A Travellerspoint blog

Western USA

Nearly the final leg of my year's Round the World trip

all seasons in one day 15 °C

Flying from New Zealand to the United States, I crossed the Equator and the International Date Line. This meant that I got to do Monday all over again on a springtime day in Los Angeles.

In stead of hiring a car, the guy at LAX Information Desk assured me that buses were just fine. Rather than the last time I was in LA which was more than thirty five years ago. I got down to Santa Monica where I used to live and found the ubiquitous Hostel International - just two blocks back from the beach and only $25 a night. What would I do without these fantastic 'youth' hostels which are always located centrally and so reasonably priced when all I need is a bed and a shower?

Having been flying for thirteen hours, I felt a bit spacey but that feeling suits Southern California. I went in search of my old haunts and found Chez Jay's, a bar I used to virtually live in all those years ago - it was exactly the same. After a shrimp salad and cold white wine, I tried to find my old apartment building but, according to the lady in the motel across the street, it was pulled down only a couple of years ago. The office building where I worked (bounty hunter!!) was still there but, surprise, no ex-boyfriend Bail Bondsman!

For the grand price of $2, I took the bus to do 'Los Angeles in a Day'. I travelled all the way along Wilshire Boulevard to Beverley Hills and Rodeo Drive and then to the Farmers Market. I then walked north, all the way to Hollywood Boulevard which was a long, hot way. After a walk among the mad people of Hollywood, I took the bus back to the beach at Santa Monica and wandered along the pier at sunset and reminisced about the crazy times - 1974/5 seems a blur but is that surprising?

After lunch at the Los Angeles Museum of Art and a lovely afternoon viewing paintings and historical costumes, I then took the bus to scary downtown LA and the bus station for my first Greyhound experience! The place was filled with Spanish-speaking Mexicans, off to Tijuana and a great number of 'disabled' people, beggars and street people. The bus left on time and drove through Hollywood (again) and then out on the highway to Oxnard where my new HelpX family were there to pick me up - great relief.

Oxnard is the home of strawberry cultivation and so has a huge immigrant labour force, mainly from Mexico. I was living in the old, fashionable side of town, not far from the marina and the beach. Downtown was like a little Mexico where I actually saw a mariachi band playing on Saturday afternoon. The family (three kids under 10) was very lively and I had a hectic time, trying to clean their house and avoid all the illnesses that seemed to pervade the house.

Well, I managed to survive two weeks in Oxnard without catching anything more than a slight cold! I hadn't realised just how much the Americans rely on illegal immigrant workers to do so many labouring jobs and how everyone tries to turn a blind eye to the situation. There are distinct areas of a town where you will hardly hear English spoken. The other thing about America that makes me chuckle is their 'old' buildings which are very attractive but hardly more than 150 years old.

I caught the Amtrak train from Oxnard, all the way up alongside the Pacific Ocean, to Oakland which is the inland, industrial part of the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a long, nine-hour journey but the scenery was great and the company entertaining. There was a beautiful sunset over the ocean as I was having supper in the dining car - very luxurious. Having merely crashed at my hotel after the journey, next morning I took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train into the city of San Francisco and got to the hostel without any problems. I spent the afternoon travelling the entire length of the F-line vintage street car - much cheaper and far less touristy than the Cable Cars. I have always loved this city and it was wonderful to return to places I had been to so long ago and find that they were all still there. Alioto's Fish Restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf was as good as it was 37 years ago; Coit Tower is still there, on top of Telegraph Hill; Castro is still the gay district and the Golden Gate Bridge is still standing. I spent a whole day, walking through Chinatown and on down to the wharfs and then back via the flash areas of Russian Hill and Nob Hill. The queues for the Cable Car on Hyde Pier were ridiculous so I gave them a miss completely and carried on walking all day as the weather was so glorious.

As I left San Francisco for Sacramento on the train, I had a last glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge as we headed inland. Old family friends met me at the station and gave me a tour of the area, including Folsom Prison where all the guards very politely asked us to leave quickly - we must have looked very suspicious doing u-turns at the main gate to the prison. Next day, we went out to Sutter Creek which is preserved as an old gold mining town. The old part of Sacramento, alongside the nearly overflowing American River, was interesting to see and we also visited the State Capitol building which is very beautiful. As there is still a lot of snow in the Sierra Mountains, people are worrying about whether the levys will hold on the riverbanks when the snow starts to melt shortly.

I got up at 4:00am in order to catch the Greyhound Bus north into Oregon. Bus stations are never in the most luxurious areas of town and Sacramento was no exception. The place was crowded with all varieties of unfortunate people. One guy got arrested as he was shouting about the bus being late. When we finally boarded, the driver told all the weirdy passengers that he was not going to take any **it so we had all better sit down and shut up! The alcohol and drug content of that bus must have been pretty high but I managed to get to Medford without too much trouble after travelling through the beginnings of the Cascade Mountains, still with loads of snow. Lynne, my HelpX host, was at the bus station to meet me and take me out to their horse ranch, close to the small town of Ashland.

