them. 

We had been lucky to avoid rain so far (although the photo taken just after lunch certainly looks like the calm before the storm) but our luck ran out when we decided to check out the small souvenir shop – just as we got there, the rain started and it got heavier and heavier so we decided to make a run for it and get back to the room😂.  I won’t lie, the rain was a good excuse to relax for the afternoon.

Thankfully the rain cleared in time for our evening Kiwi spotting tour.  I know a few people who have been lucky to see a kiwi walking around the roads just out of town, but as we did not have a car and wanted to have a higher change of spotting the elusive national bird of New Zealand we booked a tour with Ulva’s Guided Walks.  We did not regret it.

As you may know, Kiwis are nocturnal and so our tour started at 9pm (of course the time varies depending on the time of the sunset throughout the year).   It’s worth noting that despite being nocturnal, it is actually possible to have a kiwi encounter in broad daylight, if you are incredibly lucky.  Some say this is because there are fewer predators here, but it may also be due to the fact that in mid-summer (their breeding season), there are very few hours of darkness this far south so they need to feed during the day as well.

There is a population of around 13,000 Stewart Island kiwi (a sub species of Tokoeka, one of the five species of Kiwi), found only on Stewart Island and are considered a threatened species.  Thankfully the island is currently free from possums, stoats and ferrets which is vital to the health of the population.

We met up with our guide and where driven only a short distance out of town, where we parked up and walked into a grassy area, just off the road.  Not far away we came across our first pair of kiwi (kiwis are generally monogamous and pair for long lengths of time).  We had red light torches to light the way – interesting it is the same technical we had used in Zimbabwe when hunting with lions, as the red light does not startle the game (and in this case the kiwi) like white light does.  And with this light we had a great view of the kiwi who do not seem particularly by our presence as they when on their way feeding, as some point coming quite close to us.

After this first encounter, we headed inside a predator proof fence (oddly set up the US based Dancing Star Foundation – Dancing Star Foundation – Biodiversity Conservation – Translocations) were we came across another pair of kiwi.  Interesting, the kiwi inside the fence where more skittish than the ones outside.  Apparently because they have less predators … and visitors in general and are therefore less habituated. 

It was a beautiful evening, after the afternoon rain.  The sky was full of stars (including shooting stars) and the calls of morepork and kiwi filled the air.  I cannot recommend the experience enough, and the chance to see our elusive national bird is one not to be missed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 …coming soon.

Peninsula and Penguins

October 2020

You know you don’t always have to travel far from home to experience something new and feel like you have had a break.  I guess this is something many people are learning in the last 12 months or so (can you COVID has been with us for over a year!).

It seemed like ages (well at least a few weeks) since I had been away, so I booked a short overnight trip just over the hills in Banks Peninsula. It is just a 1.5 hour drive to Akaroa, the main town on the Peninsula, famed for its early French settlers, it is popular for day trips or long weekends from Christchurch. I arrived in time to wander around the town a little and visit the cute and very European feeling little Saturday morning market. The highlight of my short wander (besides a good coffee) was catching a beautiful bellbird in full song. It was singing its little heart out, puffing out its chest and bobbing up and down. I was so excited to see it and it was such a special moment as although they are not threatened you don’t see them in town very often.

I had booked an overnight trip with a local company called Pohatu Penguins, is a family-run business with a long standing history of protecting the penguins that nest in the area.  They offer evening trips to see the penguins as well as 24 and 48 hour trips. 

I had opted for a 24 hour trip that started with a short, guided tour as we drove out of Akaroa and further along the peninsula.  Now I have been to Akaroa many times but never further around the peninsula, so it was great to go a little further and learn a little more about the area. So off I set with my guide Sue who was oddly from Tasmania but had clearly done a lot of study about the region.

Banks Peninsula was formed by the activity of 3 volcanos, between 11 and 6 million years ago which led to the formation of overlapping volcanic cones.  When the volcanic activity stopped, the area was eroded, lower the height of the cones, and forming deep valleys that were flooded when the sea level rose about 6,000 years ago.  From this we get Akaroa (which means long harbour in Maori) and Lyttleton on the other side of the peninsula and the main harbour for the city of Christchurch.

When Captain Cook was mapping New Zealand during one of his voyages, he originally thought the Peninsula was an island, naming it Banks Island (after the naturalist and botanist on his voyage, Joseph Banks).  He is also responsible for calling the native manuka ‘tea tree’ because they would use the green leaves to make ‘tea’ – apparently it was also a remedy for sea sickness.

Having been cleared from the peninsular by early settlers who saw it as an invasive shrub, its regrowth is being encouraged for many reasons.  It assists with the regeneration of the eroded slopes, it creates shade and shelter which acts as a nursery for other native species and it grows taller than the introduced gorse (a true invasive shrub) depriving it of sunlight, so it eventually dies out.   It is also an important source of pollen and nectar for native bees (and other insects) and geckos.  Manuka honey is famous around the world.

As well as natural beauty, the peninsula has played some part in New Zealand’s history. Akaora is Canterbury’s oldest town, having been founded by French settlers in 1840, just after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi with the British. They had been hoping to colonize the country, but the Treaty put an end to that. Coincidently, Ōnuku Bay, just around the corner from Akaroa, was the site of the first South Island signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

We had a quick stop at the top of one of the hills for a view of Akaora harbour and down to Ōnuku Bay.  It as incredibly windy and it felt like the gust could have blown me off the ridge, so I took a couple of quick photos before getting back to the shelter of the manuka.

Our next stop was at the headland of the peninsula and lighthouse (well not really a light ‘house’ anymore).  The first lighthouse was built in in 1880 and it was manned for almost 100 years before it was replaced by an automated light.  As an aside, the original lighthouse was given to the Akaroa Lighthouse Preservation Society who moved it to a location in Akaroa – on a spot now known as Lighthouse Point.  The headlands are now form part of the Lighthouse Reserve and the foundations of the lighthouse keeper’s family homes still remain.  And don’t forget the views out onto the ocean.  If you look closely down on the rocks below you might me lucky enough to spot some of the local seals sunning themselves.

Sue then dropped me at a corner of the road called Mortlock’s Mistake – I hoped that would not become Elaine’s Mistake (lol) as it was here, I would start my walk down through Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve. It is one of the few remaining original tracks of native bush on Banks Peninsula as most was destroyed firstly by the Maori as they flushed out Moa, and then by Europeans who wanted to clear the remaining land for pasture. This small track of bush survived due to its position in a valley and the stream and waterfalls, keeping the bush damp.

The walk was so peaceful with just the sound of bird song and the stream running alongside of the track. Fantails, Tomtits and Bellbirds sang as I walked through the bush, some of which was over 400 years old!! The highlight of the walk was the waterfalls just off the side of the path. Some had swimming holes and although it was warm, I was not up for a swim. I did sit for some time by the last and in my opinion of the best of the waterfalls in as the watching the sun dance on the spray (and it helped that the spray cooled the air too).

The last part of track opened out into farmland where the cutest Teddy Bear faced lambs were grazing with their mothers.  They were truly just the cutest wee things.

The track took me down in to Flea Bay (also known as Pōhatu), one of the many small bays on the Peninsula.  Many of the bays you can only reach by boat, though this one had a 4WD accessible track (which I would use later).  Within the bay were a couple of buildings for overnight walkers (like me) and a family farm (some of which I had walked through early).

I had time to have a stroll around the house where I was staying and get to know the lovely local ram (male sheep) – I found out later he is a Valais Black Nose (I Swiss breed) called Bobby.    There was also time for a nap (which is always a plus) and cook my dinner (2 minutes noodles count as cooking right lol).

Sue, my guide, had told me to walk around to the next bay for 6pm (just a short walk) where I would meet her and the other people booked on the evening penguin tour, so I did just that. Unfortunately, there was no sign (except one saying private property) but lots of nesting boxes around so assumed I was in the right place!

There was no phone reception so no way to check -so I just sat by the road knowing I would see the vehicle coming … luckily it was a beautiful evening and view out to sea was not too shabby either.  Finally, at 6.20 they rock up as it appears the meeting time was not till 6.30!

Now, I lured you in with Penguins and bored you with geology and history – Penguin time is finally here!! The penguins that nest here are White Flippered Penguins, Canterbury’s own variant of Little Blue Penguins. The Helps family who own the land here have spent over 30 years protecting the colony that nest on their land and ensure only guided groups go near the nest boxes, so they are not disturbed. (If you are in New Zealand and caught Seven Sharp on February 5th, you would have seen an article about the family and the work they do.)

Some actually consider the White Flippered Penguin its own species rather than a subspecies of the Little Blue Penguin.  On top of the physical differences (not surprisingly these little guys have a white edge to their flippers as well as being a lighter steely blue) there is also some differences in their physiology e.g. the White Flippers tend to lay 2 eggs once per year, whilst the Little Blue lay twice a year. 

After getting dressed up in our camouflage coats (I kid you not) we set off on a short walk around the colony whilst the guide checked a couple of the boxes.  The box checking is part of the ongoing monitoring that they do to check on eggs and chicks.  Interestingly, despite this being a wild population, they do step in and take out under nourished chicks and take them to a rehab facility where they are hand raised to adulthood, ensuring the survival of the population.  (I have recently read that other colonies are losing a large number of chicks due to starvation this season, so this is an important part of the conversation programme.)

The guide had a list of specific boxes she needed to check (just a few boxes are checked each day) and the ones we checked each had a bird sitting on either an egg or a chick (we caught brief glimpses of them) and the parents themselves did not seem disturbed by our brief presence as most return year after year to the same burrow and are therefore used to being checked on.

