The Flight Home

Well, this is it- after 291 days of travel we are on the flight back home. It’s quite a mix of emotion about heading back, but mostly, we are excited. We spent part of yesterday going through photos from the previous 10 months. Sometimes its hard to believe we saw & did so many things. It’s funny to think that the inspiration photos we’ve been staring at for years, we have seen with our own eyes.

Even now, when I look at the pictures from early on the trip, I sometimes can’t beleive that it was me that took that picture. We’ve been very blessed to have this opportunity and it has changed my view on the world as I suspected it might. I think it’s easy to have an opinion about something, be relatively informed about it and be dead wrong. I have a deeper appreciation for how much my upbringing and experiences have impacted my view of the world. It will be my continued challenge to keep an open mind about things, be compassionate about the individual people that are impacted by situations, and try not to pass judgement.

We met some amazing people on the trip, smart, hard-working & caring people, many of whom lived in less-than-ideal conditions, all of whom inspired me not to let conditions define the outcome. I hope I remember this as I start to re-calibrate what is normal in my own reality.

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Now back home, to plan a wedding, look for work & see my dearly missed family / friends.

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Quito & Galapagos: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandia & Floreana

We had been looking forward to Galapagos from the start of the trip. It’s something we both remember learning about in school and studying about Darwin & evolution (John – and the BBC series, oh, and Master and Commander when they stop on the islands!) and we were excited to see some of the amazing creatures and landscapes that inspired him.

We flew from Quito to Santa Cruz island as it’s the most populated island and best place to base ourselves for the 2 weeks we had planned. Of course, nothing is ever that straight forward- the airport is actually on Baltra which is a small island north of Santa Cruz so the journey in after our 3 hr flight was a bus ride to edge of island to catch a 10 minute ferry to Santa Cruz (north), finally a 50 minute bus ride to the town on the south side of the island.

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Santa Cruz was a great place for us to base ourselves – it’s pretty cute (as much as a modern concrete town in South America could be), right on the water with animals everywhere. The sea lions just lay around and people work around them. Pelicans and sea lions hang out around fishermans wharf for the regular scrap as the fishermen sell their catch. The locals are friendly and casual – the men gather every evening at 4:30 to play a very serious game of volleyball in the town centre, the rest of the town gathers to watch. It’s very safe with practically no crime, unlike the rest of Ecuador. There are several restaurants, tour agencies, a supermarket and a couple parks. The buildings are the usual cement block with structural rods protruding through the top. Most people don’t have cars but use taxis which are white pick up trucks. Any journey in town costs $1. The currency here is USD CASH – not many places take credit card as we found when we tried to pay for our boat cruise. Luckily, after several trips to the ATM and hitting the daily limit on 3 cards, we gathered enough to pay for it.

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Our 5 day/4 night boat trip was aboard the Archipell with 14 other travellers, mostly Europeans, and had an itinerary focused around Isabela. Isabela island is the biggest island in the group so day tours can’t reach the western coast. The wildlife we got to see was really special – not only for its uniqueness but for its abundance. My favorite encounters were with sea lions as they are so playful, and the giant tortoises because they are so huge, legendary and ancient. Amongst the islands you can see the differences in the tortoises (shell primarily). This visual represntation of evolution is pretty cool. We also visited the tortoise breeding centre on Isabela where we could see the long-term efforts needed to hatch many tortoises from eggs and look after them for 5 years before they could be released into the wild. Unfortunately we were too late for the famous Lonesome George – the last survivor of his subspecies – who died just a few months earlier (he was at least 100 years old, but this is not particularly old for a Galapagos tortoise).

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This sea lion greeted us after exiting the boat- he blocked the path so we walked around. Lots of the time we were stepping over Sea Lions and Marine Iguanas when landing on different islands.

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Acting friendly towards a sea lion so it’ll let us get past:

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The iguanas were also cool to see as they were an image I had in my mind from school. There were hundreds of them ranging in size up to just over a meter long. They appear to be pretty lazy and don’t seem bothered by people, I had to really watch my step whilst taking photos to make sure I didn’t step on any!

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Fernandina island is a small, uninhabited island off the west coast of Isabela. It’s the youngest of the Galapagos Islands (which were all formed by volcanoes – those on Isabela and Fernandina are still active). Fernandina really stands out for the number of sea lions and iguanas roaming around on the beach – bright white coral sand on black lava rock, dazzling under the intense Equatorial sun.

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The lava landscapes we saw both on Fernandina and Isabela were new to us – huge areas of lava flows from a few hundred thousand years to just a few years old, with fissures and cracked lava rock strewn everywhere – often bleak without much life at first sight – but on closer inspection you find cacti, lava lizards, and in some places big pools in collapsed sink holes, which can contain fish, more plant life – and even flamingos.

Much of the landscape of Isabela is volcanic like this:

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One of the largest sinkholes we found in the lava field – an oasis of life, including 3 flamingos!

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We also did an afternoon in the dingy boats and saw loads of turtles, flightless cormorants and many penguins. The penguins were super fast so pictures were difficult but it was fun to watch them on the surface (looking more like ducks) then dive under the water and swim so fast I couldn’t track them! They hang out in pairs and mate for life.

We also got to celebrate John’s birthday on board! The crew decorated the boat and made a cake while we were on Fernandina:) It was a great place to celebrate!

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We spent a lot of time going from the main boat to shore on the dingy’s- about half the time we drove by big rocks with birds, sea lions and iguanas sunning. This picture is one of my favorites with several penguins in front and of course, the blue-footed boobies!!

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On the last morning of the boat trip we were up at dawn to go to Bachas Beach – where we saw some more flamingos. What an unusual but beautiful bird – made pink from their diet of shrimp.

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We saw many other kinds of animals on our boat trip – too many to picture here – including Nazca Boobies, Red-footed Boobies, Galapagos Hawks, Frigate Birds, Tropical Birds, Pelicans, Marbled Rays, Stingrays, White-tip Sharks, many turtles, lava lizards etc. Definitely the best place in the world if you like a wide variety of interesting animals! And the best thing is – most of them don’t have natural fear of humans – so you can get very close to most animals there.

After the boat trip we arranged some day activities from Santa Cruz including a tour to Floreana and a day of diving! The day trip was pretty good and included a load of snorkelling (with wetsuits of course as it wasn’t warm and the water is about 18C – although a 3mm shortie proved to be insufficient). The island of Floreana was the first to be inhabited as it contains a source of fresh water in the highlands which was protected by pirates who built caves up there. We visited the row of caves where they lived, saw the spring and moai-like statue. On the hike up we also saw more giant tortoises but they are imported from another island. The native Floreana tortoises lost their lives to hungry sailors in the late 1800′s.

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The primary objective of diving – Hammerhead sharks!! After doing some research, we selected Gordon Rocks as the location we wanted to dive. We had to be flexible on days because the national park grants permits to the dive companies by location and day of week – so the dive company we liked dived Gordon Rock on Wed and Sat. This is nice because you don’t end up with crowds of divers! In fact, it was just the two of us diving with our DM and the owner/manager, Jan Silberstein.

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We had great wetsuits – full 7mm with hood and boots but we were still cold in that 18C water! On the first dive, we saw 3 hammerheads, turtles and fish but we were most excited about some playful sea lions who swam with us on and off for half the dive. They surfaced and returned to us a number of times. On the second dive, they swam with us again! So fun, they twirled and swam in circles around us, surfaced, came back down and showed off some more. John’s thinks they are compensating for thier awkwardness on land :)

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Unfortunately we didn’t get any great underwater pictures – the visibility wasn’t great, so we only saw the hammerheads for a few seconds at a time. The light level was low, and the water was so cold that we got some fogging in our camera dive case. Whilst we’d read that the diving here was “like a washing machine”, we didn’t find it too challenging – not as bad as the currents we’d dealt with in Indonesia and Rangiroa. The new thing for us was a really long-wave surge which was strong even at depths of 20-30m – and with a cycle period of about 30 seconds, it was more like a cyclic current than a surge (we’re more used to 5-8 second surge cycle on a reef at 5m). It just required a little patience and figuring out how to predict it. For us the main issue was just the discomfort of the cold and so much wetsuit and weight on us – so less agility than our normal 2/3mm plus 2kg setup. We’d love to go back to do some more diving in Galapagos in the future – but we think we’ll have to reserve that for an expensive dive boat and when we’ve got custom-fitted super-thick wetsuits and enough of our own gear to enable us to be more comfortable in 18C water!

Lovely Peru- Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Puno- Lake Titicaca

Of course our primary reason for visiting Peru was to see Machu Picchu but we were pleasantly surprised by the other things Peru had to offer. We started our journey in Lima but only stayed one night on our way to Cusco. I had no expectation for Cusco but found an old, interesting city with some great restaurants, loads of shopping and the “hub” for most other destinations in the area.

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Cusco is at 3400m which is especially noticable after flying in from sea level. But we took it easy the first day, drank lots of coca tea, and felt pretty good the next day. Our objective for Cusco was to plan and book Machu Picchu which may sound straightforward, but if you’re not on a tour, is anything but. Everything is booked separately – from Cusco you must take a 20 min. taxi to the train depot, a 3 hr train into Aguas Callientes, then a 20 min. bus up to the ruins – and separately, you also need to purchase the national park ticket and all these things book up so we were lucky to get it coordinated for a next day departure (although we only got our second choice Macchu Picchu ticket). It’s pretty easy to just go to the ruins but we wanted to climb one of two mountains above the ruins: Huayna Picchu (1st choice) or Machu Picchu Mountain. A combined ticket for ruins + Machu Picchu Mountain was 148 soles in Peru (about $50).

I had heard some negative things about the town of Aguas Callientes and we thought about spending only one night there but we opted to chance it and stay for 2 nights and I’m glad we did. The town was enjoyable and except for the tourist food (bad and expensive), I enjoyed it.

We got up at 4am the next morning, queued up for the first set of buses which departed at 5:30am, arrived at the ruins before the doors opened at 6am. Getting up there early is definitely worth it. We took some great photos then headed to the mountain to start the climb before it got too hot. The mountain opened at 7am (although the door remained locked well beyond, so a bunch of us snuck around the gate to start the climb). We got to the top around 8:30am after a moderate climb. It was cloudy so we had to hang out at the top for awhile until the clouds finally cleared up around 9:30-10am. The view was stunning and gave context to the challenging location of the ruins.