Ashland is a beautiful town which has a famous Shakespeare Festival for most of the summer. One evening, three of us went to the theatre but we only had two tickets. A man outside the theatre gave me his spare ticket (worth $80) how generous. So many Americans still seem to be impressed with British people and their accents - most peculiar.

My duties on the farm included feeding chickens and managing five horses, one of which is the grand-daughter of Secretariat. The horses are pretty lively and very hard to get in from the pastures when they have been out all day. The compensation is that the mountain scenery around the farm is beautiful and my hosts are great fun. It is the 'tax filing' time of year so I was also helping in the office, trying to find various missing bills and statements etc. Lynne suggested that, as she was going north to see her family, I should drive with her and she would get me to Seattle after my two weeks with them. Great - no more Greyhound buses to negotiate!

We set off through the beautiful Oregon mountains, heading north towards Portland. There was still quite a bit of snow on Grisley Peak when we left John in charge of horses and chickens for a week. I had a quick tour of Portland and its beautiful art deco marble station where I managed to change my train ticket and we then headed further north into the state of Washington. As we drove up the highway, I saw Mount St Helens, the volcano that erupted just a few years ago. We finally arrived at Bear Canyon which is virtually owned by the family who all have varying interests in Christmas tree production - very lucrative! I had a wonderful few days with the family, travelling with mum up through the snow to a place called Paradise which is half way up Mount Rainier. When we arrived, there was 20 foot of snow banked against the Visitor Centre - very spectacular. We saw a beautiful Silver Cascade Fox just alongside the road, begging passing drivers for food. Back in Bear Canyon, I saw wild cayotes roaming along the hillside, eagles circling around the valley and otters in the family's private camping ground by the creek. With quite a bit of rain in the valley, we were treated to a double rainbow at the end of the day which was quite breathtaking.

I was driven to the Seattle hostel by Lynne's brother and his family and spent a couple of days being a tourist in the coffee capital of America where they have bicycle-riding policemen who happily direct you to the best spots in town. The Pike Place Market, just by the quayside, was vibrant with stalls selling amazing fish and all kinds of fruit and vegetables. I visited the original Starbucks (but didn't give them any money for their overpriced coffee) and also walked along the Gum Wall - one of the top five germy attractions in the world apparently. After a fabulous supper, I went to the historic 5th Avenue Theatre and was subjected to a performance of '9 to 5' with video appearances by Dolly Parton. The tour guide at the hostel suggested just 'looking' at the Space Needle but actually going up the Columbia Center's Skyview Tower for only $5 - great advice. I took the famous (?) Doc Maynard underground tour around Pioneer Square which showed the level of the city before it was destroyed by fire and re-built much higher to avoid floods from the bay area.

After a fish and chip lunch at Ivar's on Pier 54, I took the monorail to the Space Needle and back. This area of town is pretty desolate and certainly a shadow of its former 1962 World's Fair glory. Then, up to the 72nd floor of the Skyview Tower for a wonderful panorama of the city, the oceans and canals and the Cascade Mountains in the distance. To finish my trip to Seattle, I went to a baseball game and left after the Seattle Mariners scored a winning home run as I was so cold! I'm definitely up in the north now. It still gives me goosebumps whenever the yanks sing 'Star Spangled Banner' at the beginning of sports games.

As it was the beginning of Easter weekend, the train station was very busy but I managed to get a window seat on the train to Vancouver. During the three hour journey, we passed the most beautiful ocean-side scenery with majestic, snow-capped mountains on the horizon. I was welcomed by the Canadian Immigration Officer and managed to find my way to the hostel in 'gay town' Vancouver - great location and the start of my adventure with Canada.

Posted by amazingali 10:27 Archived in USA Comments (0)

My last few weeks in New Zealand

And I haven't seen a single kiwi!

all seasons in one day 20 °C

This blog spans the time either side of the Christchurch earthquake - now we need to be thinking of all the people in Japan!!

After leaving Te Anau, I had a wonderful time travelling through the Catlins which are at the very south of the South Island. I drove on quite a number of gravel roads, especially going west to Lake Hauroko, the deepest lake in New Zealand, for a peaceful night right by the lake. Unfortunately, I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and a puncture and, as I was alone, had to change it myself.