We then walked further around the bay to viewpoint over the ocean from where we studied the sea looking for the penguins coming in for the night.  They normal come in in groups, called rafts, so are definitely easier to spot than individual penguins.  We saw a couple of small rafts but sadly we didn’t see any coming on to the beach.

The downside of doing it this way is that the guide could not stay late as she had to drive the others back to town but of course as I was staying onsite, I sat overlooking the beach until it got too dark to see anything even if they did come up 🥴!

Unfortunately, the guide could not tell me what time the penguins went out in the morning and I don’t think my 6.20 alarm was early enough as it was almost light (I have still it got set to daylight saving timing and with no internet could not check sunrise time). Regardless, I headed down to the beach and enjoyed the calm (ignoring the squawking of the Canadian geese and the screeching of the oyster catchers, annoyed by being woken by the Canadian geese squawking lol) and Plovers stretching their wings with a circuit around the bay.

There was no real sunrise from here either as we are in a bay and the headlands block the view oh, and it was cloudy – boy it really sounds like I am complaining 😂 sorry about that – it was definitely still beautiful and lovely to be out of the city.

I patted my handsome sheep friend before heading back for another short nap 😂 well I am kind of on holiday right 🤔 and as the wind had picked up (as forecast), my morning sea kayak had been cancelled.  And so, I just relaxed and enjoyed the peace and quiet before by pick up to take me back to Akaroa and my car for my drive home.

This trip may not be for everyone – thankfully I enjoy my own company and spending time in nature so I really enjoyed it, but I would highly recommend the Penguin tour and contributing to their conservation efforts.

The wild, wild west

(August 2020)

On my last trip to the West Coast of the South Island I headed south to the glaciers, on this trip (this time solo) I headed on the road less travelled – heading north to Karamea, the northern most town on the road north.

It was going to be a long driving day for me on my own, so I headed out early which isn’t always a great idea as I went through a couple of areas of thick fog before heading into the mountains and through Lewis Pass.   I made sure I had a few stops to keep fresh, firstly in the small town of Reefton for some lunch and then again as I passed through Buller Gorge – made friends with a weka who clearly was after food (people must feed it the way it came running up to me 😔).  My final stop was another quick one in Westport before the final 1.5 hour drive through tiny towns (as with many of the west coast towns, many were once booming mining towns) and windy narrow roads.

After a total of about 5.5 hours of driving, I reached Karamea (population 700) and checked in at my cute Air BnB cottage in time for a nap (driving is exhausting you know) before heading down to the beach to find a sunset spot.  Back on the rugged west coast and I have the beaches to myself.  Talk about social distancing at its best!  Probably worth noting, New Zealand had had a community outbreak of COVID-19 a few days early.  Thankfully (for me) it was in Auckland, but in response the city had quickly been moved back into Level 3 (of the NZ Covid response) and the rest of the country into Level 2.  I was grateful I could still get away and had checked with the Air BnB hosts that they were ok with me still coming and to be honest, my whole trip was pretty much planned to be completely solo with little interaction anyway.

I had planned to end my day with a soak in my outdoor tub but unfortunately the lights around it were not working 😠 – I contacted the host and they had promised that they would be fixed for the next evening, as it was one of the main reasons for booking the accommodation. (It still looked pretty in the daylight without the lights.)  FYI, I will travel for lots of reasons, outdoor hot tubs are one of them lol.

I thought the windy roads between Karamea and Westport were tough going, but they were a walk in the park compared to the road I had to take into the Ōpārara Basin in the Kahurangi National Park.   The road was unsealed and one lane in many areas, oh and don’t forget all the blind corners!  Thankfully, I only passed one car on the way in.

Kahurangi National Park is New Zealand’s second largest national park, and one of the newest, created in 1996.  The area has massive importance due it its diverse flora and fauna, as well as it’s ancient geology.  Incredibly its flora is the most diverse of any national park in the country!!

I came to the Ōpārara Basin to see some of the 25 million year old limestone caves and arches but was met by beautiful bird song as I set of on the short walk to the Moria Gate.  The bush here was like a primeval lost world (being far enough north and low enough altitude to avoid the worst effects of the more recent ice ages) and the track had sections where hanging moss covered everything around the track and with the winter morning sunlight filtering through the trees it was stunning.  I was the only person on the track, and I loved it!

There were weka running around on the track, completely unafraid but probably trying to suss out what they could steal from me 🥴.  I have early childhood memories of thieving wekas (stealing shells we would leave outside) so they always bring a smile to my face.  I then had a visit from my first South Island robin, I was so excited I high-fived myself (so sad I know but hey, there was no one else around). 

The Moria Gate arch was well worth the scramble through the cave to get under it – oddly named back in 1984 after the gate in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I have not read the books so I can’t comment on the similarity lol.  That aside, it was stunning, with tannin filled water – that is water that basically looks like tea from minerals leached out of the soil and stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

Back out on the tracking, they have cute Moa footprint stepping stones on part of the track.  Moa used to live in the area, and you can see bones in some places (although I sadly did not spot any).  Just in case you are not familiar with them, Moa are extinct cousins of Ostrich who used to roam New Zealand up until about 500 years ago.  There were numerous species, the largest of which could get up to about 2 metres in height!!!  I can only imagine what it would have been like to bump into one of those on a bush walk? lol

The walk to the Moria gate was only a short one but not surprisingly it took me much longer than it was supposed to as I keep stopping to listen to the birds and study the moss growing on the trees 😂.  No problem, I had all morning. 

The next spot on this short walk was the ‘Mirror Tarn’.  Now I was not sure what a tarn is, but I found a spot by the river where there was an incredible reflection.  There were no signs and it was not exactly on a track, more of a well-worn path – but nope 🤔 – it was not the Mirror Tarn which was further on the track but nowhere near as good as the first one – maybe still not enough sun? 

It was still nice, but I wish they had a bench or two at the nice spots so I could just sit for a bit and I needed to be careful of not trying to step out too far as the track just turned in to bog and then ‘tarn’ 🥴 (which turns out to be a small lake).

As I neared the end of the track a helicopter shattered the peace – they were bringing in rocks to extend the track, so you don’t have to walk along the road back to the car park. The workers seemed shocked to see me 😂.

Not surprisingly there was no phone reception in the area and in this scenario I use Maps.me.  As long as you download the required maps when you do have Wi-Fi/reception, it has all the walking tracks as well as roads so I could see where I was at any time.  I also used it a lot when travelling abroad (back when that was a thing) I did not have coverage. 

The next track I took was to the Ōpārara arch.  It was not such a good track – with some stairs, some muddy parts and some track maintenance going on.  My map seemed to show a look out past the arch but there did not appear to be any marked path, so after making a couple of attempts to go further I gave up on the rocky, slippery track! I spoke to a couple of the track workers who said I had gone as far as there was to go.

The Ōpārara arch is much bigger that the Moria arch (200 metres deep, 49 meters wide and 37 metres high) but as you can only go in halfway, you can’t really see the full effect like the other one.  It is reputed to be the largest limestone arch in Australasia so definitely worth the short walk, particularly when you are joined by a couple of cheeky robins – they always make everything worthwhile.

And so, from bush to beach and I headed to back to the sea and then headed north to the end of the road – as far north as you can drive on the West Coast.  It was an amazing drive as the road turns in to a dirt track, lined by wonderful Nikau palms.  At the end of the road is where you find the start of the Heaphy track, one of New Zealand’s great walks.

It was beautiful and warm by this time, despite being mid-winter and there were a few more people around (I mean like 5 people rather than the 2 I had seen in the morning lol) and about a gazillion sandflies 🤦🏻‍♀️. 

I had decided to walk a short part of the Heaphy track (about an hour) to a beach called Scott’s Beach and after I had seen it from the lookout I could not get there fast enough – the 30 minutes seemed to take forever – I kept looking at my watch am asking myself was I there yet?  lol

I spent a little time at in the picnic area near the beach, taking Miromiro (or Tomtit) photos and eating my scrogen (normally a mixture of nuts, dried fruit and small bits of chocolate to give some energy on hikes, though my was more just a bag of chocolate with a few nuts 😂)!!  I sat there till the sandflies got the better of me and I walked back through the Nikau Palm walk – although you can find Nikau palms all over the place on the coast it real gives a real tropical feel and smell – I just love it.  

Back at the car park/campground I sat at a bench to finish my lunch, closely watched by a weka – clearly the lack of mobile reception in the area means they had not received the COVID level changes and 2m social distancing requirements lol. 

Public Service Announcement: As I was spending the day on my own, in areas of no mobile reception, I made sure I had all weather clothing, some snacks and that my partner knew exactly where I was going and when I expected to be back just in case I had an accident of some sort.  Despite its beauty, the wilderness can also through you a curve ball when you least expect it, so it is important to be prepared for all eventualities.

I drove back to Karamea and stopped to check out a statue on the way into the town – it depicts Maori chief Te Maia ‘riding’ a Hōkioi or Haast Eagle, the biggest eagle that ever flew.  They had a wingspan of up to 3 metres and preyed on Moa (which I discussed earlier) amongst other things (including, allegedly, small children). They became extinct around the same time as the Moa.

The Hōkioi is the spiritual guardian of the Karamea estuary and the statue is of Te Maia Kahurangi – the man-eagle riding his Hōkioi ‘brother’.  In a nutshell, Te Maia ended up resting in a Hōkio nest, next to its egg, during one of his long hot walks.  When the egg hatched, he helped raise it and they became ‘brothers’ and it learnt to fly with Te Maia on it’s back, regularly flying around the area.