Us with Machu Picchu in background after first entering the ruins around 6:05am:

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Arriving at the top of Machu Picchu mountain after a 90 minute hike:

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View from top of Machu Picchu mountain overlooking ruins – this is where John re-proposed:)

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After the mountain hike in the morning, we headed back down (China ring on finger) for lunch on the lawn overlooking the site, fighting off several banana-loving alpacas, then explored the ruins. It’s pretty open, with only the Intihuatana stone and center lawn roped off. We did our usual trick of downloading a guide on our iphones so we gave ourselves the tour as we walked around.

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Back in Aguas Calientes, we celebrated with a great dinner of alpaca steak then turned in early as John was feeling a chest cold settling in. We took the train toward Cusco but instead of going all the way, we stopped at Ollantaytambo to see some more amazing ruins. It’s a small town with a lot of character and a dearth of tourists (our favorite combination) so we walked around, enjoyed a coffee and lunch before heading out.

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We took a collectivo from here back to Cusco (about 90 minutes) for 10 soles ($3) each! We decided to treat ourselves and stay at a nice hotel for a couple nights near San Blas Cusco – easy walking distance from everything. Finally had some chicha morado with some very delicious alpaca burgers. Next day we planned our trip to Lake Titicaca staying in Puno.

Our choices for getting to Puno were – fly (too expensive), tourist bus (8-10 hrs) or public bus (6-8 hrs). We opted for tourist bus one way as it stopped throughout the journey at a few interesting places along the way. Then a one-way flight back to Lima. The drive was a great way to see the country side and parts of the country we otherwise would miss.

View from the highest altitude of our drive: 4500m

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We arrived in Puno and explored the town, it’s pretty cute and about the same “feel” as Cusco although it’s a bit smaller. It’s hilly and centered around the lake bay. There are cute restaurants, vendors on the street and it’s bustling with more locals than tourists. We arrange a half day tour on the lake for the next day to visit Uros – a group of floating reed island villages.

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The pre-Incan Uru people have lived in isolation on these reed islands for centuries to escape fighting on the main land. They evolved from boats to islands which house up to 8 families. There are 44 islands which were designed to be mobile – and all house high watch tours used for communication amongst islands and for defense. They need constant maintenance and when walking on it, you sink a little- more in some parts!

Since the 1960′s the Uru people are dependent on tourism, after a presentation on how the islands are built and maintained, the women showed us their homes and their crafts. We bought this textile as a souvenir:

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Back in Puno town, we enjoyed a great dinner across from this square featuring two traditional Peruvian dishes- Papa Rellena- stuffed peppers with beef, olives, spices and Aji de Gallina – a chicken yellow curry with rice.

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The next day we flew from Juliaca (near Puno) to Lima to start our 3 days of flying to get to Galapagos!

Easter Island for fascinating history and iconic sites

Easter Island is something of a legendary travel destination – for its remoteness, its iconic Moai statues with legendary story of the Rapa Nui people, and the time/cost to travel there. It was possible for us to include it on our round-the-world ticket, so we jumped at the chance. It is possible to visit “on-a-budget” if you can tie it into a rtw trip, stay at a cheaper pension and eat at the snack restaurants (where a sandwich will still set you back $6-$8, but it’s better than $20-$25+ for most dinner options there).

Easter Island is 5-6 hrs flight from the nearest airports – about halfway between Papeete (Tahiti) and Santiago. We flew from Santiago before heading onto a Lima (a new convenient route offered by LAN). It was interesting to arrive on a huge trans-pacific aircraft, landing on a huge runway (some 3.5km long – apparently it used to be a designated emergency landing site for the NASA space shuttle) – and then disembark to a tiny terminal that only takes 9 flights a week.

We stayed at a very nice pension called Chez Jerome – about 30 minutes walk outside of town. It provided good quality ensuite rooms way better than hostal or campsite alternatives – for a very reasonable price by Easter Island standards (around $75 per night B&B). After our experience in French Polynesia this was relatively good value. Just across the road there were some caves with some interesting cave paintings.

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Chez Jerome was also conveniently located for the hike up to the Rano Kau crater and Orongo village archeological site, so we did that the first day. The hike involved a 300m climb from sea level but the views of the crater were worth it! Orongo village was also interesting – you can see the islands where they used to have the Bird Man competition in ancient Rapa Nui times – which would determine who ruled the island. There are also some stone houses and other remains to see in a stunning setting.

Rano Kau crater – filled with water and reeds. The water level of the crater is about 50m higher than the sea behind:

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The village of Orongo reminded us of Skellig Michael in Ireland. It featured several stone houses with a tiny door that people would have had to crawl through. They covered the stone roof with grass for additional protection from the elements.

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We spent most days doing self guided hikes to explore a few of the 20,000 archeological sites on the island. The first day we hiked to the volcano, the next day we did a 6 hour hike to visit some of the ahu north of the town, including the only maoi with eyes. Whilst at one point all the maoi had these eyes which are made from coral and shells, they were first to be destroyed and dissolved or buried in the sea. Only 3-4 had been recovered and only one statue re-built.

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Ahu is the Rapa Nui word for platform and all maoi statues were set on them for stability. Some ahu have many statues but a few have only one. The people believed that the maoi would look over and protect them so all of the statues face the village with their backs to the sea. The only exception is Ahu Akivi whose seven maoi face the sea but also overlooked the village as this is one of the only inland ahu.

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All the statues standing upright have been re-set. When the first archeologists came to the island, none were standing. Now, only a fraction of the total number have been re-erected. One of the coolest things about hiking the island ourselves was discovering random carvings and statues that wouldn’t be on any tour. On our way to town, we noticed these in the sea:

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One day, we did a day tour with Jerome which was really informative and got us to the more distant parts of the island including Ranu Raranu, the quarrey where all the statues were carved. The statues were carved in the side of the volcano then after the front half was complete, they were separated from the volcano and slid down the side into a hole which had been prepared to receive the maoi in an upright position. Once standing, the back would be carved and finishing touches like ears would be carved. Only then would the long journey to its ahu begin. Here you can see the numerous maoi that were on their way down the side, awaiting final carving. Whilst the statues varied a lot in size, most were between 4-11m so much of them is underground.

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We also enjoyed hiking through the tunnels made from the lava during the formation of the island. The tunnels are everywhere and range in size. People lived in them and remains of beds and stoves can still be seen.

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Of course, one of the highlights was Ahu Tongoriki which has the 12 upright maoi on the edge of the sea, not far from Ranu Raranu.

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Early morning at Ahu Tangoriki with the statues, boat house and “travelling maoi” in view:

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I did manage to get myself up for sunrise here on the last day, it was beautiful to see the light come through the maoi.

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Of course, we had to get one dive in, despite the freezing water temperature! We had only one objective- underwater maoi which was made for a film and put about 18m in the water near the port as a diving attraction. Our dive guide was a french guy who was part of Jacques Cousteau’s expedition team.

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Random head on hike around the laval tunnels:

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Santiago

We spent 6 days in Santiago – much of it just to rest and get over the jet lag after the long flight from Auckland, and to plan the remaining part of our trip in South America. We explored the town a bit and did a day’s skiing at Valle Nevado and a wine tasting at Concha Y Toro. We liked Santiago more than most big cities, it’s pretty clean, full of interesting buildings, had big beautiful mountains in the distance and good food.

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The wine tasting at Concha y Toro was a little disappointing – we took the 2nd tier tour which included a tasting on their “Marques” label premium range of wines paired with cheeses. Unfortunately, as seems typical with winery wine-and-cheese tastings, the pairing was done quite badly (it is difficult to get really good cheese there too). Compounded by the fact that the Marques wines weren’t really very good, it added up to a disappointment from a wine-critique point of view. But the tour was interesting enough and we had a fun time.

The tour included a visit to the “Casillero del Diablo” cellars where they put on some spooky sound and light effects:

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Wine and cheese tasting spread:

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The trip to Valle Nevado was great in the end, but got off to an unpleasant start due to practically no sleep the night before because our hostel was so noisy (John – set a record for the trip of absolutely zero sleep on a non-travelling night). Secondly the ski bus & rental company we used – All2Ski – were very badly disorganised and we ended up waiting at the shop for over an hour for the bus to depart – which means we missed the best hour of the day’s skiing on the mountain – the morning after 6-8 inches of powder had been laid for us. However, once we finally got there, survived the hair-raising bus ride on slippery and windy mountain roads, and figured out the mess of the locker system at the ski center – we finally got our skis on and explored some really great slopes and excellent snow at up to 3650m (~12000ft) – with a backdrop of some really very high Andean mountains to keep us company. We hadn’t skied for a while and were very tired so we had to take it easy – but it was fantastic on fresh snow – until it warmed up too much in the mid afternoon.

Tres Puntas was the high point at around 3650m – and tough to get there on the longest drag lift I have ever used.

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But getting there rewarded us with pistes like this – only a few skiers had been down them even by midday and there was a good 10+ inches of fresh powder – my first powder skiing!:

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Clouds rolled in occasionally, which made for some beautiful and dramatic backdrops to our runs, until late afternoon when it closed in too much and became foggy (so we gave up – the snow was too soft anyway):

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Overally I’d look forward to a stopover in Santiago again and would definitely explore more of the skiing if I landed there in the winter. With more time we would have explored some of Patagonia and visited Mendoza (in Argentina, but closer to Santiago than most major Argentinian hubs) – but we’re on a schedule to get home now, so we had to move on.

2 weeks exploring South Island by campervan

Everyone said the only way to see the south island was to take a campervan- and they were right. It’s the only way to see everything as there are many amazing sites outside of towns- in fact if you relied on hotels you would be severely restricted as there often isn’t much- and what little there is is expensive!

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South island New Zealand is the most beautiful country I have ever seen. We have seen some amazing things on this trip but the entire island is breathtaking. Just driving down the road prompted frequent photo breaks and picnics. It’s home to some natural wonders (Fox Flacier and Milford Sound to name a few) and there are so few people here its hard to find a supermarket so there doesn’t appear to have the negative human impact that we’ve seen just about everywhere else.

Our home for 2 weeks- a little old with 140,000 miles but all the comforts of home including shower, toilet, kitchenette and heater. And we bought an external DVD player for the laptop for movie nights:

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We started in Christchurch and did a circle anticlockwise. Here are the top destinations and what we did there.

Kaikoura- Whale watching! We did a whale watching tour which is a must and saw a sperm whale for the first time. We only saw one for about 4 minutes whilst breathing on the surface, then it swam back down.