I drove very gingerly back along 30Km of gravel and then on through Tuatapere (sausage capital of NZ) to Riverton where I had a lovely fish lunch before heading to Invercargill to get my tyre fixed. A tyre needed to be sent down from Queenstown so I found a freedom camping ground in the middle of the Hokonui Forest and had the place to myself in the driving rain. I got back to Invercargill next morning and took a walk around the 'sights', including the Water Tower and the prison which isn't mentioned in the brochures! Gordon fitted my new tyre and I then headed to Bluff which is a pretty desperate place with loads of shops and businesses closed. The wind was blowing so hard that I couldn't focus my camera. The main claims to fame for Bluff are that it's classed as the southern-most settlement of mainland New Zealand (on the same latitude as the Falklands) and it grows oysters. I couldn't see Stewart Island as the weather was so bad. Gave up and headed east along the coast to Fortrose and Waipapa Point where there is a beautiful lighthouse, built after a huge shipwreck in 1881 when 131 people died - I can see how that could happen!

At Slope Point, I was the most southern person in the whole of mainland New Zealand and closer to the South Pole than the Equator. I moved on to Curio Bay with a fossilised forest on the beach and rare, yellow-eyed penguins looking at all the mad tourists trying to get close enough for a photo. The van has now developed a high temperature - worrying. The next day was a series of fabulous waterfall visits, after first walking down to the beach at Cathedral Caves where they had been filming a Catlins 'road trip' movie the day before. Spent the night on the beach at Purakaunui Bay where the Ranger let me stay for only $5.50 - very generous.

The car must be sorted out so I have decided to head on towards Dunedin, unfortunately missing out Nugget Point and another lighthouse. The architectural walk around the city of Dunedin was very interesting - the town is really so redolent of Edinburgh with all the street names and the grey, granite buildings. After booking the hostel for Sunday night, I drove on north to Hampden beach for a lovely peaceful night by the sea shore again. I visited the Moeraki Boulders first thing in the morning, before anyone was about to try and cop an entrance fee from me. These boulders are completely spherical and are strewn all around the one beach - very strange. Despite all my efforts (and a fall in a fast-running stream) I could not find New Zealand's tallest tree. Sunday afternoon was spent taking the train to Taieri Gorge from Dunedin's very ornate railway station - not as good a trip as Arthur's Pass but still beautiful scenery.

After leaving the van with a local mechanic, I took a leisurely walk to Olveston which is an Edwardian house preserved by the city council - fascinating. I walked the entire length of George Street to the Botanic Gardens for lunch then on to Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world - I didn't climb it! While meandering through the Otago Museum, mechanic Geoff called to give me the news that my cylinder head gasket has split and will cost $3,000 to repair - shitty shit shit! I will have to stay in Dunedin for three days while the car is fixed so I used the bus to get out on the Otago Peninsula to Larnach's Castle to visit the beautiful gardens and the castle itself which has been totally renovated by the present owners. This building is considered very old - nearly 100 years!

Very optimistically, I checked out of the hostel on Thursday morning and spent the day in the Library, updating e-mails and blogs. The van was ready at 5:30pm so I set off west, with far less money than I had when I entered Dunedin. Anyway, the van is going great and we sped through the fruit orchards in the plains and on to Alexandra where I camped for the night by the town park. Next day, I headed into the dramatic, craggy mountains and the fast flowing rivers after all the recent rain. I had a beautiful drive in sunshine, alongside Lake Dunstan and the Cromwell Gorge. The town of Wanaka reminded me of Kendal - loads of tourist milling around - so I just got the camping site brochure and headed out of town, north along Lake Hawea to a quiet lakeside location for another peaceful night.

At Cameron Flat next morning, I walked to the spectacular Blue Pools where the aquamarine glacier waters come down to meet the Makarora river. Then on to Haast Pass and north to the Fox Glacier. The weather was terrible out on the coast at Gillespie's Beach but camped down for the night, ready for good glacier watching in the morning. Just behind the beach, there was an old cemetery where Irish and Scottish gold miners were buried - very ornate for such a stark area.

As it continued raining all night, I had little chance of seeing Fox Glacier in the mist. I then drove on to Franz Joseph and took the short walk in the pouring rain, just to catch a mild glimpse of this magnificent sight - a snow field just above the village. The weather was very depressing so decided to add to the sorrow and drive to Greymouth - aptly named but the hostel was fine and a hot shower was very welcome. The coast road north of Greymouth is breathtaking with The Pancake Rocks and then the drive east through Buller Gorge. After walking across the Shaky Bridge over the gorge at Ariki, I then drove southwards through the Shenandoah Valley and the Lewis Pass to a campsite by the Lewis River with mountains all around - and sandflys!

Having completed the circle out to the west coast, I then headed towards Christchurch and my next HelpX host who lives in Heathcote Valley, south of the main city but before the hills at Lyttelton. I spent the next five days, walking her dogs, kitchen cleaning and getting ready to make curtains. I also looked into selling the van and flying back to Auckland, rather than trying to drive the van all the way back north. On Sunday 20th February, I went into the city centre library to send a birthday e-mail to son Christopher - that was the only chance I had to see the city centre. Obviously, all normal life came to a HUGE halt on the morning of 22nd February, I day I will remember for the rest of my life!!