Back at my cottage and the tub lights had been fixed and I managed to get a 30 minute soak before the rain came down!  But believe me it was a magical 30 minutes under the lights and the beautiful flowers, listening to the Wekas calling in the distance.

The next morning and I was back on the road, heading back south towards Westport, Museum in Westport.  It’s hard to believe the how busy all the small towns I had just driven through used to be!

Just south of Westport and I made my way up to the Lighthouse at Cape Foulwind (named by Captain Cook due to the atrocious weather that obscured it from his view in 1770).  There is an easy walk from the Lighthouse to the seal colony at Tauranga Bay, but I decided just to head up to the Lighthouse from one end and then drive to the other end and walk into the seal colony from there.  It was a beautiful day and a beautiful track, and I was remaindered, yet again, what a beautiful country I am lucky enough to call home.   

I spent some time watching a few seal pups playing in a small pool just below the track, as the adults lazed in the sun, but a fellow walker pointed out a group of young seals in a pool on a small offshore island and I am so glad she did.  They were going crazy, jumping and diving and splashing about.  It was just at the limit of my camera zoom so there are no good photos, but I could have watched them playing for hours.

Of course, I could not watch them for hours as I had to drive a little further down the coast and check in to my next Air BnB cottage – and it was amazing.  Just a small, but perfectly formed studio room with a view out to sea.  I had a quick walk on the beach, stopping to watch a couple of surfers before returning to my room to enjoy the sunset from my deck with a glass of wine. 

As the sun set, the sky filled with thousands of stars and the Milky way was clear.  I had planned to try and take some star photos, but my camera was just not up for it.  I had downloaded an app on my phone to try and take photos with that – the outcome was better than the camera but still not great lol.  Despite the photography fail, it was amazing just sitting there in the darkness, listening to nature.  The sea and the wekas calling (from somewhere very close).  No light or noise pollution. (There are stars in this photo – honest lol)

The last day of my trip came around far too soon, and after a quick walk on the beach I was ready for the drive home.  At the last minute (literally at the intersection) I decided to take the southern route home which would take me along the Great Ocean Road and through Arthur’s Pass.  The route should have only taken me 10 minutes longer than the northern route, but with all the stops that was not the case 🤔😂

The diversion was definitely worth it as I got to stop at the Truman track.  A short track just off the road which takes you down to an amazing hidden beach.  Incredible rock formations and a small waterfall which was practically its own little ecosystem – oh and don’t forget the sandflies.  It was hard work working through the thick lay of tiny stones, but it was worth the effort – particularly when I saw penguin tracks.

I made another quick stop at Punakaiki to see the famous Pancake Rocks without the bus loads of international tourists and then on through the mountains (passing some great reflections in the alpine lakes) and homeward bound.

The Wild West

(July 2020)

When we started planning this trip, the thought was to take advantage of the cheap deals many of the camper van companies were running, trying to ignite some business as they were suffering without international tourists.  Unfortunately, or as it turns out, fortunately, I could not get a booking as they were quickly sold out … so, instead of a budget campervan, we ended up staying in a wonderful (but way less than budget) 2 bed apartment (more about that later).

This was definitely a real win for us.  If you are a regular reader, you will know that I often travel on my own, but other times with my partner, friends or other groups.  Even then, I am happy to go off and do my own thing – we don’t always have to do the same thing all the time right?  This is where the campervan may have been an issue as when I want to head off early for a morning walk, and my partner wanted to sleep in, I would have had to drag him out of bed to buckle up for the journey.   A less than ideal situation, for us anyway.

And so we left home and headed off in the sunshine toward the great divide (otherwise know as the Southern Alps).  It was a beautiful morning, and the mountains were looking stunning.  A quick stop for another one of those ‘world famous in New Zealand’ pies at the Sheffield Café – if you have not picked up on it, Kiwis love a good pie lol.

As we neared the mountains, the clouds started to roll in and by the time we reached Arthurs Pass village it was snowing!  I had spent some time deliberating whether we needed snow chains or not, and finally erred on the side of caution.  It was definitely the right decision as we would not have been able to go any further if we did not have them.

BUT … putting them on was another matter lol. When I had picked up the chains in the morning before leaving, the person had the shop had quickly showed me how to do it and thank goodness I had decided to video it!!  Even still, it was massively challengingly putting them on in the snow and after much struggling, we got them on and headed off slowly into the mountains.

We didn’t actually have to drive very far before we could take the chains off again (which turned out to be equally challenging but we got there in the end) and we could head down towards the west coast … through rain and then out in to blue skies again. 

The drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef (our destination) is around 5.5 hours and so we arrived around 2pm and checked in to our amazing room at the Rainforest Retreat.  As it was a birthday trip (for me), we had splashed out a deluxe room – 2 rooms, 2 bathrooms, living area and, the ‘pièce de résistance’ was our private hot tub on deck with a beautiful view of the mountains.  It was amazing to be able to lay in bed in the morning, watching the first sun hit the mountain tops.

Situated in the ‘Glacier Region” a UNESCO World Heritage area, Franz Josef, the town, is not surprisingly named after the nearby glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, which in turn is named after Franz Josef I of Austria by Julius von Haast.  Von Haast was a German geologist who explored and mapped much of the South Island in the mid 1800’s.  More recently, the official name of the town was changed to Franz Josef /Waiau.

The town is home to under 500 people, possibly less now given that its existence is based around tourism, but they struggle on, trying to fill the 3000+ tourist beds in the town.  I was glad that we were able to do our bit and support the hotels and restaurants in the area.

The next morning, we drove the short 30 minutes to nearby (and even smaller) Fox Glacier – another town named after it’s nearby glacier, this time named after Sir William Fox, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1869 to 1972. 

Just passed the town is Lake Matheson, one of the ‘must see’ sites in the area.  On a beautiful day like this one was, there are great reflections of the mountains in the lake.  The lake is surrounded by a beautiful reserve, with well maintained pathways and on this still, icy morning we were not disappointed – the reflections were AMAZING.

I may not have got to see Mt Cook a few weeks early when I was in the Mackenzie Country, but we got a perfect view on this day – of both Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.

After a coffee at the lovely café near the lake, overlooking views of the glacier and mountains, we headed back to Fox Glacier (the town) for some lunch – again, trying to spread our spending around the small businesses.

The afternoon took me to Ōkārito, 25 km from Franz Josef, in search of a sunset.  Now if you think Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are small towns, Ōkārito has a population of only 30 people today, though it was once a booming town with a population of 4000 people during the gold rush in the mid-1860s.  It’s hard to imagine what you see now as a bustling town, but I imagine it was something like the towns depicted in “the Luminaries”.

After a short walk up to a lookout point and along the beach, I made my way to the lagoon. During the spring/summer it is home to many species of wading birds, including the kotuku or White Heron (this is one of the few breeding areas in New Zealand). The Ōkārito wharf is a stunning backdrop to many photos I had seen and it did not disappoint. It also has a small display about the town in it’s heyday which was worth a look. There are also wild kiwi in the area, so I definitely think I need to come back for a longer visit to see some of the stunning birdlife.

Back in Franz Josef and we passed the busy restaurants and headed into Snakebite Brewery which for some reason was almost empty.  It was a shame as the food was great, the music was great, and the snakebites (a mix of Beer and Cider) were as good (or bad lol) as I remember from when I use to drink them in London in my youth lol. 

For our final morning in Franz Josef, I wanted to see the glacier (which you can barely see from the township), so I was up early and drove the short distance to the car park.  Unfortunately, I could not get very close as the river was too big to allow people to cross it, I so only saw from a distance. If I was 100 years earlier I would have been able to walk right up to the face of it and it was sad to see how much it had receded in the last 100 years or so.  Hard to believe that 18,000 years ago (really just a short time in geologically terms), the glacier extended to the sea, 19kms from today’s terminal face.

The Maori name for Franz Josef Glacier is Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere or The tears of Hine Hukatere, after a tragic love story.  From franzjosefglacier.com:

Hine Hukatere was extremely strong and fearless and loved climbing in the mountains. She persuaded her lover Wawe to climb with her. Wawe was less experienced in the mountains, but enjoyed accompanying his beloved.

An avalanche hit the lovers as they were climbing, and Wawe was swept from the peaks to his death. Hine Hukatere was heart-broken and her grief caused her to cry rivers of tears, which flowed down the mountain and were frozen by the gods. Her frozen tears of aroha (love) stay as a reminder of her grief and give the glacier its name – Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere (The tears of Hine Hukatere).

We had a late check out (12 noon is apparently West Coast 10am 😂 – ‘West Coast time’ is clearly similar to ‘Island time’), so there was time for one more quick soak in the hot tub (when you pay for the luxury of having your own personal hot tub, you use it at every opportunity right?) before packing up and hitting the road again.  We had planned to fill up on petrol before leaving Franz Josef but the fuel prices were almost 50 cents a litre more expensive than back home so we only put in enough to get to our next stop, Hokitika, where we hoped it would be cheaper – thankfully it was.

As we left Franz Josef, we picked up a hitch hiker – a girl from America who had been working in Auckland when lock down started. She was made redundant just after lockdown so decided to stay and travel rather than go home (though as I write this, she may have made it home). She had been waiting for about 1.5 hours (as there had not been much traffic) so glad we picked her up and she made it to Greymouth in time for her train back to Christchurch👍🏻.