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Pelorus Bridge- This was a beautiful spot where we camped without power for the first time. We got a quiet site right on the river and enjoyed hiking around the area. On the drive, we stopped at Villa Maria winery and chocolate shop for a few necessities:)

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Panoramic of our campsite on the Pelorus river:

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Hiking the next morning down the river:

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Greymouth- Just passing through on the way to the glaciers but as it’s home to Monteith’s Brewery, we thought it only right that we did a little beer tour.

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Heading out of Greymouth toward the glaciers brought us past the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes- an interesting geological anomoly of rocks that look like stacks of pancakes. It was too calm for any blowhole action but we did enjoy watching a large pod of Hector’s dolphins (the smallest of dolphin species) playing in the sea near the coast.

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Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers- we ended up spending 4 days in as the weather was rainy and we had some flexibility. There are two towns about 20km apart so we spent time in both and visited Lake Matheson, cafe, parks etc. as we waited for the sun which finally came out to deliver glorious weather for our ice climbing day.

Hiking back from Lake Matheson between rain showers- Mt Cook is in the distance but covered with cloud:

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John’s warm up climb on Fox Glacier:

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Hiking between climbs through sometimes narrow spaces!

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Last climb of the day- a real challenge:

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Milford Sound- boat tour and camping. There is only one place to stay- Milford Sound Lodge. It’s in the valley surrounded by 360 degrees of towering mountains. We did a 3 hour boat tour in the morning before all the day tour buses get in- and it was great. Milford Sound boasts great views in every direction, 2 permanent waterfalls, about a million temporary ones, dolphins, penguins, seals and minerals so abundant in the rock you can see it from the boat.

View of the sound from the carpark on the way to the boat:

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Penguins!!

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One of about 35 dolphins that swam with our boat for 20 minutes:

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View from the mouth of the fjord heading back to the dock:

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Seals sunning on the rock:

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Heading out of Milford Sound, we stopped and enjoyed a picnic lunch on the side of the road with this view:

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We managed to fit a couple more hiked in between Milford Sound and Queenstown but as we had spent so much time at the glaciers, we pretty much went straight back to catch out flight back to Auckland. We accomplished everything we wanted to in South Island and was surprised most by the beauty everywhere and how quiet it was- few people, little noise and lots of nature:)

John and mountains- Mt Cook is to the right but not in the photo, it was covered in cloud but still a beautiful hike:

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An unexpected treat driving by Lake Pukaki, glass calm water and snow capped mountains:

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Swimming with Humpback Whales in Rurutu

We learned about Rurutu through a travel magazine article which I picked up for John to read during a transatlantic flight. There was a story about a church build right on the beach but it went on to talk about how the Humpback whales come through here every year for three months to have their babies. Each year between July and September, the whales come to give birth to young. They stay for 3 months so the calves have a safe, shallow place to grow. When young, they have to surface every 3 minutes so the mother will rest on the reef at about 15m so her calf doesn’t have far to go. The number of whales varies from year to year, this year, there are 13 whales on the island.

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We arrived early and were greeted at the airport by the owner of Manotel Pension, Yves. He presented us with beautiful couronnes de fleurs and drove us to our place! This is the only island we will visit in the Austrell Island group. It is different from the previous 8 islands in several ways which are noticable even before you get off the plane. The landscape is mountainous with volcano limestone rocks everywhere and a combination of evergreen and palm trees. Unlike most islands, there is no lagoon here and no barrier reef- although there may have been at some point. The climate is cooler with a wide temperature between day and night. Last night, it got down to 12C but still reached 24C during the day. And the water is much cooler. It requires 2 wetsuits for us!

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The people here are very friendly- Rurutu is home to just over 2000 people. There are no hotels or big shops here, just 5 family pensions, 2 small shops and a post office (but nowhere to buy post cards)- although they have some outstanding restaurants! Walk down the road and everyone will smile and wave as they go past- and with so few tourists, it doesn’t appear that tourism has disrupted their normal lives. On Sunday, everything is closed and the roads are full of people in their Sunday best walking together to church. Much like Maupiti, you get the sense that you are just participating in their way of life, instead of disrupting it.

Outside our bungalow at the Manotel:

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The accommodation at the Manotel is very nice, spacious and clean and situated 50 m from the beach in an emmaculately groomed garden. Breakfast and dinner are included and are delicious. I think some of my favorite food on the whole trip will be from here! We spent the first day exploring the sea and saw a whale breach the surface about 10 times just 5 minutes from our place!

Walking the beach across from the pension we saw this whale breach after only 20 minutes of looking:

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Seeing this after having been here for only 2 hours made us super excited about seeing more of them! We had 2 bookings with them to ensure we get some good encounters.

Day 1 of swimming with whales:

Even before we get in the boat we see them from shore! 6 of us get in the boat and start putting wetsuits on- then we motor out about 5 minutes. The whale Axel spots is “a friendly one” and good for snorkeling so we sneak in. She is resting at about 10m with her calf. The size of them takes my breath away and we get within 4-5m but are careful not to disrupt her. We watch for about 10 minutes, frantically taking video and photos in an attempt to capture the experience. The calf moves around staying very close to its mother but the most movement we see from the Mom and a slow infrequent move of her pectoral fin. After 10 minutes, they both swim a bit deeper (it drops off from 15m to 100m very quickly) where it appears the calf is getting a breaching lesson. We stayed in the water and watched from in and out of the water as they swam down and breached. Unbelievable!

Snorkellers from the other boat approaching the whale and her calf. We were able to get within a few metres of her but left enough space not to disturb:

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Calf breathing at surface while mother watches from below:

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We got back in the boat and followed as they were soon approached by 2 males. They compete and show off for several minutes to demonstrate their strength- they want to mate with her. She is trying to protect her calf and I guess it’s very dangerous around all that comotion.

One of the males pectoral fin as he swims around the female:

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From the boat, we are getting a great show- the 2 males fight a bit but mostly just swim around the female showing off.

Large male in front with mother in background and calf in between:

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Whale giving us a nice show, you can see how close we got to him although at this point, nobody was in the water for safety reasons!:

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After an hour from the boat, the whales settled down back in shallower water and we jumped back in- swimming with 4 whales- 2 adult males, 1 female and a calf!!!!!

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Day 2 of whale safari is not so successful. On the start of the trip we saw a whale which turned out to be “the shy one” so she swam away as we got in the water. This was especially disappointing given that the water is cold! The weather was windy and partly sunny so it got pretty cold in that boat waiting to find another whale! We toured the island in search of another whale and after an hour, we found one. But it too was not interested in hanging around so we carried on. In the end, we did not swim with the whales on the second day but watched them from the boat which was still great! I guess we were really lucky the first day to have such action:)

The back of the whale, this is the most common sight both from the water and the shore. This little bit of the whale is like the tip of the iceburg:

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We did manage to do a few things not whale-related. One day we did a 6 1/2 hour hike around the island, roughly 25km. This was unintentional as we had planned to do a smaller ring, stopping in a nearby town for lunch. But the iPhone map and reality didn’t quite align so we took an extended “walk” around the whole south part of the island trying to find a way off the ridge we stuck ourselves on! The views were beautiful though and despite skipping lunch and running out of water, we enjoyed getting some exercise.

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We also discovered a beach through some dense lush forest growing amongst the limestone.

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Rurutu marks the end of our time in French Polynesia- we have really enjoyed it here and plan to return someday to spend more time on Rangiroa, Maupiti, Fakarava and Rurutu. We also want to see Cook Islands so I guess a trip to South Pacific is in the plan, albeit not anytime soon! We saw 9 islands in total and spent 5 weeks and 2 days here. Here are some of the top memories:

  1. Swimming with Humpback whales in Rurutu
  2. Diving with dolphins in Rangiroa
  3. Drift dive in Rangiroa
  4. Generally amazing diving in Fakarava (especially shark tank)
  5. Eating my weight in fresh baguette and poisson cru (best food in Rurutu)
  6. The view on the top of the mountain in Maupiti
  7. The Hilton with Chelsea in Bora Bora- hanging out at her overwater bungalow
  8. Snorkelling with Manta Rays in Maupiti

2 Dives in Fakarava

We spent only 2 nights in Fakarava due to its price tag- we stayed on the cheapest place on the island at $120/night which was basically a small room with 2 beds and a roof. Brutally basic- luckily, we didn’t go for the accommodation! We were greeted with beautiful weather on arrival and met a lot of other travellers at the pension as we settled in. The bonus of our little bungalow was its location right by the sea.

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We spent the afternoon checking out the town and sorting our dives for the next day. The main town has only 2 shops so we grabbed a very simple dinner of pasta and sauce and joined two other couples for the evening.

The local grocery store- no fresh things in here, just tins of meat & veg, pasta, rice, beer and water. And baguette of course!

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Next day, we were picked up by our dive guide, Max. The first dive was just us and was a very relaxing reef dive. The pass is on the other side of the island so it took about 30 minutes by boat to get there. I think Max was checking us out in order to determine whether or not we would be OK on the advanced pass dive which was planned for the afternoon! Everything went great so we got a pre-briefing on the afternoon drift dive and headed to lunch.

A school of snappers with a parrot fish and angel fish amongst the coral:

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Here was our drift dive briefing:

The drift dive is intense and starts with a quick descent to 32m in the blue. You have a few minutes to find the shelf of the reef before starting the drift with some strong current around 12-15m. Then you get to a canyon where there is no current and loads of fish and sharks loiter here to break. It is only here where divers are allowed to take photos- no time before!

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Unfortunetely for us, after our quick descent to 32m and swimming around for 3-4 minutes, the dive was aborted. The currents weren’t right and the guides couldn’t find the shelf so we surfaced. Not all was lost though, Max suggested we do a shallow reef dive in a spot he doesn’t usually go- I will call this place the SHARK TANK. It was awesome. It was so full of sharks and other fish it almost felt like an aquarium. We enjoyed getting our fill of sharks for about 25 minutes then found a canyon and did a relaxing drift dive back to the blue for boat pick up! What an amazing spot- couldn’t ask for a better “failed dive”!

A sleeping 2m nurse shark we snuck up on at the start of the dive:

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We just rested on the sandy bottom and watched about 25 sharks swim around:

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Me looking at other sharks while missing this one completely:)

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What a lovely last dive- on the boat ride back, we saw some disruption on the surface, several hundred birds hunting something in the water. So we went to check it out and discovered about 40-50 mobular rays! We quickly grabbed our masks and jumped back in the water.

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Mobular rays swimming together at about 2m hunting:

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Mobular rays are similar to Manta rays but are more brown and smaller in size. They were hunting as a group, pushing small fish together and forcing them to the surface. The birds benefit from this as they swoop down to grab a snack of their own. Meanwhile, a layer under the small fish, large tuna swim around, probably feeding as well and under them John spotted a shark! Wow- the foodchain right in front of our eyes. What a random surprise on the way back from our dive.