After helping to clean up the house in Heathcote Valley, I drove north and spent two days at a campsite I had stayed at before - peaceful and reassuring to be away from Christchurch. I then drove back south as far as Amberley Beach and got in touch with everyone via a lovely lady at the library who realised how shocked I was and gave me unlimited access to the computer in a private room - what a star. I managed to speak to both kids, Christopher and Hannah, and get e-mails off to friends.

At the end of the weekend, I had decided to leave the van with the Backpackers Car Sales on the outskirts of Christchurch and fly up to Wellington to friends, Trevor and Anna. The van is still there and hopefully will be sold in the next couple of months. The car sales place was just outside the cordoned off area and, as you can imagine, very little trade was going on. The taxi that picked me up had to drive into the Civil Defence Centre inside the CBD where we had to give a password at the cordon to get into the area. People were walking around in orange suits and masks - I felt as if I was on a movie set for a disaster film - very surreal.

Once in Wellington and having retrieved my lost luggage from Air New Zealand, we attended the memorial service outside Parliament, in commemoration of all who had been lost just the week before. The two minutes' silence was very moving and it was the first time that I was able to cry. That evening, we had a quake of 4.3 which was the first that Trevor had felt since moving to New Zealand more than a year ago. I feel as if I'm the doom merchant and want to get out as soon as I can! I have arranged to leave for America two weeks ahead of schedule and have had to pay extra to change my airline ticket but never mind.

I contacted some old family friends at the weekend and we managed to get together for a re-hash of the past thirty years. I also had a drive out to Eastbourne for lunch and had another visit to the Botanical Gardens. Wellington is a beautiful city, as long as it doesn't shake! Then, on the Friday, we began to hear about the terrible devastation in Japan. I must confess that it was beginning to feel as if the world was ending.

Took the train from Wellington to Auckland which took 12 hours but the scenery was very pleasant - my last sights of New Zealand. I spent the weekend in the sunshine of Auckland, walking in the parks and gathering my strength for the 13-hour flight ahead. I took the bus out to the airport on Monday lunchtime and took off for Los Angeles right on time. As we crossed the International Date Line, I landed in America before I left New Zealand - yet more surreal experiences in a month of unreality!!

Posted by amazingali 15:06 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

Christchurch Earthquake

I'm OK - thanks to everyone for asking

I was in a suburb of Christchurch called Sumner which seems to have been pretty badly hit.

Sitting in the library when the world caved in. I did exactly what you're not supposed to do and went back in for my bag - it had passport, money etc. There was a huge rock fall along the street and people were killed underneath it - half a cliff fell down into the main street.

My car was just on the perimeter of the damage - the car across the road had a rock on its roof. After the initial quake, I got in the car, turned it around as the road blocked in front of me and drove out of the area. It was like a war zone - houses on fire, huge gaps opening in the road, water everywhere and people running in all directions. The traffic was very slow and I kept feeling aftershocks as we drove.

Spent the night at a friend's house in Lyttelton. The town was very badly hit with 80% of old buildings destroyed. We had walked over a mountain to get to the bay as the roads were all blocked and the tunnel closed. People later killed on the same path we took.

Tuesday night was absolutely terrifying as the aftershocks were happening every few minutes with big ones at 3:00am and 6:00am. I was just thankful to have got through the night. We then walked back over the mountain to help clean up my friend's house in Heathcote. I then got in the van at about 5:00pm and drove out of town. The roads were packed and people were panic buying food and fuel. Got to a campsite north of the city in a forest, lay in the van and just shook.

Saturday 26th now and it seems a lot calmer. So many people are still missing and the death toll will surely rise from the latest figure I heard of over 100. I was so lucky, as were hundreds of others, but we need to think of all the families who are still waiting for news or have already heard of somebody they have lost.

Live each day everyone!!!

Alison xxx

Posted by amazingali 12:57 Archived in New Zealand Comments (5)

New Year - New Island

Heading for the South Island of New Zealand

all seasons in one day 24 °C

May 2011 be just GREAT for you all, including me!

Friend Paul flew in late on 31st December but we had time to head over the Harbour Bridge to Takapuna where we had fantastic 19th floor views across the harbour to downtown Auckland. The New Year fireworks were absolutely spectacular and we had a ringside seat and complimentary fizz - a great way to start 2011.

Next day, I drove all the way from Auckland to Wellington so that we would have two full days to explore the city. We walked through the Botanic Gardens and the beautiful Rose Garden then took the Cable Car down into the town and walked along the vibrant, and windy, quayside. Then back through the Parliament Buildings and The Beehive, the executive building designed by Sir Basil Spence - he should have been ashamed of himself. We then dedicated a day to Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, which tells about the history of the country and its Maori heritage - fascinating.