The final night of our wild west mini break was spent in Hokitika – another town founded during the 1860’s gold rush when it was an important river port.  Today it brands itself as a ‘Cool Little Town’ – nothing like being your own cheerleader lol.  We had a lovely ocean view room, overlooking the wild coastline and of course a perfect viewing point for the sunset. 

The town has several heritage buildings around the town, but the most it’s most famous site, is the driftwood Hokitika sign along the waterfront.  I visited it at numerous times of the day to attempt to get the ‘perfect’ shot and I imagine it would be crazy if it was busy with the normal number of tourists.  As it was it was busy enough for me and somewhat annoying with families allowing their kids to climb on the fragile structure, breaking it in the process – though I am sure it is not the first time it has been broken!!! 

After dark I drove a few minutes out of town to Glow worm dell – to be honest it was somewhat of an anticlimax 🥴 – I guess it was technically a ‘dell’ and there were glow worms, but it was a tiny area, just off the main road with what appeared to be a handful of worms!!  If you have not seen them before, then perhaps it might be worth it, but if you have been lucky enough to see them in all their glory (as is possible elsewhere) then it is probably not worth the visit.

Our final morning was spent walking along the wild beach, it is beautiful in its wildness with wonderful views of the mountains on one side, and the Tasman sea on the other.  A great way to clear the cobwebs before the 3 hour drive back through the mountains – thankfully snow free this time lol.

What a great break and glad we could get out and support the local businesses who are struggling with a lack of tourists.

Exploring my big backyard

(June 2020)

Finally, I am writing about 2020 (just a week or two short of the end of the year lol) – I am sure I will not get so far behind in future!!

And what a year it has been, no one could have predicted that when I returned to New Zealand in early February, it was to be the last time in the 2020 that I would be out of the country!  Still, I am not mad about it.  As everyone is probably aware, New Zealand went “hard and early” when it came to our COVID-19 response.  We had a very hard, 5 week lockdown starting at the end of March, much harder than I have seen in other countries, and after a few weeks of lesser restrictions we came out the other end of it towards the end of May.  Since then, life has almost returned to normal and we have been able to move around the country relatively freely (and mask free).

We have had a few blips along the way with some community transmission in small numbers which has resulted in some localised lockdowns and mask requirements (mostly in Auckland) but I for one am enjoying exploring my own backyard.

I was fortunate to have lots of wonderful family camping holidays exploring New Zealand growing up but there are so many places I had not visited since then, so it seems 2020 was the year for re-exploring this wonderful country I am so fortunate to call home.

Of course, I am not the only one ‘stuck’ in New Zealand, and I discovered Venus Adventures (https://www.venusadventures.travel/) through an ad on Facebook.  Julie, the founder, is a Kiwi who now calls Egypt home and arranges tours for woman around the world.  She had been in New Zealand visiting family when COVID hit and she was stuck here.  When lock down finished, she looked at ways to keep her business going in this new world and came up with the idea of small group short getaways in New Zealand.

I joined one in June to the beautiful MacKenzie Basin, just a short 3.5 hours drive from Christchurch.  Of course, I could have easily gone there for a weekend on my own (or with friends), but I know I would have missed out on some of the quirkier activities we did so for me, it was definitely worth it. 

And so I joined Julie and a couple of other ladies from Christchurch on the road down to Twizel which was to be our base for the long weekend.  Our first stop was in Geraldine, a small town founded in the 1840s.  Fun fact, Geraldine was a ‘dry’ town until 1950 – that means no alcohol could be served!  Today it has grown up from its small farming beginnings and now has a population of just under 3,000 and is a hub for artists and artisans including some great cheese and chocolate (two of my favourite things 😊).

Back on the road and our next stop was in Tekapo.  Tekapo is one of the main stops on the normal South Island tourist route and it is normally packed all year round, mostly with international tourists.  It was eerie to see it almost empty. No tourist buses and campervan filling the overflowing car parks.  No queues of people waiting to take photos of the ‘insta-favourite’ The Church of the Good Shepherd, overlooking the lake.  It felt wrong not to stop and take a couple of snaps in these strange times.

We had a quick photo stop on the shores of Lake Pukaki.  It was a beautiful clear day and we could see all the way down to Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3,724m.  We were heading back down this way in a couple of days so hoped to see it again then.

Sunset was on its way by the time we arrived at our accommodation on the shores of Lake Ruataniwha, just outside of Twizel, in the heart of the MacKenzie Basin.

The MacKenzie Basin (also known as MacKenzie Country) was named after a Scottish sheep thief.  He was imprisoned, escaped and recaptured numerous times and was admired as a rebel who challenged the wealthy land owners of the time.  The area is an outdoor adventurers dream, full of mountains, braided rivers and lakes.   Due to the extensive network of hydroelectric schemes in the area, there are also a number of man-made canals – often controversial, the hydro dams have altered the landscape, changing existing lakes and creating new ones.

As the temperature dropped, the moon rise was stunning from the house, and the morning was just as beautiful as the sun came up over the snow-capped mountains.  I made an effort to get up and out early to take some photos of that wonderful ‘golden’ hour and I am so glad I did as within 1 hour the clouds had closed in and it started to snow – and boy did it snow!

We started our days activities having a quick look through the small town’s shops (and avoiding the snow) and thankfully the snow had stopped in time for us to head off for our sightseeing.  First stop was the High Country Salmon Farm (https://www.highcountrysalmon.co.nz/).  Interesting to see the how the farm works, but I seem to have taken more photos of birds than fish lol.  Firstly, because it was far easier and secondly because they looked amazing on the crazy bright turquoise water.   Many of the lakes and water ways in the region are this colour (or similar) due to the glacial flour (extremely fine rock particles from the nearby glaciers) content – when the sun hits the surface at the right angle, it reflects off the particles transforming it to a brilliant blue.

We drove past a couple of the Hydro power stations (and lakes created by them), including Waitaki Power Station (built in 1928-34 and is the oldest of 8 stations on the Waitaki river) and Lake Waitaki and onwards to the small town of Kurow, just 8 kms from the power station.  A little known fact, Waitaki and Kurow are considered the birthplace of the world’s first social welfare system.  Doctors in Kurow developed a system to provide free medical treatment to the power plant workers and their families if they paid a small amount in to a ‘fund’.  Two of those doctors who were material in the creation of the ‘fund’, later became MPs and the national social welfare scheme was based on this in 1939.

Today Kurow has a population of just over 500 (when I said small town, I meant it!) and we were here to visit Ostler Wines (https://www.ostlerwine.co.nz/).  According to their website, “wine is liquid geography” and the wine grown in the Waitaki Valley is “38 million years in the making”.  As we entered the old Kurow Post office on the main drag, we were greeted by Commander in Chief Jim Jerram (an ex-doctor) and his wife Anne.  We were lucky enough to taste a number of their beautiful wines and enjoy one of the best platters I have had and it was clear just how passionate Jim was about his wines.  Such a gem to find in such a small town (give them a call in advance if you want to stop by just to be sure they are open).

As we drove back towards Twizel the scenery as stunning.  The combination of the magnificent lake, surrounding peaks and wide open skies are a dream for photographers and pose the difficult challenge of capturing the grandeur of the ever-changing landscape.

We also stopped briefly at Lake Benmore (New Zealand’s largest manmade lake), a lake created by the Benmore Hydro Station and Dam (New Zealand’s largest earth dam).  This power station alone generates enough electricity each year to power almost 300,000 homes and Hydroelectric power currently accounts for 57% of total NZ electricity generated, so you can see the benefits of these hydro systems.  We stopped for afternoon tea in a small park by the lake and took a few minutes to read all about the local hydro systems as described in a mural – from the construction of the dam and lakes through to the conservation efforts of Meridian, the company that operates them.

Another cold night, lead to another stunning morning – and I mean stunning, so of course I was out early catching the frost on the ground and the now more than snow capped mountains 😉.  It was beautiful day in Twizel as we headed out along the canals towards Lake Pukaki (another lake filled with that glacial flour) but as we neared Mt Cook National Park the cloud came down.

Our first stop in the National Park was the small but perfectly formed visitor centre.  It has a beautiful picture window looking out to Aoraki Mt Cook (or it would if it wasn’t covered in cloud lol) and also some stunning stained glass windows of native flora and fauna.  It was really interesting to see displays of early mountaineers (both Maori and European) and the outrageous outfits they used to wear for their mountaineering.  I guess some day our outfits will be displayed in a similar way and people with think them outrageous too!

From the warmth of the Visitor Centre and Café we headed up the valley and started out on the Insta-famous (made famous by Instagram influencers) Hooker Valley Track.  Despite the snow and the cloud, the walk was still stunning but unfortunately in our action packed day, we did not have time to do the whole walk.  We did however make it up to the Aoraki Mt Cook view point – of course we could not see it but to be honest, in this instance, it did not really matter as the journey was just as worthwhile.  Yet another place that is normally crowded with mostly international tourists, but today is almost empty. Driving back along Lake Pukaki, the cloud had cleared and the lake was that stunning blue again.

We had a picnic lunch in the Department of Conservation kitchen facilities at the start of the track before heading to Omarama – yet another small town (population of around 260).  Despite it’s size it is home (or near to home) to a couple of must see sites.