After such a great day in the water, we needed to grab a beer and enjoy the sunset on the beach.

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And since we saved so much money the previous night on pasta, we splurged and ate at the nearby roulotte for dinner- steak and frites:) It turns out Fakarava does not have an ATM so we had a very strict budget!

All in all, we enjoyed Fakarava and had an amazing experience in the water, despite the aborted drift dive. I feel like more time spent here would have been great and we would have seen some really special things diving. I would definitely put Fakarava on the “to return” list but we will have to stay in much nicer accommodation!

Unbelievable Diving in Rangiroa

We spent 5 days here and did 8 dives, 2 a day. We were nervous about the level of accommodation we would be enduring after the Hilton but we were pleasantly surprised by our little flat with separate bedroom and kitchenette, a stone’s throw away from the bright blue sea.

Our view from the entry way of our flat in Rangiroa:

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The waves are so loud but it’s great to fall asleep and wake up to that sound. The snorkeling isn’t great here in the lagoon but we’re not bothered- we are here to dive! We are on a 2 a day schedule while we’re here using a 20 dive pass with TopDive and will use the dives between us on 2 islands, here & Fakarava. I’ve never seen such nice facilities at a dive center – particularly such a remote one – they have free transport, hot fresh water showers, a sundeck, free nitrox, great staff and a beautiful spot near the Tiputa pass.

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The first two days we did a reef dive in the morning and the pass drift dive in the afternoon. The pass couldn’t be dived in the morning as the current goes out to sea, but it changes about every 6 hours so in the afternoon it was OK. We have seen friendly turtles, groups of 30+ sharks (locally known as the “wall of sharks”), huge Napoleon wrasse and surprisingly healthy coral. The current is strong but as we’re usually going with it, it’s no problem.

This turtle swam to us! That is a first, our guide Moana and I pet it and played with it briefly:

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But the BEST DIVE EVER was on the second afternoon – we did a drift dive through the pass but started in the blue looking for dophins, and we found them! A pod of about 7 approached us after 2 minutes in the water. They swim around us an let many in the group pet them- I got close but not close enough. They got within a meter of us and seemed very curious- they copied some of the movement including turning in a circle.

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They swam with us for about 8-10 minutes before swimming away. Then we were off for another viewing of the “wall of sharks” which is right on the corner heading into the pass. After passing most of the way through the pass in a very swift current, we descended like aircraft landing on a runway to get into a canyon at about 26m. This was soooooo much fun! The current flew us along for about 8 minutes until we reached the end where we started an extra long safety stop. It was fun to have the current push us along, combined with the eddies and side to side current so it was really an adventure!

Divers petting the dolphins- unfortunetely one of them is not me…yet:

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Unfortunately neither of us actually got to touch the dolphins but we’re not too bothered – for some it’s not something to recommend as they are wild animals. We wanted to be sure that if we did, it was because we had been invited to do so. Of the 8 dives we did here, on 4 we saw dolphins and 3 they stayed and played with us for up to 10 minutes! It is so amazing to interact with these intelligent animals- you can tell they are interested in us and swim fast around us, sometimes surfacing briefly, then returning to us! During one dive, there was a dolphin who was so excited it swam super fast with its mouth open clicking and singing- we weren’t sure what that meant but were later told he was just excited and playful!

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Me and 2 dolphins – at the moment they appear to be swimming away but they did come back!

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7 out of 8 dives we did at Tiputa Pass which was right next to the dive shop. But this morning we did the 15 minutes boat trip to the only other pass in Rangiroa – Avatoru pass. We were hoping to have good current but it was slack tide so we just enjoyed the reef, looking for big fish and dolphins of course! We also saw a large silvertip shark which came up pretty close to us. The final dive in Tiputa we also saw a manta ray, after which two dolphins flew past us without stopping – maybe just to say goodbye. Someone in the other group saw a hammerhead shark – we are still waiting for our hammerhead encounter but maybe in Fakarava or the Galapagos we will be more lucky.

Us with Moana, one of the dive guides who is also the local dolphin expert. We enjoyed diving with her and learning about the 7 named dolphins of the area, especially “TouchMe”, a dolphin that likes to be petted (especially by blondes!), hence the name.

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5 star Luxury at Bora Bora Hilton

We really worked the system to get 4 nights in a villa on the beach at the Hilton for free – and it was worth it! We have been thinking about this for over a year, when we both got American Express cards to collect points which were then converted to Hilton points, along with some of our AA miles :) So the 75GBP annual fee bought us $2400 worth of hotel. The Hilton owns the motu opposite the main town of Vaitape – it’s home to some beautiful coral and some very friendly fish. We met my friend Chelsea who flew in from St Paul to relax in her overwater bungalow for a few days and catch up.

John in front of the main island on the ferry from the airport to Vaitape:

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Chelsea and me in her over-water bungalow where we spent a lot of time:

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Our time in Bora Bora was spent doing 3 things: swimming, consuming food & wine & catching up with Chelsea. Oh- and enjoying the crazy nice accomodation and grounds of the Hilton. Our room was so big and comfortable I just wanted to hang out in there all day, however, we did manage to pull ourselves away from the motu on two occassions and take the ferry to Vaitape for some village exploration and a fabulous lunch at the famous “Bloody Mary’s”.

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Chelsea also brought a MUCH appreciated care package from my family which included my favorite brownies ready to eat, post cards from Mom, Dad, Lisa, Tom, A Anne, Grandma, AK, Sarah, Samm and loads of beautiful art from Annie, Lucy and Sophie. I read everything 3 times and we ate brownies for breakfast all 4 days. I also got a seamstress tape measure which Chelsea used to measure me for my wedding dress so I can finally order it- thanks guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Muma- you must have spent loads of time collecting all the notes- thank you so much:)

Me with coffee, brownie and all our notes, I’m feeling a little closer to home:

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Us with our art work from the girls (BTW, this is our balcony):

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The snorkeling was surprisingly good here, just under the bungalow we saw loads of colorful fish, octopus X2, a sting ray, sea urchins, sea clams- purple, green & blue, and pretty good coral. I’m sure Hilton crew remove a lot of urchins so people don’t step on them, and people regularly feed the animals here so their behaviour is quite different but it’s fun that they followed us around waiting to be fed!

A little octopus that we found right under Chelsea’s bungalow:

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Me and Chelsea entertained ourselves for quite awhile feeding these and several other fish with Triscuit crackers and bread rolls:

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We ended up eating at the beach restaurant at the Hilton which had pretty good food for a price that, whilst 5-6X what we are used to paying, was still within reason. But the service was astoundingly BAD. I couldn’t believe how inept the staff in the restaurant was which, when spending that amount of money for a room, is really surprising. Anyway, we did enjoy some poisson cru and fancy cocktails. Oh- and you’ll notice for the first time in 8 months, I’m wearing new clothes!!! Chelsea brought me some new items which were much appreciated!

The three of us at the Beach Restaurant Bar at the Hilton splurging on fancy cocktails- $17 each!!

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John and I really thought a fancy break at the Hilton would do us good- but actually, it had the opposite effect! We both were reminded what it feels like to have the comforts of home, friends and family, and the loads of other things we generally take for granted- and instead of motivating us to continue travel, we really want to go home! Earlier in the trip, we had a really nice break staying on the gorgeous luxury sailing boat in Raja Ampat for our 12 day dive trip- and that did give us motivation and excitement to continue the adventure. This time, I think we are just getting a bit tired- still loving the travels and blessed to have the chance to do it, but generally, spend more time thinking about friends and family and weddings and work…

Mom and Dad at Washington Square in WBL, MN having leaving drinks:

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Our room in Bora Bora:

View from the main entrance:

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Our villa is the one in the middle:

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View from our balcony:

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Standing near the office:

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Guest services & infiniti pool:

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Paradise in Maupiti – my favorite place in the world

Sadly, we only got 2 nights here but it was amazing from the moment we landed. This is the smallest airport I’ve ever seen and consisted of one open-air building and about 2 staff.

Us on arrival on beautiful Maupiti wearing our goodbye laias from Raiatea and our welcome laias from Tea:

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We were greeted by our Tea (Tay ah), who owns the pension where we stayed. He helped load our stuff into a small boat and we (and 4 of his friends) were off- first stop, the main island to pick up some beer from the single shop that sells it! We then plopped ourselves under a palm tree for an hour, getting to know the guys and settling into the Maupiti way! (or should I say, Polynesian?). Tea translated as needed since the guys didn’t speak English but we had fun speaking French and it never ceases to amaze me how much people can communicate without language anyway.

Relaxing under the palm tree with our new friends:

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We got to the pension and met the 2 other couples and had dinner. Tea and his wife prepared outstanding food which we enjoyed on the outdoor patio near the sea-side beach (as opposed to the lagoon side). The next morning, Tea took us to the manta cleaning station where we spent an hour snorkeling with 3 big mantas! The lagoon is pretty small and very shallow so even as we approached the pass, you could see the bottom.

John and one of three mantas at the cleaning station:

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Three large reef mantas playing around at the cleaning station:

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We headed to the main island for lunch- at the only restaurant around. We saw a few other people we knew from Raiatea- then hiked to the top of the mountain- 400m even though it was hot, we just couldn’t resist the view since the sun came out and it was clear. It took us about an hour to get to the top- it was short, but it was hard and I think John suffered a bit (and for the next 3 days!) but it was well worth it.

View from the top- you can see the barrier reef all the way around the island and the single pass (here) between 2 small motus:

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Panoramic view from the top- ours is the motu on the left:

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It had been an amazing day so far but to finish it off, sat on the lagoon side beach at our pension and watched a beautiful sunset.

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The next day we had half day until our flight to Bora Bora so we snorkeled the sea side of the motu. It was really cool to see the reef so close to the beach- on most other islands, the barrier reef extends miles away but here, just outside the pension it is as close as 15m away. We were tempted to swim to the edge but it’s so dense with coral and the water is so shallow, it’s impossible. We did enjoy some very careful snorkeling though and the crystal clear water, healthy coral and plentiful fish made for a top-notch snorkel!