Armed with my sea sickness patch behind the ear, we took the car ferry from 'windy' Wellington across the Cook Strait and on to Picton on the South Island. The journey takes three hours and can be notoriously rough but luckily, we had picked a quiet day. It has been said before but, as the boat enters Queen Charlotte Sound and the Tory Channel, the spectacular scenery begins. There really does seem to be quite a geographical difference between the two islands, each with their own attractions. After landing at Picton, we drove along the Queen Charlotte clifftop road to Havelock and then on to Nelson for an evening at the annual Nelson Jazz Festival.

From Nelson, we headed south west to St Arnaud and the sparkling Lake Rotoiti where large eels were swimming in the crystal clear water. We then drove the length of the beautiful Wairau River Valley to the famous Marlborough wine region between Renwick and Blenheim, stopping for a lovely lunch at Hunters vineyard before visiting the Cloudy Bay cellars! After a night at Blenheim, we started heading south along Highway 1 which runs right alongside the shoreline of the South Pacific Ocean with seals and small penguins in the water just by the road. At Kaikoura, we walked out to the Seal Colony where huge seals were sunning themselves on the rocks. At The Pier Hotel, I had the most succulent lobster lunch which, I was assured, had been caught just that morning. What we call lobster is known here as crayfish but it all tastes great to me!

The long drive from Kaikoura to Christchurch, through the Canterbury Plain, was pretty boring pastureland with loads of sheep - it's true! Next day we travelled the TranzAlpine railway, along the flat pastureland and then through river valleys and up into the dynamic Southern Alps. The train was packed for the three hour journey to Arthur's Pass. We walked through Lord of the Rings style mountainsides up to waterfalls above the town and then back to the village to wait for the return train. There is only one train a day which goes from coast to coast and back so you need to be on time! The scenery must look even more spectacular when there is more snow on the mountains.

Despite a rainy and windy day, we decided to drive out to the Banks Peninsula and visit Akaroa, a 'French' ancient whaling settlement which was very pretty but a little contrived. On the way back towards Christchurch, we saw the first evidence of earthquake damage - a stone church tower lying alongside the front door - watch out all you believers. The drive to Timaru was again pretty uninteresting and to top it all, there was no room at the inn! As it was still early afternoon and I was seriously disillusioned with Timaru, we decided to head inland to Lake Takapo and the Mount Cook lookout at Lake Pukaki. This is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. After a night at Twizel, I just had to go back to the lookout to drink in the sight again - just glorious and very uplifting. The mountain is reflected in the aquamarine lake and just cannot be faulted as the archetypal picture postcard scene.

The drive to Queenstown was very varied. Some of the land looked just like the Scottish Highlands but then the gorges and high gold mining country was much more like the North American 'cowboy country'. Lake Dunstan has been made as part of the complex hydro-electric system which supplies huge swathes of New Zealand. The old buildings were saved and moved up the hill to form 'old Cromwell', a great tourist draw I'm sure. Kawarau Gorge is where the nutters do their bungy jumps from a bridge, just outside Queenstown - the adventure capital of the world, according to tourist literature. We took a late afternoon Skyline gondola trip in order to view the town and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu from high above.

We visited Arrowtown which is an old gold mining town with a Chinese settlement just on the outkirts. It was very interesting to see how the Chinese lived and very amusing to learn that many of them became far richer than the gold miners themselves. This was due to the gold dust found in the miners' clothes they were being paid to wash. So they copped the gold dust and also got paid for washing the clothes - inscrutable.

Our last day in Queenstown was spent going jet boating - great fun. We were driven out to the Shotover River and then on to Skippers Canyon, along the old goldminers road that was very narrow and high with fabulous sights down into the canyons below. At one point on the river, taking a rest from 360 degree turns on a sixpence, we were shown where one of the scenes from 'Lord of the Rings' was filmed. You can take tours to all the sites and the road map is printed with all the locations - it is huge business in a great deal of New Zealand and there is another film planned shortly.

After taking Paul to the airport, I headed off south, alongside Lake Wakatipu to a place called Kingston where the map indicates a steam railway. It transpires that The Kingston Flyer has not flown for more than two years so I carried on through the lowland bush and arrived just outside Te Anau and found a great spot by the fast-running River Mararoa to camp for the night - alone again in my little van - great!