Next up were the Omarama Clay cliffs – now I had never heard of them, but apparently they are one of these wonderful sites we love to describe as “world famous in New Zealand” lol.  The ‘cliffs’ are on private land and there is a small donation box as you head into the carpark and it is then just a short walk before you are in amongst the spectacular and somewhat other worldly weather pillars – a quick geology lesson.  They clay cliffs considered “Badlands” terrain, pillars developed by deposits of grey and white sandstone and claystone formed in an ancient lake, and yellow and brown river silt from an ancient river.  Over the years (thousands or even millions of them), wind and rain have eroded the pillars to leave the formations we see today.

There are no specific routes or tracks, which mean you can wander amongst them as you desire, but don’t forget to also take in the view down the valley which is just as picturesque. I did get somewhat distracted by trying to take a photo of a fantail 😉 I love fantails and just can’t resist the way they flip around, catching insects on the fly and photographing them is such a challenge lol.

After a day out in the fresh air we headed back down to Omarama for a soak in the amazing Hot Tubs (https://www.hottubsomarama.co.nz/). They are filled with fresh water (replaced after every use) and heated by a wood-fire and each group get a private tub.  We had 1.5 hour to enjoy our BYO wines as we enjoyed the amazing view as the sun sets! It really was the perfect way to end the day.

On our final morning, Julie had arranged for us to visit Tasman Downs, a small farm on the shore of Lake Pukaki.  The farm is well known in The Hobbit fan circles as the location for some of the scenes in the movies, however it is perhaps more infamous for the “Quirky Farmer”, Ian Hayman.  Ian is known for his fabulous fashion and his shoe Ferris wheel – yes, that’s right, a Ferris wheel for his shoes (of course it plays “Blue Suede Shoes” as it rotates).  Ian took us on a tour of the farm in his equally quirky car, showing us around the farm, regaling us with stories of life on a movie set and that of a high country farmer – albeit a quirky one (how many times can I say quirky in one paragraph? Lol).  You too can visit Ian through his “Quirky Farm Tours” (ok, just one more ‘quirky’ lol.) (https://mackenzienz.com/tours/ians-quirky-farm-tours/)

All that remained for the weekend was the drive home, via Fairlie for a famous Fairlie pie (another ‘world famous in New Zealand’ if I am not mistaken.

It was definitely a great start to my year of re-exploring my big backyard.

Romanian roaming …

(December 2019)

  • Currency – NZ$1 = RON2.85 (Leu or Lei)
  • Population – 19.4 million

(Apparently, the Romanian currency, the Leu means Lion in English.  At one time, they used to use the Dutch currency, which had a picture of a lion on it – so they started to refer to money as Lion or Leu.)

I have finally made it to the end of the big year that was 2019 – it only took just under a year to finally write up all my trips!  Last but not least was a weekend in Romania which got off to a more successful start than previous trips as my pre-arranged taxi pick was actually there to pick me up! 

Being early December, Bucharest was already lit up with Christmas lights.  It took me a little while to work it out, but many of the lights were footballed themed  😂, in recognition of the upcoming European cup that was to take place in the city – of course we did not know at the time, but the Euro 2020 was not going to happen!  Lights on the trees, lining the streets and on the buildings. (Terrible photos sorry as they were taken from a car!)

Sadly, I had spoken or should I say written too soon when I said things had got off to a more successful start as I was left standing outside the hostel for 20 minutes before being let in!  At 12.15 am that is precious minutes I could have been in bed!!! Not to mention it was 0 degrees and I was not really dressed for it!!!  When I finally got into the hostel, I was sharing a room with 3 German guys, nice enough guys but at 12.30am they were awake and drinking in the room. Thankfully not long after I got in, they shut everything down and went to sleep.  Hostels are a great budget choice but sometimes I do wonder if I should just pay more for my own room 🤔.

As I am always trying to maximise my limited time, by alarm went off at 6.30am on Saturday morning (sorry boys lol) for my day trip to explore a tiny bit of the country.  It turns out that the group consisted of me and 7 Spanish girls! I would like to say I could converse with them in Spanish but they spoke so fast and with such Spanish accents (rather than the South American ones I am use to). I got the odd word but not much more 🤦🏻‍♀️. I did try though with a little Spanish when I spoke to them 👍🏻

We drove around 1.5 hours out of the city through the freezing fog (not as cold as Kiev was a couple of weeks but still pretty cold) until it cleared and turned in to a beautiful day as we drove across the plains and past what would be fields of wheat, canola, sunflowers, corn in the spring/summer months.

Our first stop for the day was at Peleş Castle, near a town called Sinaia, in the Carpathian Mountains.  It is a neo-Renaissance building, built initially between 1873 and 1883 with additions being added up until 1914.  It was built for King Carlo I. 

(It may look familiar to you, it did to me … and after much brain racking I realised it was from a movie – The Christmas Prince (a Netflix Christmas movie) and it sequels are all ‘based’ here.)

King Carlo was actually born Prince Karl from Bavaria but when Romania found itself without a ruler (because the noblemen had expelled the last one), they went on the hunt around Europe for a suitable candidate.  No need for them to be Romanian, they just needed to be someone who would do their bidding.  Prince Karl was not their first choice but was recommended by Napoleon (first president of France and nephew of the other Napoleon).  He became “reigning Prince” or Domnitor on April 20, 1839.

The castle (or palace as it more accurately is) was built as a hunting preserve and summer retreat and was the first castle in the world that had electricity, all produced by a local Hydro dam.  Interestingly, all the beautiful fireplaces were just for decoration and the castle had central heating!  So, although it was built as a summer palace, you could live here all year round.

Carlo I had called the castle the “cradle of the dynasty, cradle of the nation’ and to some extent this was true as not only was it occupied by King Carol 1, and his wife Queen Elizabeth, but also his successor King Ferdinand and Queen Marie and King Carol II was born there in 1893.

When King Michael was forced to abdicate after World War II (as royalty is not recognised under communism) the castle was nationalised and turned into a museum and although it was returned to the Royal family in 1997 after the fall of the communist regime, they agreed it should continue in the capacity of museum.

Oddly, the ‘photo tax’, the extra charge you had to pay to be allowed to take photos inside the castle was as expensive as the entrance ticket, but I paid it anyway – so of course I had to take lots of photos to make it worthwhile lol.

Once we had put on our stylish shoe covers (to avoid damage or dirt of both) we were allowed to enter the castle which was truly beautiful.  The interior is primarily baroque in influence, with each room ornately carved and beautifully decorated.  That said, many of the rooms are decorated with a different cultural influence e.g. German, Italian, Moorish, Turkish.  The attention to detail is incredible.

The castle houses a massive armoury (over 4,000 pieces), a retractable glass roof, the first movie theatre in Romania and lots of secret corridors where one can stealthily move between rooms.

After a guided tour of the castle and some free time to wonder around the beautiful grounds, it was time to head off, just as a number of large bus groups arrived.  I anticipated that we would get more of this as the day progressed and the guide told us that not surprisingly, it gets extremely crowded in the summer months.

Back in the van, we continued through the Carpathian Mountains and into Transylvania where our next stop was located – Bran Castle.  Probably the most famous (or perhaps infamous) of the Romanian castles due to its links (real or fictious) to Vlad the Impaler and Dracula!!

Bran Castle started life in 1382 and was originally a medieval fortress built on the border of Wallachia and Transylvanian and was used in defence against the raging Ottomans before becoming a customs post between the regions. 

Next up came Vlad III – probably known as Vlad the Impaler to you and I, but was actually called Vlad Țepeș or Vlad Drăculea – Vlad the Dragon in medieval Romanian (hence the name for the fictional character – but more about that later), the Wallachian ruler between 1448 and 1476.  Despite being intrinsically linked to the castle in modern folk law (for want of a better name), in reality it seems he did not have a significant role in the history of the castle beyond passing through the region a number of times.

That said, he is often considered a national hero and was one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history.  Infamous for his battles against the Ottomans and his cruel and brutal punishments (hence the Impaler moniker).

In more recent history, after the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and the return of Transylvania from Hungary to Romanian, the castle became a royal residence.  As you can image it took some work to turn what had been military fortress into a home worthy of a Queen, but that they did and it became the favourite home of Marie of Romania and was inherited by her daughter Princess Ileana. 

As with Peleş Castle, it was seized by the communist regime at the end of WWII but in 2005, ownership was returned to heirs of the von Habsburg family – the American son of Princess Ileana.  The Habsburgs refurbished the castle and reopened it as a museum.   Unlike Peleş, where much of what you see is original, over 80% of the artifacts in Bran Castle are replicas and of course, being a medieval fortress at heart it is no where near as beautiful inside as it far more modern cousin.

That’s all very interesting, but what about Bram Stoker’s Dracula I hear you say?  I am sad to say this is purely fictional (but of course this does not stop them raking in the money from tourists who come to see Dracula’s castle).

Whilst doing research for a book, Bram Stoker (an Irish man who had not been to the region) came across the brutal exploits of Vlad Dracula in the region and used his name and exploits as inspiration for his book.  Now I have not read the book, but apparently there is actually no direct referral in them to Bran Castle, and the description does not even match it but in the 1970s, the Romanian government made some very broad statements to market it as the “real Dracula Castle” to encourage tourism!  Who knew it was all an elaborate communist plan to get us to visit lol.

Around the base of the castle, there was a small market where I enjoyed hot wine and local smoked cheese 👍🏻 before getting back in the van for the short drive to Brașov, the main city in the region. 

We were dropped in the centre of the old town for some free time before our afternoon walking tour and being December, they had a lovely Christmas market in the beautiful square.  The guide had recommended a local restaurant but looked like all tour guides recommended it and it had a queue of tourists out the door, so I walked down the street a bit a had a delicious Italian pasta lunch (oops 😂) before having some time to explore the streets around the main square and wander through the Christmas market.