John snorkeling with his hands amongst the coral on the sea side of the motu, about 20m from our bungalow:

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Amazing clear water a short walk down the beach, at least it was deep enough to swim but just barely!:

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I feel like Maupiti is French Polynesia’s little secret- and I desperately hope it stays that way. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, that’s for sure, but it’s somehow better than so many other places and I’m not sure I can articulate why… I think it’s because I didn’t feel like a tourist, I felt like I was seeing the REAL Maupiti, seeing real people living their normal lives, and for a short time, we got to live there too. Maupiti is home to only 1100 people so it’s no surprise that everyone knows each other. But maybe it is a surprise that they appear to genuinely like and respect each other- they are always greeting and helping and chatting- in stark contrast to the cities of China, actually, a stark contrast to most places I’m most familiar with.

John walking the beach on the sea side of the motu where we snorkeled on the last day:

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Another factor is that for the first time, the idealic beach paradise that has long eluded us proved its’ existance. The IKEA art and desktop screen savers always present vacant beaches in crystal water with bright green palm trees – but everytime we find such beauty, it’s scarred with people, buildings and other human “things” and it’s barely recognizable as the thing it once was. But here, what you see is what you get. These photos are not an illusion of a place that is no longer here, it’s REAL. I hope we have the occassion to find some more of these treasures before they are gone.

The beach on the lagoon side- the lagoon is behind me:

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8 days in Raiatea

We had decided to spend 8 days in Raiatea because we got a good weekly rate deal on a decent bungalow with a kitchen (important to stay under budget), and that number was just the way it worked out with the flights to Maupiti. It gave us some time to chill out and catch up on some tasks that we needed internet for – so a couple of those days we effectively spent working.

Our bungalow:

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We stayed at Pension Manava which was about 6km outside of the main town of Utoroa. Not having a beach or any decent access to the water for swimming or snorkelling, I was initially worried about being a big cut off from anything to do. In fact we didn’t find any great water accessible from the shore in Raiatea – the best turned out to be the town “Beach” in Utoroa – which was good for swimming but not great for snorkeling. But in the end it was fine – one day we rented bikes to go to town, we rented a car for 2 days to explore the island, we did a day’s diving excursion and a day tour of Tahaa island – so filled our time well enough.

Lovely flower ladies posing for a photo- there was a flower competition on the beach the day we went:

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Taputaputea Marae- located right at the only “beach” so we enjoyed walking around both times we visited. This is the main altar:

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The highlight was probably the diving – we weren’t expecting much but we got a great pass dive with more sharks than I’ve ever seen in the water at once, big schools of eagle rays, barracuda and jackfish.

Family of 13 eagle rays which was admired from about 25m:

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One of about 7 sharks in the passe, most black tip but also grey reef:

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Huge schools of jackfish and barracudas were everywhere! These are jackfish:

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This was followed by lunch on the nearby motu – we were left there for about 3.5 hrs with a cooler full of great food, very few other people around and some nice snorkeling nearby. We then found some dolphins on our way to the second dive – they enjoyed playing in the bow wave and wake of our boat and we messed around with them for 20-30 mins.

The motu where we were dropped for lunch:

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Pod of dolphins that played with us between dives:

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The second dive was also pretty good – the wreck of the Nordby which sank in 1903 – a three-masted ship which is much older than any other wrecks we’ve dived on before.

On the 5th day, we did a boat tour to Ta’haa which is a neighboring island. The weather was not ideal but we enjoyed a late morning snorkel in the coral garden, a tour of a vanilla farm (smelled delicious!) and lunch on a motu. The water in the coral garden was so clear and although challenging due to the shallow depths, it was really fun to interact with the fish.

John making fish friends with the help of some old baguette:

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Above water of the coral garden which was between Raiatea and Tahaa:

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After 8 days of relaxing, we were ready to head to Maupiti!! We enjoyed a Leffe beer at the airport as it was the same price as the local brew! And there was great live music so barely noticed the flight delay which we now assume is the norm:)

Adopting the Polynesian lifestyle in Huahine

For the first 3 or 4 days the weather was a bit changeable, but we enjoyed the time relaxing inside when we had to and on the beach when we could. The weather was been warm but cloudy with persistant (though intermittant) rain. And the gusty winds are something I’ve not experienced before – they come through every few minutes and make me think the house is going to fall over!

Beautiful tropical waters and typical weather- sun versus cloud/rain at the “Eagle ray spot” at the edge of the Fare beach:

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It’s gorgeous here and there are far fewer people than the other islands we’ve seen so far. We are staying at a well-known pension on the main road of the biggest town – Fare. But it’s a pretty small town, just big enough to have a supermarket, bank, pharmacy, post office, a couple of pensions/restaurants and a small market area. And for the first time, we’re in a dorm (as it was FAR cheaper) but aside from the lack of privacy and constant mosquito attacks, it’s actually kind of fun. There are some great people here – a German family, an Australian couple and a French couple. We hang out together in the living room/kitchen during the day- playing Scrabble and making meals. We even did a cocktail hour last night- we made Pina Coladas in a big pot and all 9 of us sat around the table chatting.

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Every day we walk 5 minutes to the beach and snorkel. There isn’t much to see in terms of coral or even fish but there is a resident family of eagle rays whom we have seen everyday. There is a Muma ray with her 4 babies and they let us snorkel with them for 10-15 minutes

The Muma ray that we snorkel with at the beach across from our pension:

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John snorkeling at about 4m with the Muma eagle ray:

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In the afternoons, between snorkeling, we eat baguette sandwiches and play games with people – I learned chess but Scrabble is a fav. I can’t remember the last time we had so much time to just relax, read and play games. It’s been really great but we were keen to rent a car for the day with 2 of our dormmates, Jess & Dave and spend time around other parts of the island. We visited the marae (ancient stone temple platforms), snorkelled, lunched on the beach, grabbed a banana split and coffee for a treat and snorkelled again. The weather is getting better but the afternoon was still cloudy!

Visiting the marae on the coast, 5km from Fare. Built about 1000 years ago.

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Climbing a coconut tree to retrieve two of the coconuts – opening them later was a challenge:

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Also we discovered driving around the island that they have some sort of Baguette postal service and instead of mailboxes they have baguette posting boxes outside their homes to receive fresh baguette every day – this one looks kind of like a baguette rocket launcher!:

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On the 4th or 5th day the weather really improved, the wind dropped and it has been mostly sunny. We explored some other snorkelling spots within hiking distance of town – and guess what, more eagle rays! They seem to be everywhere here in big family groups (quite unusual to see this) and it is really great to dive with them – I think the highlight of our stay here. Out of around 15 times we went in the water, we saw eagle rays every time except twice. The best snorkelling spot we found was around 40 minutes walk to the south-west of Fare – around the next bay to the point where there’s a very small beach to get in the water. The coral here was much much better (near Fare it’s mostly dead or in a poor state – the yacht anchorage close to town doesn’t help the situation) and there was a nice reef dropoff to dive down.

Hiking with our snorkel gear

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We found bigger and bigger groups of eagle rays:

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The largest group I saw in the water at one time was 12 eagle rays! I think I captured 10 of them in this picture. This is really impressive given that in other places in the world we have seen them, generally it has been a surprise to see even 2 or 3 together:

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We were lucky to be visiting at the time of the Heiva – a traditional Polynesian festival (but this particular one seemed to be in honour of Bastille Day – or at least coinciding with it) – and there were dance events on at a stadium near town. We went on the finals night and it was really a great show. The dances looked very exhausting, we lots of very quick movements to rapid drum beats. We didn’t understand anything of what was said or sung (it was all in Tahitian, with hardly anything said even in French) – but it was great to see a show that was put on for the local people, not for the tourists.

At the Heiva dance finals show:

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On the last day the weather was glorious and everything looked proper tropical! We met a lady on the beach called Rosie who was a princess from the Marquesas, visiting Huahine for a few days. She was hunting in the water for a type of sea urchin which had edible meat – she harvested a few and gave us the meat to try – raw marinated momentarily in sea water of course. It tasted a bit more like a vegetable than fish.. not too bad, but a rather unpleasant slimy texture. She also found some nice shells and gave them to Stef as a present. We finished the day by grabbing a bottle of the excellent tahitian Hinano beer and sat on the rocks at the end of the beach to watch the sunset.

Fare beach with the yacht anchorage in the background – definitely a great place to stop if you’re sailing through the area:

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Rosie, our polynesian princess sea urchin fisherwoman friend, brandishing some sea urchin meat:

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Sunset on our last evening in Huahine:

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Enjoying a beer watching the sun go down:

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We did great on budget in Huahine – our accommodation in the dorm for 6 nights cost 21000 XPF (~210 USD) for both of us including airport transfers and we spent on average around 3000 XPF (~30 USD) per day in the supermarket on food – we didn’t eat out at all and the only cafe purchase was a coffee on the day we drove around the island – for which the car rental was only 3300 XPF (33 USD) as we shared the cost with Jess and Dave – so all up around 225 USD per person spent here vs our $75/day budget for French Polynesia which would have provided 450 USD per person for our time here. So we’ve earned a couple of dives on Raiatea, and it’s important we achieved this anyway in order to pay for some islands where the cheapest place to stay is in excess of $100 per night. Hopefully we can continue to be a little under budget in Raiatea as that’s the last of the “cheaper” islands we visit.

French Polynesia- Tahiti & Mo’orea

We have been looking forward to this part of the trip for awhile! We flew from Auckland to Tahiti which took 4h30. We crossed the international date line on this flight so between that and the 2 hour time difference: we left NZ on the morning of the 9th and landed in Tahiti on the afternoon of the 8th. So my journal has 2 entries for both July 8 and 9:)

Tahiti has quite a reputation but as it’s also the most touristy, our expectations were low for the town itself. However, we enjoyed ourselves on our 2 day “layover”. We stayed at a great family pension on the west coast which provided a comfortable and quiet place to call home to 2 days. Relais Fenua is run by Annabelle who is really friendly- her daughter, Nau (sp?), is about 4 years old and the first morning we were there, she saw with us at breakfast and we played together for about 3 hours. She only spoke french so it was a good opportunity to practice!

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Our time in Tahiti was spent walking the beach across from the pension (the first night we stared at the gorgeous stars for half hour), eating at the roulotte down the road the first night and the pizza the second. Roulottes are pretty common and provide great food for a reasonable price- it’s full of locals, not a tourist in sight!

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The next day we snagged the local bus to the airport ($2.50 vs the $35 hotel transfer) which got us there a bit early. We queued in a non-moving line for about 20 minutes before learning the staff was on strike so the flight may or may not take off… the flight between Tahiti and Mo’orea is 7 minutes. We chatted with other travellers – nearly all of whom were on their honeymoon and eventually, boarded our flight. The strike will actually take place tomorrow so we count ourselves lucky?