I drove south to Manapouri to take the boat trip to the underground power station which is only accessible by boat. Unfortunately, I had just missed the only day's sailing so decided to veg out by the side of the river as the sun was glorious and it was a lovely quiet day. This is also the starting point for cruises to Doubtful Sound which again, is only accessible by boat. This is real Fiordland country - utterly untouched by humans as most of them can't get there. However, next day I drove north to Milford Sound. The 100Km drive in itself is a beautiful experience and I took all day to do it. I stopped to walk around Lake Mistletoe and then on to Mirror Lakes. There was too much wind on the water to see any reflections of the fabulous mountains behind but then next stop at Lake Gunn compensated as it was a gentle walk around the edge of yet another breathtaking lake. Homer Tunnel, the only way through to the Sound, was pretty awesome and took loads of men quite a time to dig out with pickaxes as they couldn't risk using dynamite. The whole drive consisted of snowy mountains, fast flowing rivers, vertical escarpments, scary tunnels and jaw-dropping lakes - and tomorrow I take the actual cruise through Milford Sound!

I got woken in the night by the DOC warden, literally slapping a warning notice on my van, letting me know that I was a vagrant parker and not to do it again or there would be trouble! It's the first time that I have encountered any problem with parking but that's not a bad average and the view from my spot next morning of the mist on the Sound was worth the agro.

The 9:00am Breakfast Cruise through Milford Sound was absolutely great. Initially, it was quite cold as the mountains were hiding the sun but as we headed past Mitre Peak towards the sea, it warmed up - and the breakfast helped. Captain Cook missed this inlet on his travels - what a plonker! The Stirling Falls cascade down the sheer rocks and the boat goes right up to underneath them. Then we go past Seal Rock and then, before you know it, we are back at Milford and the place is absolutely heaving with tourists. I'm so glad that I got up in time for the early morning and was able to savour the spectacular beauty in relative peace and quiet.

On the drive back, I stopped at the Homer Tunnel and walked up the scree fields to snow, all in blazing sunshine. I also took a 15Km detour to visit Gunns Camp which had a little museum telling stories of the original settlers, gold miners and tunnel diggers. I then arrived at my first official camping ground and paid $5 for the pleasure. I washed body and hair in the stream under a blazing sun, read my book and then settled down for a legal night's sleep. On the way past Mirror Lakes in the early morning, I got much more of a still reflections on the water.

Saturday 15th January - Te Anau Harness Racing Day. In celebration, the newly christened public toilets are free. I make my way to the VIP stand and pretend to look like a VIP - it works. I have a ringside seat for the great spectacle of the Te Anau Pipe Band and more harness races than you could shake a stick at. Just two horses in each race which takes place down the widest, straightest street in the town which has been covered with sand. It seemed as if the whole town was there and it was a really great day although the weather could have been warmer.

On Monday morning, I drove 5Km out of town to the horse trek farm where I will be working for the next two weeks with Andy and his daughter Emma. I have found my Kiwi farmer! What a laid back guy and such good fun to be with. He whispers to his horses but doesn't look like Robert Redford much. I had a great time, looking after the house and garden with Emma and drinking Jim Beam until the early hours, watching The Man from Snowy River. I don't want to leave.

Posted by amazingali 17:55 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

December on the North Island

Sounds cold but absolutely NOT

all seasons in one day 24 °C

My departure from Australia was marred by the security guard at the airport who asked if I had knee replacements as I had set off the metal detector - cheeky bastard. It was my boots that set the alarm and not my dodgy knees!

I arrived in Auckland at 3:00pm and daughter Hannah flew in at 5:00pm - brilliant timing. After our usual hugging and crying we got into the city, unpacked and walked down Queen Street for supper on the wharf to celebrate my 60th birthday - what a shocker!! Hannah had bought me topaz earrings and a necklace in Bangkok as a lovely present.

Next day was dedicated to buying transport for our road trip. There is a large Backpackers Campervan warehouse in southern Auckland but all the vans cost more than I was prepared to pay. We were then directed to a car sales yard down at the docks by a guy we met in a coffee bar. Hannah had a good time bargaining with the salesman and for a cool $3000 of my money, we bought a Toyota Estima people carrier. The salesman agreed to take the back seats out so we could put in a bed. We picked the van up next day and set off south via a Red Cross shop where we bought a foam mattress, curtains and pots and pans - all set for three weeks of road journey round the North Island.

The drive to Rotorua was pretty easy, getting used to the van and driving again after quite a time. We drove through Cambridge which was a beautfiul town and arrived at a park on the outskirts of Rotorua and got the van set up for our fist night of 'freedom camping' as it's called - basically dossing down with the van wherever you can find a likely spot. We met one of Hannah's friends for a couple of drinks which gave me Dutch courage for the night ahead!

We made a mad dash for Wellington the next morning after a fabulous breakfast alongside Lake Tikitapu which was just outside Rotorua and away from the awful sulphur smell. Wasn't too impressed with the commercialism in the town but it's a huge tourist centre for visitors from all over the world - they can keep it! We headed south through huge, snow capped mountains, desert wilderness and vast Lake Taupo to arrive on the outskirts of Wellington with an ominous orange light on the dashboard. Great - we have only had the car for a day and already it's falling apart! (With two months of driving now under my belt, I have learnt that lots of oil and a gentle right foot seem to work wonders).