Our walking tour started at the Black Church, over 600 years old and one of the most iconic monuments of the city as well as being one of the biggest medieval churches in this part of Europe.  The church, built in 14th century, was originally called St Mary’s but in 1689 a fire raged through the walled city destroying most of it, leaving only the blacken walls of the church.  Subsequently rebuilt, from then on it was known as the Black Church.

Rope Street, one of the worlds narrowest streets, was built in the 15th century as a route for fire men to pass quickly from the city walls to the heart of the city. 

Catherine’s Gate, also built in the 1500’s, is the only original city gate that still survives from medieval times (although documents say it was originally a wooden structure)!  Apparently during Saxon times, this was the only gate Romanians were allowed to enter through and they were forbidden to own property inside the city walls.

The Neology Synagogue was built between 1899 and 1901 as a prayer house for the Brasov Jewish community which was formed in 1826 with just four families.

By this point it was much colder and we were glad to get back in the van and head back to the city.  A nap on the way back made the journey much quicker lol.

Back in the city, passed those odd football themed Christmas lights again, I made a bee line for the Christmas market.  As with Kiev, the fountains in the city centre have been drained for the winter, but here in Bucharest, they have replaced the water with Christmas lights which I love lol.

The Christmas market, located in Constitution Square, was rammed with people – even pre-covid I have never really been a fan of big crowds, so I did not plan to stay too long. I had a quick walk around and bought a couple of cute Christmas decorations before wandering back towards my hostel, stopping off for a semi traditional dinner of skin less sausages or Mititei.

Hostel life 🤦🏻‍♀️ why do I do it you ask? I have done so many weekend trips this year I don’t think I could have afforded it otherwise. Generally, I have been lucky and but unfortunately in this one I was clearly on a different schedule than my room mates who were sound asleep when I got back from my day out at 8.30pm.  Then they got up and started drinking in the room at 9.30!  Thankfully they went out around 11pm – but of course that meant they came crawling back at 3am, 4.30am and 6am – no, not all together!   And so I had to pack in the dark at 8.30am 🤦🏻‍♀️

For my final morning I joined one of the free walking tours,  I got a little lost but am always early so had plenty of time to find the right meeting spot … there were so many people there, but thankfully many of them were Spanish speakers so by the time the groups were divided up, the group I was in was fairly small. 

We started in front of the Palace of the Parliament, or as in front of it as you could get with the Christmas market set up right in front of it 🤦🏻‍♀️  obscuring the best view of it.  The building is not only the second largest administrative building in the world (the Pentagon in the USA is the biggest one), it is also the heaviest building in the world – weighing over 4 million tonnes!

The ‘Palace’ was ordered by the last President of Communist Romania, Nicolae Ceausecu and it is known for being very ‘fancy’ inside.  It was constructed over a period of 13 years, starting in 1984 with construction continuing after his execution (along with his wife) in December 1989 having been convicted of economic sabotage and genocide after the Romanian Revolution.   

Today, the ‘Palace’ houses the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Despite this, and being used for conferences and other events, it costs over $6 million per year to heat and light it … and it is still on 30% occupied!

The Palace of Parliament is strategically placed at the end of the Boulevard Unirii, a copy of the Champs-Elysees in Paris but apparently it is 1 m wider!!   They also have a copy of the Arch de Triomphe earning the city the nickname of “Paris of the East’ – the cities architecture is varied, with Soviet buildings and North Korea inspired apartment blocks neighbouring beautiful French style architecture.

The French inspired Palace of Justice, built between 1890 and 1895 is located on the banks of the Dâmbovița river.  King Carol I himself attended the official opening.  Upon the fall of Communism, all the leaders of the communist part were judged here, beginning sentenced to death, labour or jail.

As our walk continued we passed the beautiful Stavropoleos Church.  Built in the early 18th century as part of the Stavropoleo Monastery by a Greek monk, today it is surrounded by much taller buildings which shadow the tiny Church.  The church is ‘Brancovenesc’ style (after Constantin Brancoveanu) which in reality is a blend of styles – local, Oriental, Byzantine and Italian renaissance.

Situated on Calea Victoriei or Victory Street, CEC Palace (yes, yet another palace) was built in 1900 as the headquarters for the CEC bank (Romania’s oldest bank), which it still is today.  Apparently the glass dome still contains the same glass as when it was built – an amazing feat considering the battles the city has been through.

The next Palace is the Palace of the Post Company which is now houses the National History Museum.  Once the site of an Inn which was demolished in 1856 but parts of the cellars still survive and are visible below the street level.  The ‘Palace’ was built around 1894 at vast expense.

Through the covered arcade street – Macca-Vilacrosse Passage.  Lined with restaurants – I which I had explored a little more last night as there seemed to be some nice (less touristy) places.  The highlight of the passage is the beautiful glass roof which apparently has still has the original glass from 1891.  The passage is fork shaped, as the owner of the hotel in the centre of the land where they wanted to build the passage did not want to sell, so they built around it!

Lipscani Street/district was one the most important commercial areas in the city from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century.  Interesting it got its name from the city of Leipzig and the traders who came to the city to sell their wares.  It had been severely neglected until 2013 when many of the buildings started to be restored and again today it is an important trading street.

As I have previously mentioned, at the end of WWII, the ruling Communist party forced the King to resign and leave the country.  Many people loved the King, and some referred to him as the ‘King of Everyone’ and during the war the royal family saved the lives of many Jews.  The Communist party tried to completely erase the Monarchy from history by removing that part of the country’s history from the school curriculum.

We paused outside the beautiful Church of St Antony (or Anton), the oldest church in Bucharest (after a number iterations but still retaining its Wallachian 16th century style).   Being a Sunday morning, there were services in most of the churches, and the singing was beautiful.

My final stop on the walking tour was at St George New Church, the burial site of Constantin Brancoveanu.  The church was built in 1707 and is called “zero kilometre” of Romania.  The centre of Bucharest and the point from which all distances in the country are measured.  Brancovenau was an important ruler who refused to convert to Islam under Ottoman rule – as a result he was beheaded, along with his sons.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the walking tour before the end – and more than 30 minutes of that we’re taken up in a cafe, where all the groups go, so there were long queues!!  I would rather have been walking and seeing things and could have sat in a café in my own time!

That said, my early departure was to meet someone for lunch – I am so used to spending my busy weekends rushing between sites I rarely have time to meet people so it made a pleasant change to meet a colleague of my uncle (who is an architect that specialises in cultural heritage and conservation architecture).  Through his work he had spent some time working in Romanian and Dumitrita is a colleague of his.  It was lovely to get an opportunity to meet her before heading back to the airport for my flight back to the UK.

Roaming ramblings and other thoughts – Part 2

Remember back in the day when we could travel – visit places, meet friends?  Ah, good times.  It was during these good times when I still lived in England, I had some great weekends away, and opportunities to attend events …. I bring you Roam Ramblings Part 2 (if you recall, there was a Ramblings Part 1, back in August 2019.

Cambridge outings – June 2019

Flambouyant Flotilla – As I continued to make the most of my weekends when in Cambridge I braved the torrential rain to witness Cambridge’s first Pride event.  Instead of a Pride parade like other cities, they had a Flambouyant Flotilla lol.  I was surprised it actually happened given the rain and despite planning to stay long to listen to some of the live music I decided not to!  I had driven because of the rain so could not even enjoy a quick drink in the rain!

Sir Michael speaks – Another great event that month was seeing Sir Michael Palin speaking.  He had recently published a book on the HMS Erebus – was an incredible story of Antarctic exploration which I am always interested in.  The first half of the event he spoke about the book, in the second half he spoke about his life and career including his time in Monty Python and his travel programmes which was really interesting.  I really enjoyed the cheap accessible theatres and shows in the city and went as often as I could.

Yay for friends with planes –  I was lucky enough to get an unexpected flight after work with a colleague who has his pilot’s license and a ‘timeshare’ in a small aircraft.  It was just a 2 seater and more like a closed in microlight, but it was great fun, flying up over Norfolk, Sandringham, over the beautiful coast.  We saw seals on the beach and the sun starting to set which was so beautiful.  We even heard a B52 do an emergency landing at a nearby airforce base!  I am really so very lucky.

Chepstow – June 2019

It was lovely to have my parents to visit the UK whilst I was there, though oddly they did not plan to visit me in Cambridge (lol) so I decided I would drive to Chepstow, on the border of England and Wales to visit them at the my uncle’s place.  It was 4 hour🤦🏻‍♀️, all weather drive and I was glad to finally arrive. 

I haven’t spent much time in that part of the country so it was nice to get an opportunity to explore a little.  We headed across the Severn River into Bristol and visited the Concorde Museum (definitely worth it if you are in the area) and had a lovely walk in the hills, overlooking the surrounding countryside and Tintern Abbey, which dates back to the 1100’s.  We finished off the day with a drink in the sun by the River Wye.

The next day, we had a walk around the lovely town of Chepstow.  It is an odd little town, which straddles the border (actually the river Wye) of England and Wales.  One side of the river and you are in Wales, cross the bridge and you are in England!  Unfortunately, this quirk does cause some issues.  All the emergency services are on the Welsh side and don’t cross into England, so they have to rely on services from Gloucester, almost 30 miles away.  The fire department on the other hand is a volunteer one, made up of many who live on the English side of town so they don’t mind crossing the river to help out!