Landing in Mo’orea, you know straight away this is not a place for the “backpacker” type. Everyone is wearing fancy dress, heels, and carrying nice luggage and is on their honeymoon. Fair enough but what it also means is that hotel and transport operators aren’t expecting people outside the inclusive packages travelling on “vouchers”. We didnt have transportation from the airport pre-arranged and there wasn’t a taxi in sight so we were lucky to find an operator who let us tag along and he dropped us at our motel (“Motel Albert”) in Cook’s Bay.

Our place here is a spacious flat with a kitchen, across from the Bay and walking distance from a small market. It was impressive at first but after spending some time here- I can confidently tell you it’s no treat. There are about 1000 bugs – ants mostly and cockroaches in a kitchen which hasn’t been cleaned since 1982. Everything is old and has been housing spiders for a long time. The bed is lumpy and thin and the pillow have such a strong stench of must, we had to cover them with a towel and our silk liners. And don’t get me started on the *&^%ing roosters that start crowing (or whatever they do) and bloody 3am! This for $65 per night was one of the cheapest places we could find to stay on the island – and whilst it’s not quite roughing it like some places we have done (Thailand, Nepal etc) it isn’t exactly great value for money when compared with anywhere else we’ve visited in the world (paying this much in Australia or New Zealand – at least we got something clean and bug free).

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The weather is warm but cloudy the first day so we explore the bay, walking 3 miles in either direction of our place to see what is around. John snorkels and I swim. Eating in every night is fun – and cheap.

Our flat after light rain – Motel Albert

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Today the weather was much better, clear in the morning so we decided to rent a car – $70 for the day. The island is 60km around. We stopped at Belvedere Lookout – which has the best view on the island. We wanted to get there before it clouded over – you can see both bays from up there and there are some archeological points of interest as well- mostly evidence from tribes that lived there 600 years ago before everyone moved closer to the coast when the Europeans came.

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Us from Belvedere Viewpoint – with Opunohu Bay on the left and Cook’s Bay on right:

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Driving around the island provided many spectacular views such as this:

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One of two public beached on Mo’orea. We stopped here in the morning to snorkel for an hour, then again on the way back:)

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So the second full day was spent exploring the island by car – with many stops and swims in between. It was good to get out because seeing other parts really influenced our opinion – as did the weather I’m sure. The snorkeling was OK – the coral wasn’t great but what made it good was seeing 2 spotted eagle rays at the reef dropoff just off one of the main public beaches. All in all, Mo’orea is a beautiful island full of lovely people. But it’s very developed and touristy and if you’re not staying at the Hilton or Sofitel, it’s hard to access the best. These developments – and many people’s private homes – have blocked the entire coastline and fenced it so people even 20m away cannot see it! There are a few places along the road where the coastline is too thin to support a house – this is where we often stopped for a rest and photo opp – however, the rest is really off limits.

Tahiti in the distance – notice the outer reef which causes the waves to break – this occurs around the whole island and results in a protected, shallow lagoon hugging the coastline. PS – this is the Sofitel property:

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So we are off to Huahine tomorrow in hope of even fewer tourists:)

Seven, no Six Days in Japan

I say seven because we were meant to have a week in Japan which isnt even enough time but John got bad food poisoning which forced us to move our flight back 1 day. We ended up flying through Bangkok and since we only have 15 hours, we chose to spend a little more than usual and take a last minute deal at Suvarnabhumi Suite Hotel, a 4 star hotel near the airport. Bad Idea. After 4 weeks of beautiful Thai street food (and drinking street food jug water), THIS is the place that gives us food poisoning. Rather ironic!

But our RTW air ticket was flexible enough for us to change the departure date 3 hours before our scheduled departure time (even after we checked in!). amazing! The idiots at the hotel actually charged a higher rate to stay a second night- and on top of it, they conveniently “forgot” how to speak English when we asked to speak to a manager. Let’s just say they got a wordful on TripAdvisor review.

Kyoto night skyline including out hotel- The Tower Hotel

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Anyway, we did manage to get to Tokyo the following day and even had a pleasant flight on JAL. We snagged a late train from Tokyo to Kyoto and arrived there just before 7pm. Outside of Tokyo most people don’t speak English in Japan but they are so friendly that we were able to get by with miming which is good because we didn’t have a hotel sorted when we got there. It was dark and raining AND Japan isn’t good at wifi so after asking (I mean, miming) we found a Starbucks and got 10 minutes free wifi which was just enough to make an online reservation (just around the corner, a great deal at the Tower hotel)!

Walking through temple area on the way to Nijo Castle, Kyoto

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Kyoto is beautiful and full of UNESCO world heritage sites, 17 to be exact. We spent the day exploring as many as we could, starting with the Golden Pavilion. But on the way we walked through the beautiful temple area – but full of Japanese tourists (above).

The Golden Pavilion

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The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) was built in 1397 as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. His son converted it into a temple. In 1950 an obsessed monk burned it to the ground (it seems this happened alot to various temples we saw on our trip) and in 1955 it was reconstructed to its original design, but the gold-foil now covers the middle floor as well. We enjoyed walking around the gardens – the most peaceful and idealistic we visited in the whole of Japan.

The gardens of the Golden Pavilion

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Next stop for the day was Nijo Castle which was built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu.

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For dinner we wanted something authentic, delicious and cheap so we sought out a ramen place- bought our ticket from a machine and were delivered 2 huge bowls!

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The next day we headed south to Kagoshima to meet with John’s cousin Jeremy and his wife, Rie. We stayed with them for 4 nights which was awesome. We learned a lot about the culture, ate some amazing food, enjoyed a couple hot spring baths and did some great hiking. They really took care of us and one evening took us to a 6 course traditional Japanese meal!

At White Bird Peak with Jeremy, the start of our 6 hour hike around the 3 lakes area which ended in at a hot spring bath.

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Jeremy showing us around the town on our first day- through the bamboo forest

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Rie, Jeremy, John and Me finishing our last of 6 courses.

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During one of the days when Jeremy and Rie were working, we leveraged our Japanese Rail Pass to visit Kumamoto Castle, Built between 1601 and 1607, the original building was besieged and burnt during the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, one of the final stands made by the Samurai against the new order. We spent a couple of hours here and (of course) enjoyed a starbucks before heading back to Kagoshima to meet Jeremy and Rie for dinner.

Kumamoto Castle

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After 4 great days in Kagoshima, we headed back north to Tokyo. The fast train delivered us over 1500km in about 7 comfortable hours to Tokyo where we met up with our friend Karima, whom we met on the dive trip in Raja Ampat. She took us to a great dinner and ordered us a variety of dishes included some great ramen!

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Finally, it was back to our TINY hotel in Tokyo where luckily, we only had to spend a few hours before flying to Kathmandu.

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Driving North Island of New Zealand

We had 4 relaxing days in Auckland which gave us time to visit a museum, cook in our full kitchen, do laundry and get together for dinner with our friends, Michael & Sam, whom we met in Philippines. John made moussaka for dinner and we enjoyed catching up with them on their travels, sharing stories and plans for the next few months. Next stop for them is Fiji! Actually, Auckland is a great place for meeting people as it’s the travel hub for anywhere around the South Pacific.

Me, Sam, John and Michael making fun of ourselves as we all ended up wearing the very fashionable zip-off travel trousers!:

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The next day John and I picked up our rental van and we headed north to Paihia to see the Bay of Islands. The weather was sunny but pretty chilly requiring all our normal layers plus our new jackets. We stayed two nights and did a nice morning hike to a view point overlooking the bay and a boat dolphin tour. But what I will remember Paihia most for being the place where we learned that new immigration rules will prevent my spousal visa from being approved so we won’t be able to live in the UK! John spent hours that evening reading up on the changes and drafting letters to Theresa May (MP), the Home Office, the newspapers and anyone else we could think of.

And meanwhile, these dolphins probably have a better chance of getting a work visa in the UK:

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Fourth of July! We head from Paihia south to Cambridge stopping in Auckland briefly for a camera filter and Starbucks:) Not much to do here except enjoy fish’n chips and spend the night before we go to Matamata. The light rain and sun made a beautiful double rainbow on the drive.

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Next day we visited Hobbiton- the set of the Shire in Lord of the Rings. It is really cool and we learned a lot from our guide who worked on the farm during the filming. There are 44 hobbit holes – all newly created for the new Hobbit movies as the hobbit holes from the first movies were made of foam and destroyed. The farm and land is owned by the Alexander family who required Peter Jackson to return the land to its original state after they filmed the first movies. This time they decided to leave it for public tours. There is a large crew responible for maintaining the look of the “set” and match exactly the matching set located elsewhere in New Zealand – and Peter Jackson is a perfectionist for detail so everything from the size and age of trees, the details of the mailboxes (all 44 are different) and the number of logs in a basket are managed. They even cut the middle of the trees out in order so they don’t grow too tall. The objective is to have the shire look exactly the same for our grandchildren as it does now.

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And the heavy fog, whilst annoying in the shire was absolutely beautiful once we drove above it. It was a sea of clouds:

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July 6 we drove to Wellington and met up with some of John’s friends and ex-colleagues from his SQS days. We had a great time chatting over a few beers before heading back to our hostel.

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Saji, Jess, Julie, Me, Andrew & John at Molly Malone’s Pub in Wellington

We spent a leisurely morning in the city the following morning, Starbucks for breakfast then caught the premier of TED which we really enjoyed! Then we headed back north toward Auckland with French Polynesia on our minds!!

Stef’s Packing List and Kit Assessment

We are 7 months into the trip so I feel I can now give a reasonable assessment of the items I originally packed for the trip. I’ll start with attire.

Clothing: For shirts, I bought 3 long sleeve, 2 short sleeve and 2 tank tops. By far the best purchase was the SmartWool short sleeve T-shirt (pink). I wear it almost everyday, it’s comfortable, doesn’t wrinkle and never smells. It is fragile when wet so it can tear easily when washing and wringing out but otherwise, it’s the easiest shirt I’ve ever owned.

In hindsight, only 1 long sleeve button down and 1 thermal-style (HH purple) was needed. I find myself wearing the HH one even in warm climates in the evening although it’s designed for cold climates. Another one that I wear 10 days in a row before washing:)

Not surprisingly, the synthetic shirts did not stand up. I bought a Hally Hanson polo (black) which is really light and packs well but it smells after 2 minutes and doesn’t breathe so its hot (despite being supposedly a “cool” fabric).