The weekend in Wellington was very enjoyable. The city is so compact (but hilly) that you can walk just about everywhere and the weather was glorious. We walked around the quay to Oriental Bay, stopping at Te Papa Museum for a quick look. In the afternoon we took the Cable Car up to the Botanic Gardens and the stupendous Rose Garden and, in the evening, visited the Town Hall where my friend was singing in the Messiah. For Sunday brunch, we drove to Lyall Bay to watch the planes flying over the bay and straight onto the runway - pretty impressive.

We headed out east, towards the wine country of Martinborough and along gravel farm roads in the middle of nowhere (I was lost) until we arrived at Masterton and then headed out to Castle Point to camp on the sea shore with the waves pounding just outside the van. We climbed to the lighthouse in the morning and Hannah chatted up a surf guy who was teaching loads of kids on the beach. We then went to an interesting art exhibition in Masterton and camped for the night in a quiet lane, just outside town. This was our first wet day - until now the weather has been glorious. We visited New Zealand's answer to Stonehenge at Carterton in the driving rain and then to Pukaha Wildlife Centre where they announced that there were no kiwis to see - gave that one a miss and carried on to Woodville to see the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere. The 55 turbines were eerily beautiful in the setting sun from our vantage point on a deserted track above Woodville.

A sunny morning encouraged us to walk along Manawatu Gorge which cuts through the mountain ranges that run straight down the centre of the southern North Island. We then visited Feilding which is supposed to be New Zealand's most beautiful town - voted for by the residents of Feilding I think! On our drive towards Napier, we stopped at the place with the world's longest name. This is just a sign with the Maori name on it - about 60 letters which talks about a bloke coming down from the mountains - interesting but not. Lunch on the beach then off to Napier, the Art Deco centre on Hawkes Bay. After four nights sleeping in the van, we treated ourselves to the luxury of the YHA where we washed all our clothes, had showers and slept in beds! Once refreshed, we took an evening guided walk around the downtown area that was totally destroyed by New Zealand's deadliest earthquake in 1931. After the area was flattened and more than 250 people killed, the Town Council decided to rebuild in the Art Deco style which has left unique facades on the main streets and is a great tourist attraction. An Art Deco Festival is held every year with people dressing in the 'flapper' styles and driving through town in vintage cars.

We drove slowly around Hawkes Bay, along the Pacific Coast Highway to Wairoa, one of the Maori 'Mongrel Mob' headquarters. We had planned to sleep on the beach but met a lady, Linda, who suggested we would be safer parking in her paddock as there was a meeting of the gang planned for that night on the beach! We heard loads of motobikes cruising round town that night but who knows whether there was a full meeting that we may have been in the middle of! There was certainly the most amazing stormy sunset covering the whole sky as we sat on Linda's porch, drinking chilled white wine.

Spent the most relaxing day at Lake Waikaremoana on our own beach in glorious sunshine. The water was crystal clear and freezing cold with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. On our way down to the campsite (the first proper campsite we had stayed at) we gave a lift to three Slovakian hikers who had spent three days walking around the lake - one of New Zealand's Great Walks, of which there are many! We were woken next morning by a sobbing German girl who had managed to drive her car into a deep gully by the side of the road. Absolutely none of us (about ten people) had a tow rope but the local highway earth mover guy came by and just popped her back onto the road. We then drove the 70Km back along dirt track to Wairoa to say goodbye to Linda and then headed east again to Mahia and the thermal springs at Morere where we jumped from hot to tepid to cold baths for a couple of hours - very invigorating.

Onwards to Captain Cook's Poverty Bay, now called Gisborne. The main attraction here was the beautiful Wainui Beach so we carried on to Tolaga Bay which has the longest jetty in New Zealand. We had planned to spend the night at Te Puia hot pools but the smell was very reminiscent of Rotorua so we moved on up the coast, ready for the assault on East Cape lighthouse in the morning. All these superlatives - the longest, the oldest, the biggest - New Zealand seems to go in for this kind of thing a lot! East Cape is indeed the most eastern point of all New Zealand and is one of the first inhabited places in the world to greet each new day. It nearly killed me to climb the 700 steps to the cliff top but it was worth it. The drive along the coast was also pretty impressive with the oldest (600 years) and biggest Pohutukawa tree to see at Te Araroa. This tree has the most beautiful red flowers and is known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree.

We drove round the Bay of Plenty, through Opotiki to spend the night in a 'hotel' in Whakatane. You may be interested to know that, in the Maori language, 'wh' is pronounced 'f' and this place has been censored in cyberspace for being a 'rude word'. The inhabitants are not much to write home about either. The employees of the 'hotel' decided to start their Christmas karaoke party at 11:30pm, right under our bedroom! When I complained, they suggested we could leave (without a refund!) So much for Anglo/Maori relations.