Today Chepstow has a population of just over 10,000 and it was an important port in the Middle Ages for the import of wine and the export of timber and bark.  It is thought that the Castle in the middle of town is considering the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain with construction beginning in 1067. 

It was a great little get away and a lovely chance to catch up with family.

Continued Cambridge outings – July 2020

Bumps & Open Studios – After a couple of weeks home in New Zealand, I was back and ready to make the most of the UK summer and I started with an evening out at the Open Studios.  A Cambridge wide event that show cases artists and artisans in gardens around the city.  There were some lovely things on show and for sale in the gardens of a beautiful house near the river and coincidentally it was the evening of the “Bumps”.

 The Bumps is a type of rowing racing where the boats chase each other and try and bump the boat in front.  I must admit I did not really understand what was going on but there was certainly lots of frivolity despite the weather (did I mention it was pouring with rain again) with the crews singing and drinking beer along the river 😂👍🏻.  I sat on the river bank under a tree to avoid the worst of the rain, but still got wet. At least it wasn’t cold!

Bat Safari – My next outing was one I was rather excited about – a Bat safari!  Run by one of the Punting companies, you take a punt from the city to Grantchester staring at dusk, with a ‘Bat Man’ from the local Bat Conservation Trust on board to tell us all about the bats that we saw.   We all had ‘bat detectors’ and the ‘Bat Man’ could tell what kind of bats they were based on the frequency and sound. 

It was so peaceful floating down the beautiful tree lined river as it got dark and there were lots of tiny Soprano bats (about thumb size).   Did you know that all bats and their roosts in the UK are protected?  I certainly didn’t!   

When returning to the punting yard we were surprised but an amazing fireworks demonstration – turns out they were from nearby Kings College, celebrating their graduation.

Saffron Walden – July 2019

How did we ever go anywhere before the internet? These days I just have an inkling of where I want to go, look it up on the internet and find a walking tour of a suitable length with directions and info on the history – so good! This weekend was a 4 mile around Saffron Walden – a historic market town from 1144.

It was a lovely walking trail that first took me through beautiful fields of wild flowers and through the grounds of Audley End House.  Starting life as Walden Abbey, built in 1066, was, in the 17th century, one of the largest and finest in the country but today is much reduced due to crippling debt.

I passed through the picture perfect village of Littlebury with a beautiful old church and house and beyond to stunning golden fields of wheat before returning back to Saffron Walden.  A beautiful walk on a beautiful day.

London –July 2020

It was about time for another visit to London (I definitely did not get there often enough during the year), and this time to enjoy some culture.  On Friday night, it had a Kiwi vibe and I attended a show put on by the Modern Maori Quartet  – not surprisingly (given the name) they are a group of 4 Maori men who perform a combination of music and comedy.  A night of great kiwi entertainment.

I had planned a walk along the canal the following morning but the torrential rain was against me – so instead I walked the shorter distance from my accommodation to the British Museum.  Thankfully I got there early, just before it opened and walked straight in.  By the time I left, the queues at the entrance were massive!!! Finally the rain stopped and I continued my walk through the city, passed Neal’s Yard, down The Mall and passed Buckingham Palace on my way to my next event for the weekend – the wonderful musical Hamilton (for which I had had to book tickets months in advance).  Definitely worth the visit to the big smoke

Stratford upon Avon – August 2020

Stratford Upon Avon is a pretty market town in Warwickshire, inhabited since the early 1100’s but most famous for being the birthplace and finally resting place of William Shakespeare. Being a couple of hours drive from Cambridge, it was a great spot for a weekend getaway and a chance to catch up with an old travel buddy. 

After an evening of lots of chat and almost as much wine, we were up early to follow a walking tour route around the town, taking in the main sites of the town, many of which date back to the 1500s.  Sadly, the great British summer was in full force and it was cold, windy and wet, but we preserved lol.

We rounded off day one with a Shakespeare play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – where better to see a one.  We saw Measure for Measure and it was excellent.  When you see Shakespeare plays performed well, it is incredible how relevant some of them are today, despite the olde world language.

Day 2 and the weather was a little better and we drove a short way out of the town to visit another couple of historic houses.  The first was Anne Hathaway’s childhood home.  Anne was Shakespeare’s wife – they married in 1582 when she was already pregnant and some historians speculate that it was a ‘shotgun’ wedding. 

The house was built in various parts between the 14th and 17th centuries and is situated in beautiful cottage gardens with so many flowers and busy bees.  I must admit I was a little obsessed with taking photos of the bees and flowers lol.

Our next stop was Mary Arden’s farm – the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother.  Not so much of the original 16th century farmhouse is left as most of it is Victorian or Edwardian and was actually lived in until 1968!  Today they have many displays of historic animal breeds and farming activities which we were enjoying until the rain started again (about 20 minutes after the photo with blue sky was taken)– hard and fast!!  Just right for the drive home including a detour through Melton Mowbray sample one of their famous pork pies.

Probably worth noting that one ticket gets you in to most of the historic Shakespeare sites, including Shakespeare’s birthplace in town (beware there can be long queues to get in to this one), Mary’s farm and Anne’s house.

December 2020

After an incredible trip to Central Asia (many other blogs written about this lol), an extended trip back home to New Zealand and a couple of other European getaways (blogs already on the way about these too),  I was lucky enough to have work trips to Paris and Vienna in December.  Now there is not too much to say about either of the trips as I was working during the day, but I did manage to get out a explore a little of both cities in the evenings and I also took advantage of the approaching festive season to enjoy the Christmas markets.

In Paris I enjoyed an evening walk along the beautiful Seine.  Most of the markets in Paris don’t start until much closer to Christmas but I managed to find one near Place de la Concorde.  It wasn’t too busy and I enjoyed some mulled wine and delicious food before the beautiful (but long) walk back along the river to my hotel … oh and don’t forget the beautiful sparkly Eiffel tower (the lights go on once an hour) – just wonderful.

A couple of weeks later and I was in Vienna and the Christmas markets there were in full swing.  My first evening and I visited one at Schönbrunn Palace, once the main summer residence of the ruling Habsburg family.  Once again I enjoyed plenty of delicious mulled wine or Glühwein as they call it.

The following day I went with colleagues to a market in the centre of the city … and it was snowing – it was truly a magical Christmassy moment that we certainly do not get in New Zealand. It was extra special as the next day I was leaving at 4am to head back to London and straight on to New Zealand for a summer Christmas.    

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A trip to the dark side – Chernobyl

(November 2019)

What do you think about so called ‘dark tourism’ – going to see things and places that have less than happy stories to tell? Chernobyl is one of those and despite its dark history – it is part of history and therefore something of interest to many – including me.

That said, is visiting an abandoned city really ‘dark’ tourism? Sure, we know why and how the city was abandoned but is it truly any different to visiting Machu Picchu or one of the great Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala or Luxor in Egypt even?  Don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing the incredible Mayan or Egyptian architecture to that of the Soviet Union in the 70s but is the premise still the same – visiting an abandoned city 🤔🤔? Either way all are equally fascinating to me – a snapshot in time of a civilisation that lived there.

Since the recent TV show depicting the events of the Chernobyl disaster, it has become incredibly popular, though I had booked my trip before the programme came out. Learning about the world and it’s civilisations – good and bad – has always interested me.  Perhaps in the hope that we learn from the mistakes of those before us.

I had time to take a quick walk around the Kiev city centre before I headed to the meeting point for my tour – despite the -8c I was glad I did as it was beautiful with the sun coming up and the changing colours over the monuments.

I then heading to the meeting point for my day tour to Chernobyl. I was quickly allocated my group, guide and van.  There were probably 7-8 vans, each with 10-12 people heading off for the day – I can only imagine the mayhem in the height of the tourist season.

Before I go on, I had better give you a brief history of Chernobyl and the reason I and thousands of others visit (just in case you have been living under a rock).   On Sunday, April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant exploded during a safety test (oh the irony) and it is still considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.  The explosion and subsequent fire released vast amounts airborne radioactive contamination into the atmosphere which drifted over much of the USSR (as it was at the time) and into Western Europe.  USSR did not admit the accident until high levels of radiation were recorded in Sweden.   Ultimately up to 16,000 deaths can be attributed to the disaster across Europe however only 31 deaths have every been reported as a direct result of the disaster.

We were issued with our ‘Visa’ for the Chernobyl zone, which we were to show with our passport at the police check points and then given an initial run down of the health and safety rules:

  • Don’t eat in the open air
  • Don’t remove anything (and therefore spreading radiation) – you can be given 7 years in prison for this!
  • Don’t put anything on ground or sit on ground
  • Don’t go inside buildings – most are in bad condition and some falling down
  • Don’t pat stray dogs – they are very friendly but contaminated due to the ground and the water (this one was the hardest for me lol)  

We passed a fair few Ladas on the drive towards the Chernobyl zone (and if you have read my previous blogs of my trip around Central Asia you will know I am a fan of them) and when we reached the first check point, we were given our personal dosimeter to measure the dose of external ionising radiation we receive during the day.  During the day, we should receive less than 0.003 microsieverts – you would get more radiation on a flight between the New York and the Ukraine.  The dosimeters get returned at the end of the day and the statistics shown to the Government on a regular basis.

Did you know there are three types of radiation:

  • Alpha – the weakest
  • Beta – which is dangerous to the skin (this is the most difficult to manage in the summer when people don’t want to cover up)
  • Gamma – which destroys DNA and can be the cause of cancers for you and/or your future children.

Our Guide was biotechnologist and had a lot of information to share as the day went on.