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For trousers, I brought 4 in total. 1 North Face capri pant (top) which are comfortable and have a drawstring. I found the drawstring at the waist an absolute lifesaver as my weight has fluctuated a bit and I didn’t have a belt. The craghoppers at the bottom are my only shorts but I can only wear them when I have nothing in my pockets as they don’t have a drawstring like the other 2 do.

Women’s travel trousers unfortunetely lack good pockets, the exception are the craghoppers (bottom) which are great- I can cram passports, cameras and loads of other stuff in the brilliant side pocket. These also convert into shorts and although they aren’t cute, they are really functional.

REI travel trousers (middle) are also great but pockets are a problem and they have just started to tear in the pocket where I sometimes put my iphone.

The last pair I threw in last minute- an old pair of cotton gouchos intended for sleeping but actually, I wear them all the time. They are breezy and super comfy.

Socks- 3 pair CoolMax socks for warm climates, 1 pair medium wool for cool climates and trekking and 1 thick wool pair for Nepal (and cold nights). The coolmax socks double for liners when trekking. We got good socks and in combination with high quality boots, this saved our feet.

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Underwear- I started with 4 pair of underwear, 3 bras and 1 swimsuit. 2 pair of underwear were Ex-officio and they are the best!! I was so sad to lose a pair- and despite my best efforts to replace it, I couldn’t find anyone in Asia selling the brand! I also found 1 swimsuit was not enough since I found myself wearing it everyday in Thailand, Philippines and now in French Poly. I managed to find a good deal in Australia (surprising I know) and bought another one there for $5 at Target- yeah clearance!

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Footwear. Only 2 things- hiking boots and good sandals. We researched, tested and invested in footwear and it saved our feet more than once. I definitely recommend taking the time to find the BEST and spend a little more on footwear. The boots are Salomon womens hiking boots with Goretex and a locking hook which allow me to wear them as a shoe (you don’t have to tie them all the way up and the lock hook holds the lace in place). These are the best boots I have owned, we hiked for 3 weeks in the mountains of Nepal in them and they protected my feet and ankles from some extreme situations! I have worn them in both warm and cool climates and they do a good job of letting my feet breathe. Despite the harsh conditions- mountains, being strapped to the outside of my pack when not in use etc., they are still in excellent condition. We will wear them in New Zealand for warmth and South America for more trekking.

I paid about 135GBP for these- tried them on in a store but bought them online as it saved me about 20%. They are half a size larger than my normal footwear to accomodate thick socks. Definitely one of my best purchases.

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These KEEN closed toed sandals are the best. I cannot recommend them enough. I wear them everyday in hot climates and strap them to the outside of my pack when not in use. They are easy to kick on and off, comfortable to hike in, great in the water (dry quickly and don’t smell) and have saved my toes about a million times. They should be about $70 but I managed to snag mine on offer in the UK for 35 GBP. Worth every penny.

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Dive Kit (dive computer, mask, snorkel, wetsuit, fins, underwater housing for camera)- We brought a lot of our own kit to save us money on rentals and allow us to snorkel at length whenever we wanted:) The wetsuit was the cheapest we could find (70 GBP) and is meant for surfing but it’s been great. It’s a stretchy 3/2 (3mm on body and 2mm on arms and legs) and is compact enough to fit in a small dry bag. It’s been abused on the trip but is still in very good condition. The fins, John picked out the AquaLung HotShot fins which are much shorter than normal dive fins but still work great and live on the outside of our pack so they’re easy to travel with. They are also comfortable with or without socks, and full boots are not needed – unlike with most dive fins. These are starting to show signs of wear but should last to the end of the trip. Bought online for 65 GBP.

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My original mask case cracked on it’s first flight so I bought a tuperware container and put more stuff in it which actually worked out much better. I put my mask, computer, tank banger, anti-fog and dive cap (to keep the hair out of my face) in here and its worked great. The snorkel is great for travel too as it bends in 2 places so I can easily cram it in my rucksack.

The underwater camera housing is for our Olympus TOUGH 810 and is the smallest, cheapest camera/housing combo and it works great. There are obviously limitations on picture quality but for the size and price, it can’t be beat. We have been able to capture everything we wanted to so far!

Waterproof Documents Folder- is an non-negotiable item for every traveller. We keep all important things in here and actually ended up getting another one in the Philippines because the first was getting too full. In one I put all important docs, and in the other, all the souvenir-type things I want to keep like currency notes from some countries, travel journal, maps and itineraries, full dive log books, etc. I sent this home in Hong Kong but it’s nice to have 2 safe places to keep things.

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The “Yellow Bag” is our miscellaneous bag where we put things we needed and didn’t know where else to pack them. This is our most utilized bag so I keep it handy! The original contents included: universal drain plug, hand sanitizer, anti-itch cream, massage oil, duct tape, anti-fog, sewing kit, 100% DEET*, spare Body wash, laundry wash, head torch, soap, playing cards, Swiss army knife, tissues, 2 sporks, laundry clothes line (X2), & extra closures for rucksack bag. I have underlined most used items.

The contents of the bag after 7 months is roughly the same: electrolyte pack, tissues, 1 spork (the other broke), clothes line, string, sewing kit, duct tape, antiseptic wipes, massage oil, tiger balm, powder laundry detergent, 2 chopstick knife spoon sets, lip balm, swiss army knife, hat.

So all in all, we are using most things which is testament to the usefulness of other peoples blogs and travel recommendations!

* 100% DEET eats plastic (we learned this the hard way) so we have it for back-up and keep it in 2 zip lock bags. We buy insect spray with DEET as we go.

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Other necessities: We each brought a travel towel (XL) and a silk sleeping liner (RAB). Both of these things we use a lot so I’m glad we got good quality. The sleep liner has a pillow insert which makes it a bit more expensive but is integral to the usefulness of it as it protects your head from random pillows and anchors the whole thing so I don’t get too twisted during the night.

The medical kit we purchased then modified. We removed bulky or unnecessary items and packed it full of extra aspirin and other basic meds from home. We also brought 70 malarone (anti-malarial drug) and antibiotics which we kept in our toiletry kits. The malarone we got online which was cheap and fast. They were able to give us a prescription on the website and we got it in 2 working days. In Nepal, we replaced and augmented our medical kit with 3 types of anti-biotics and cold medicine. So far we haven’t needed much of it (knock on wood)- just cold & flu tablets and pain meds for the usual headaches etc.

The mosquito net we sent back home after 6 months- only used twice in Thailand. It was a bit bulky so we threw it in a box of gifts we sent home from Hong Kong at the last minutes :( Although we REALLY regret that now. We’re in French Polynesia at the moment and losing loads of sleep thanks to the annoying and plentiful mosquitos – and because there is no malaria here there is less paranoia about it and few places have mosquito nets provided.

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Pacsafe 55L. This is another gold star purchase. We use this pacsafe all the time but we usually just use it to lock up our day bags instead of re-packing our rucksack everyday. When we go out for the day, we put our laptop, cameras and documents folder in one of our day bags and lock it up with the pacsafe. It is pretty compact, easy to use and gives us peace of mind when away. We even took it to the beach with us when we are both snorkeling to lock up wallets etc. We lock it to a palm tree:)

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South Australia Wine Tour write up – Barossa, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale

Probably our biggest blog post yet – here is a full write-up of the wineries we visited in Australia. Hopefully you’ll see some of these at our wedding!

I’ve always liked Australian wine more than the wine of any other country – particularly Shiraz from Barossa and McLaren Vale. In terms of value for money, it still beats anything else in the world in my opinion. So it was a no-brainer for us to come and spend some time touring these wine regions – in the end we spent a full week here – 3 nights in Barossa, 2 in Clare Valley and 2 in McLaren Vale.

We tasted anything from 3 to 18 wines at each winery, depending on their range and whether one of us had to drive or not! The prices we mention for the wines are cellar door prices – but it’s worth noting that many of the wines are available at US or UK merchants for 30-60% less than the cellar door price – particularly those that were exported 2 or 3 years ago. This is due to both high taxes on alcohol sold in Australia and the shift in exchange rates that’s taken place over the last few years. Here’s a summary of the wineries we visited and our key take-away thoughts and top wine choices:

Barossa Valley

Wolf Blass – yes it’s a big commercial label, but I’ve regularly bought their yellow label Shiraz in the past and been quite satisfied with it, so we had to stop by to find out what their higher end wines are like, which I never had the opportunity to try before. They have a nice visitor center as you would expect for such a big brand.

  • Barossa Gold Label Shiraz 2010 – packed a nice punch – a great example of a Barossa Shiraz and a good warm-up for things to come
  • Adelaide Hills Gold Label Shiraz Viognier 2010 – tempered by 5% Viogner, this was Stef’s favourite

Both these wines were priced at $27.99 at the cellar door, representing great value for money.

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Penfold’s – One of the most famous Australian wine brands, they manage to cover a huge range of the market price-wise – all the way from low-end bottles for under $10 all the way up to $2000+ top end vintages in their Grange label. Whilst only their lower end wines (up to around $70 per bottle) were available for tasting, it was excellent, and the highlight had to be:

  • Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2008 – easily beat Wolf Blass’ Gold Label offering, with more complexity and balance – the extra couple of years would help for sure. But it’s available for just a little more at $37 per bottle at the cellar door

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Torbreck

Torbreck retains a small winery feel with a modest tasting room but very enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. The tasting is a Shiraz lover’s dream with 10 Shiraz wines across their range.

  • Woodcutters Shiraz 2011 – Torbreck’s entry level Shiraz – very bold as expected but surprisingly easy drinking for such a young wine. Outstanding value at $21.50 cellar door price
  • The Factor Shiraz 2008 – an old vine shiraz with far more complexity – chocolate and jammy notes with a lingering finish. Fantastic – but of course for 6 times the price of the Woodcutters as this is their sub-top level wine – priced at $125.
  • Descendent 2008 – Stef’s favourite – a co-fermented 8% Viognier blend which tempers the Shiraz punch nicely and maintains a long fruity finish. Also priced at $125.

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Two Hands

Our favourite winery visit in the Barossa – a fantastic small old stone building with sofas by the fireplace. They provided a small plate of bread/olive oil/cured meat with the tasting and really looked after us. The wines were stunning to match the environment – 7 pure Shiraz wines and a GSM. With grapes sourced from quite a range of locations, the different Shiraz wines had some great variety and distinctiveness.