Drove like crazy the next day, right across from east to west, via the lakes around Rotorua, through the Pureora Forest Park to Waitomo. Next morning, Norm took three hours to guide us through the famous gloworm caves and next, we tried blackwater rafting which entails jumping into the dark waterfalls underground with an inner tube around your wet suit - great fun but scary at first. The next adventure was my first surfing lesson at the famous Raglan surf beach where, coincidentally, we met up with the surf guy from Castle Point - quelle surprise!

Having spent more than two weeks sleeping in relative discomfort in the back of the Toyota, I decided that we would build a platform to utilise all the available space above the wheel arches and have storage available under the mattress base. We visited Bunnings (like B&Q) in Hamilton and started putting together the board and wood required. Then Michael, the wood cutter, offered to make the whole thing for us there and then without any charge except the materials. What service - would you get that in England or France? Michael had the whole thing made within the hour and we re-loaded the van and set off, very happy with the world. We were off east to discover the Coromandel Peninsula. The road were very steep and winding and the rain was relentless so we decided to treat ourselves to a YHA night in Whitianga, right on the stormy beach.

Having heard that snow was blocking Heathrow, we felt that a little warm rain was not too much to bear as we set off to walk down to Cathedral Cove which was beautiful and worth the effort. We also visited Hot Water Beach where you dig a hole in the sand and near boiling water rises to the surface - fascinating. We then took a forest track across the top of the Peninsula and arrived in the lovely fishing village of Coromandel where we bought some fabulous prawns for supper. The drive south along the coast road was absolutely spectacular with views across the waters of the Firth of Thames so peaceful. Next morning, we set off for the hubub of Auckland.

We drove straight through Auckland on Highway 1, crossing the Harbour Bridge and stopping at North Shore to pick up my post from friend Anna's mother. We then headed north to the Waipu Gorge and Piroa Falls where we swam under the falls and then camped beside the river. Next morning, we bathed and washed our hair in the river (basic stuff) then headed to Kawakawa and the famous Hundertwasser toilets - an architectural oddity but a famous stopping point for tourists - it had to be done. After lunch with friends of mine at the marina in Opua, we drove through touristy Paihia and on to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds which is the famous Maori site where they effectively gave their lands to the British! You can certainly understand why the British wanted to be here in the Bay of Islands where Kerikeri has the oldest buildings in New Zealand - the whole area was fabulous. We stopped the night at Mangonui, high on a hill overlooking Doubtless Bay.

The drive up to the most northern point of New Zealand, Cape Reinga, was a very eventful day. You can't get lost as there is only one road to take and it seems to go on for quite a time. We walked out to the lighthouse and saw where the South Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea collide. Returning down the same road, I turned off to take a 10Km gravel track onto Ninety Mile Beach which is actually only 55 miles long! It was misnamed as the first travellers overestimated what distance their horses were managing to travel each day on the sand. This is where I wanted to drive the Harley Davidson but I had to be satisfied with driving the Toyota - and then only for about a mile as the tide was pretty high!

Back on the road towards Kaitaia and I got a puncture. Jim, a local avocado farmer, came and helped us put on the spare which turned out to be the wrong size. He then drove us 20Km to Kaitaia where we got the punctured tyre replaced and found a breaker's yard to buy a new spare wheel - all this while he was buying his wife's Christmas present. All fixed up, we headed on south through ancient forests of giant Kauri trees and across beautiful rivers to get down to Ruawai for a sunset drink in a pub. After a rest, we decided to return to Piroa Falls for the night and have a good sleep before heading back to Auckland for Christmas!

Christmas Day was spent on the beach! My friend Anna's mother has a house right on the beach in a lovely suburb of Auckland's North Shore. Hannah and I had a very restful few days with lovely sunny days and warm evenings on the veranda and great friends. We had spent nearly a month travelling around the whole of New Zealand's North Island and had done some pretty amazing things together. She left for Hong Kong and London on Boxing Day and I headed out west of Auckland to the black sand beaches of Piha where they filmed 'The Piano'. It seemed strange to be alone again but I enjoyed the extra space in the van although I was a bit scared the first night I slept alone on the beach at Piha.

I spent the last days of 2010 walking around the Waitakere Ranges, so close to Auckland and yet it seemed a completely different world. The history of logging in the old forests was really interesting and the beautiful hills, waterfalls and beaches were food for the soul. It seemed strange that I could sit on a deserted beach in a nature reserve but still watch the airplanes flying down the coast and then heading east across Manukau Harbour into Auckland. What a month!!

Posted by amazingali 14:28 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

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