Although then day started off at -8 in Kiev, it seemed even colder now we were in the country side it was absolutely bitter and the problem with wearing so many layers to keep warm outside, is rapidly get them off when you get inside the warm van! 

The Chernobyl Exclusion zone covers an area of almost 2,600km2 in the Ukraine with restricted zones marked at 10km and 30km.  Surprisingly a small number of people live within the 30km zone. It is also now considered a nature reserve as nature has fully recovered with many bear, lynx, moose and wolves living in the area.  In the initial years after the disaster, there were a lot of mutations as you would expect, but due to evolution and survival of the fitness, those died off and only the healthy animals remained.  Although it is expected that some of these still have less obvious internal mutations, the populations continue to thrive.

Our first stop after the check points in to the exclusion zone at the Kopachi village kindergarten and its small war memorial just a few kilometres from the power plant.  Here we were given the instruction to “break the rules carefully” as our guide let us go inside the building.  He could not join us as he had to wear a GPS tracker 🥴.  Obviously there has been much deterioration over time but it was clear it was left in a hurry with shoes, toys and books just left – all very eery.  All the other buildings in this and many other villages in the area were bulldozed and buried.  Sadly, this was not such a good idea as the ruins seeped radioactive isotopes into the groundwater!  They built new roads, with new asphalt which they refer to as “safety tunnels”.

There were 15 villages within the 10km zone, and all were destroyed and buried after the disaster.  Despite the explosion happening on April 26, the villages were not evacuated until May 3rd, nor were they given iodine pills.  The heavy particles in the atmosphere (e.g. plutonium) destroyed their immune system – as a result many who died of other things (due to their compromised immune systems) were not considered in the death toll.  There was also a lot of blindness (as eyes absorb radiation easily).  No one can live in this area today and no one can stay more than 6 hours at one time. 

The Chernobyl Nuclear power plant was planned to have 12 reactors in total.  The accident happened in No. 4, and all further building plans were abandoned leaving No. 5 unfinished and the other reactors were closed over the following years (No. 3 closing in 2000).   Not surprisingly, water in the runoffs in the area are still highly contaminated.

Reactor number 4 is now covered with a safety shield or Sarcophagus.  The current one was built in 2012 and was the biggest and heaviest structure moved in the world, as it was built 300m away and then moved into place – 36000 tonnes of steel in total.

In front of the sarcophagus there is a monument to the ‘liquidators’ with an inscription “To those who saved the world”.  “Liquidator” is a general term used to describe the civil and military personnel who dealt with the consequences of the disaster.  Liquidators roles varied greatly; power plant workers on duty at the time of the explosion, fire fighters, Soviet Armed forces who removed contaminated materials, female janitors who had to remove food from abandoned homes, hunters who exterminated domestic animals left behind, coal miners who dug a protective tunnel, helicopter pilots …  These people and many more (it is estimated that around 60,000 people were involved) are generally credited with limiting the immediate and long term damage from the disaster and those who still survive today finally have veteran status, even if they were civilians, having fought for many years to have their participation officially recognised.

Our guide had spoken to an engineer who was on duty the morning after the explosion.  He had said that no one could believe the core could or in fact did explode and for many hours they continued to work in disbelief.  They were initially evacuated but Kremlin engineers made them go back in to continue pumping water into the core – which was now non-existent!

Our next stop was in the town of Pripyat, the location of many of the eerie photos you see of the disaster aftermath.  Just outside the town we came across some puppies – all dogs are supposed to be sterilised but clearly not! A US organisation look after the stray animals in the area and thankfully we could play puppies 👍🏻 (as they are too young to be particularly contaminated) – they certainly looked chunky and healthy.

Prypriat was a good city, purpose built in 1970 by the best designers, with all the best infrastructure – Amusement park, Palace of culture, cinemas, schools etc, connections to railway, bus and boat stations and a massive medical complex.  Everything was provided – health care, housing, education etc.  On top of that, good jobs were available at the nearby Nuclear Power plant, just a few kilometres away.

Although there was an estimated 50,000 people living in the city, there were only 4000 cars as the city was so easy for people to walk around.

Gear from firefighters on first night still in the basement of the medical complex.  They had no radiation protection and people did not understand symptoms of radiation related illnesses.  Nurses, doctors, visitors were all contaminated as they touched exposed workers and their clothes with no protection.  Once the extend of the contamination was understood the Government issue a law that all pregnant women in the city had to have their babies aborted and many children from the city were sent to Cuba for rehab (a friend of the USSR with good medicine).

Next, we headed to the River boat station – there were boat connections to Kiev and Belarus, and the boats were a popular way of travel.  Much more popular than crowded Soviet buses with no AC!  The cafeteria here had beautiful stain glass windows, and apparently it served the best ice cream in the city.  An old vending machine remained – your choices were water, sparkling water and lemonade. 

It really is a snapshot of a moment in time and straight out of an episode of Abandoned Engineering – fascinating if you like that kind of thing, which I do lol.  The interesting thing is that the town was not damaged by the disaster, it was just abandoned, but of course age and environment (and apparently in some cases military training including live ammunition training leaving bullet holes in buildings) has worn it down over time.  I was particularly intrigued by the photos our guide showed of the buildings we were visiting pre-disaster, filled with happy people going about their normal lives.

Both the cinema and musical school was adorned with beautiful unique mosaics, made of aluminium.   This time the guide abandoned his GPS tracker and took us in to the music school 👍🏻 to see the crumbling auditorium where musical performances were once held.

As we wandered through the empty city, we passed a Government building (the centre for Nuclear Energy), the hotel where people brought in to clean up the explosion initially stayed, through the central square and across the football stadium.  Did you know the international nuclear symbol symbolises the 3 types of radiation coming from 1 core?

Our final stop in the city was probably the most famous site, the amusement park.  I think most people have seen photos of the abandoned Ferris wheel or dodgem cars.  Not many people know that the park was brand new and was due to have its grand opening on 1 May 1986, but this was cancelled after the explosion.  Some say it was opened briefly on April 27th, one day after the explosion as a distraction for the locals but before the town was evacuated but this has not been confirmed. 

The announcement to evacuate the city came on the afternoon of April 27th and the whole evacuation (of the almost 50,000) took only 36 hours. People were told that they were back in 3 days, so to pack light – of course they never were to return.

We left Pripyat and headed back to the Administration area to have lunch in Cafeteria No 19, built for Chernobyl workers to eat Soviet workers cuisine 🥴.  Some of the 6,000 people who still work on site (it was 15,000 people when in operation) still eat here.  To enter you had to pass through a radiation detection machine and then thoroughly wash your hands before reaching the dining room. (Good hand washing practice for the future COVID world – who knew!)

Our Soviet workers cuisine consisted of a small plate of salad with some kind of cold sausage and lots of cabbage.  A Boursk – a traditional soup, and some kind of grain with a chunk of pork!  The dining room was busy and by the time we go to eat there were no knives left so I just had to pick it up and bite it!  Thank goodness for my clean hands lol.  It was not amazingly flavoursome but ok 🥴. The coffee was not much better, but worth it for the cup lol.

Although Reactor number 4 and Pripyat were the main reasons for the visit, the next stop at the once top secret Soviet Cold War base fascinated me.  Hidden deep in the forest and after a short walk we arrived at the Duga radar – a Soviet over-the-horizon radar (Duga literally means “arc”), which was part of the Soviet missile early warning radar network (to spot ballistic missiles fired from the USA) and the last one left intact.

It operated from 1976 to 1989 and broadcast over shortwave radio bands.  Unfortunately, it often interfered with broadcasts on radio, tv and sometimes aviation communications with a clicking sounds gaining it the nickname the Russian Woodpecker.  That said, most people annoyed by the interference never actually knew where it was coming from!  Apparently even the Ukraine officials were not aware of it!

It is huge 700m long and 150m high structure made up of made up of hundreds of huge antennas and turbines and is hugely impressive when you stand at the base of it.

We exited the 10km zone with another radiation check and this time the minibus also got checked before we were free to head to the town of Chernobyl.  The town used to have a population of about 14,000 but today the town around 1,000 people live there and is often the overnight base for tourists who take a 2 day trip. 

At the entrance to the town, they have an exhibition of robots and vehicles assembled for the 25th anniversary of the disaster.  The vehicles were bought from various countries to use in the clean up on the roof of the reactor and in the surrounding area, including a copy of moon landing vehicle!  Unfortunately, none of the vehicles/robots could last longer than 13 hours on the roof in the extreme radiation before their circuitry died so they had to resort to using people – or biorobots as they were referred to!!!   More than 70% of those men are now dead.

By this time, it was 3pm but the sun had started to set already which made for some cool photos and a dropping temperature, dropping from the balmy -4 to -8!

Further into the town we came across the court where those blamed for the accident were tried.  In reality they were just scape goats of an attempted coverup of the entire event, and although initially convicted, they were soon released after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The courthouse is still overlooked by a large statue of Lenin – apparently the last remaining Lenin statute still standing in the Ukraine! 

Nearby there is a poignant memorial to all the villages which were destroyed after the disaster.  An ‘avenue’ of village signs, one for each abandoned and destroyed village in the exclusion zone both in the Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus.  Nearby is the “Monument of the Third Angel” – inspired by a Biblical passage, Revelations 8:10-11:

“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter”.

Some speculated that this passage predicted the disaster, as Chernobyl was named for the Ukrainian word for wormwood!

After one final check point to measure our radiation exposure (0.002, less than 0.003 allowed so all good 👍🏻) we were on our way back to Kiev after what was a fascinating yet sobering day.