  • Sophie’s Garden Shiraz 2006 – from their mid-range series, this Padthaway series packs a distinctive nose of mint, reflected also in the layers of flavour which are well-balanced. We immediately thought this wine would be perfect with Lamb. An outstanding and unique wine (I’ve never tasted a minty Shiraz before) that is good value in that respect for $60.
  • Ares Shiraz 2009 – Fantastic bold Shiraz with great balance – retaining a very long fruity finish without too much tannin or acid – impressive for a wine like this still relatively young. It could be even better in a few years. Priced at $165 it would be a great celebration wine.

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Peter Lehmann

Another winemaker for whom I’ve been a customer for a number of years – again this was a good opportunity to sample some of their higher end wines than the usual standard Barossa Shiraz which can be purchased in most UK supermarkets. After having visited Two Hands, that tasted really rather bland and cheap unfortunately! But we found some satisfaction in the following:

  • Futures Shiraz 2008 – was a nice step up from the standard Shiraz for just a little more money – great value at $26, but probably wouldn’t fight off the Wolf Blass Gold Label at the same price point
  • VSV 1885 Shiraz 2009 – great upper range Shiraz packing quite a punch – only available at cellar door though, for a hefty $60 – and at that price point I’d probably rather go for something in Two Hands Garden series which were much more distinctive
  • Stonewell Shiraz 2008 - superb and powerful Shiraz – looks expensive at $100, but some excellent vintages such as the 06 are available in the UK for as little as 25-30 GBP per bottle – so actually superb value for money

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Langmeil

This winery stands on one of the oldest sites in the Barossa, with some of the oldest vineyards. The first acre of vines here was planted in 1843 – and those vines are still producing fruit today – used in The Freedom 1843 Shiraz. The vineyard is believed to be one of the oldest surviving Shiraz vineyards in the world – so it was great to visit an important part of Barossa history. Whilst the Freedom wasn’t available for tasting, the following were our highlights from the rest of the bunch:

  • Valley Floor Shiraz 2009 – a classic Barossa valley shiraz with a nice long and minerally finish. Great value at $29.50 per bottle.
  • Resurrection Mataro 2010 – I’d not had a straight up Mataro before and this was really surprisingly good! Huge blackcurrent hits up front followed by plenty of pepper and spice. $40.
  • Orphan Bank Shiraz 2009 - Ten rows of original vigneron Christian Auricht’s pre-1860 Shiraz vines were saved from the bulldozer, and replanted alongside Auricht’s original vineyards next to Langmeil’s cellars. Also notable with a great long finish. $50.

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Jacob’s Creek

We stopped by Jacob’s Creek as it’s an iconic brand in Britain, and I’m interested in their business and how they managed to build such a strong brand that they dominate the supermarket-wine part of the market. I’ve always enjoyed their Shiraz – it was practically the only red wine I bought through university – and I still associate the TV series Friends with Jacobs Creek wine as they sponsored the show for so many years.

Of course they have an impressive and very commercialised visitor center, and it was interesting to find out about how Gramp’s became Orlando’s which eventually became known just as Jacob’s Creek.

The quality of the wine certainly made it obvious what a different league many of the other wineries are in. We did enjoy the Sparkling Shiraz and a dessert wine:

  • Gramp’s Botrytis Semillon 2008 – rich caramel, apricot and marmelade. Not branded Jacob’s Creek at all, this is much better stuff!

And yes, I found the actual Jacob’s Creek!:

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St Hallett

Very nice people, they even gave us a half bottle of the blackwell shiraz as a present. They had a great range of 5 or 6 different Shiraz and I enjoyed all of them, the best being:

  • Blackwell Shiraz 2010 – classic Barossa Shiraz done very well, and great value at $38.
  • Old Block Shiraz 2009 – 100 year old vines create a really special wine. Berries, chocolate and a long, long finish with spicy oak from 24 months in the barrel. $100.

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Sevenhill

We headed north to the Clare Valley and our first stop was Sevenhill, the oldest winery in the region – founded by the Jesuits in 1851. There is a nice church there and in the winery they have a great old cellar, but to be honest we weren’t very impressed with their wines. In fact during our whole time in the Clare Valley, we never really learned to enjoy the Riesling for which it is reknowned. The only thing Sevenhill seemed to do well were the desserts/fortifieds:

  • Liquer Tokay NV - Malt and lingering flavour of fruit cake. This is much darker and stronger than the Hungarian Tokaj style wine which it attempts to replicate – using Muscadelle grapes instead of Furmint. Despite being fortified it retains some subtlety of flavour and is really enjoyable. $25.

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Kilikanoon

Here we found some pretty good Shiraz (which we didn’t expect coming to Clare from Barossa), but the best of the lot surprisingly was a cane-cut sweet Riesling:

  • Mort’s Cut Cane Cut Riesling 2009 – Intense citrus flavours balanced by appropriate acid – not too sweet. A really clean desert wine – fantastic! $26.

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Kirrihill

A random stop for us as we were hiking down the Riesling Trail the next day. The whites didn’t do much for us, surprisingly our favourite here was a cab:

  • Clare Valley Regional Range Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – ripe strawberries and earthy notes – oak in good balance. Interestingly we preferred this to the more expensive Single Vineyard cab. Bargain at $15.

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Tim Adams

Our second random winery on the Riesling Trail, and as neither of us were driving today we were having a tasting each instead of our usual strategy of sharing one, and we weren’t holding back on trying the full range either! The best of the bunch here were:

  • Aberfeldy Shiraz 2009 – Cherry, plum, chocolate – not as powerful a hit as a Barossa Shiraz but it makes up for it in subtle complexity. Persistant plummy oaky finish. Really well balanced. I noted in a scribble “love it, must buy it”. $44.
  • Botrytis Riesling 2010 – very sweet with delicious botrytis character on top of citrus and floral. $25.

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Knappstein

A winery and a brewery in one! Excellent stuff!

  • Single Vineyard Sparkling Shiraz 1998 – the best sparkling Shiraz we’ve tried so far – really powerful. $45.
  • Fortified Shiraz 2010 – really smooth and fruity. $22.

The reserve Lager was also very nice so we had to get a few bottles.

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Shaw and Smith

On our way from Clare Valley down to McLaren Vale we stopped at Shaw & Smith in Adelaide Hills. I’d bought their Shiraz before and really liked it, so we went there especially. Overally I was quite disappointed – none of their other wines lived up to the same standard (I was hoping to find more wines as amazing as that – or better) – and it was kind of strange the way they did the tasting. They do a sit-down tasting for which they charge $15 per person and it’s served with a plate of cheese tasters alongside. I felt like the presence of the cheese was just to justify the fee, when all the other wineries we visited don’t charge anything for tastings. To make matters worse, in my opinion the cheeses were really badly matched to the wines and actually distracted and degraded the appreciated of the wine. In particular the first cheese matched to the Sauvignon Blanc was an ash-rolled goats cheese which had such a strong and persistent flavour that it remained with me for the whole of the rest of the tasting – and some time afterwards. And then a rather mild and plain cheddar was served with the reds – including that super-powerful Shiraz. Bizarre.

But I think the worst thing was that as it was a sit-down tasting it was very impersonal – there is less opportunity to chat with the staff and learn about the wines and the winemaking – so no real relationship to the place or the people is formed. Yes, the presentation is very nice and very controlled and consistent, but I really feel like it was wasted – you don’t go to a cellar door to have a sit-down restaurant experience.

  • Shiraz 2009 – remains the king, wins hands down over the other wines offered. $40.

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D’Arenberg

D’Arenberg was top of my list in the whole of Australia – their Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier has long been one of my favourite wines. So we took our time and tasted nearly 20 wines in here! Big contrast to Shaw & Smith visit – both wineries of which I had big expectations – this time D’Arenberg met and exceed them!

  • Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2009 – up against some of the other reds in the range, this wine reminded me why I like it so much – the punch of the Shiraz is tempered by the Viognier and the fruit boosted longer into the finish by it. Such good value at $29 per bottle – and I normally buy this for under 10 GBP in the UK.
  • Dead Arm Shiraz 2008 – surprisingly well balanced, the punch of this wine doesn’t hit too hard too quickly. Huge long finish. $60.
  • Eight Iron Single Vineyard Shiraz 2009 – we tasted 3 of the “Scarce Earth Project” Shiraz wines and it was really interesting to contrast the flavours offered by the different locations. The Eight Iron is another extremely well balanced Shiraz with fruit and spice lingering all the way to the end of an epic long finish, underlayed by a mineral base which is very pleasant. $99.
  • The Noble Botryiotinia Fuckeliana Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – sweet, light, crisp and fruity desert wine. $20.
  • The Vintage Fortified Shiraz 2006 – Straightforward plum/fruit shiraz flavours in a fortified.. not sweet – an excellent alternative to port and in my opinion would go much better with cheese than a port. $30.

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Wirra Wirra

This was a random stop, nothing very special here, we made an exit after just tasting a couple of wines. But they had a giant wine bottle made out of corks, and a trebuchet. Fun.

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Mollydooker

After a tip-off from Ted, we made an appointment to visit Mollydooker. They don’t have an open cellar door, but they looked after us very well with an extensive tour of the winery, some tastings out of the barrel (yes, anyone buying the next release of Velvet Glove – we got a sneak preview) – and then out of a bottle of the Carnival of Love – and they let us have the rest of the bottle too. The wine was outstanding, and learning about their unique vineyard management and winemaking processes and techniques was far more than we got anywhere else.

  • Carnival of Love 2010 - overwhelming amounts of fruit – blueberry, black cherry, plum and spice packed into each mouthful with a long rolling finish and hints of vanilla. Some lingering acid qualities due to its youth – I’d love to try some after a few years cellaring. The 2005 vintage was rated 99 points by Wine Advocate. It’s a real privilege to see where and how this wine is made and taste it within its own birthplace.

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Exploring Sydney

We had only 1 full day here but managed to see quite a lot before heading to Auckland including catching up with John’s cousins Michael in Manly. Our first stop was Hyde Park Barracks as we were interested in learning about the history of Sydney and how the convicts from Britain shaped the city.DSC03690

Britain used to send their convicts to the US, but as the US approached its independance in 1776, it refused to take them leaving Britain to find another solution. That solution was Australia and in 1780, they started shipping their convicts there. This building housed the convicts of Sydney whilst they build the city. But only the men were here- women and children prisoners were sent to another part of the country leaving Sydney with a dearth of women and a problem. So, they started an immigration program with Ireland- Irish women got free transport to start a life here and they were housed in this building (after conversion of course) whilst they waited to jobs and full integration into the town.

We then explored the harbour area on foot and got our first view of the iconic Sydney Opera House

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Across the water from the Opera House is the beautiful Harbour Bridge. For $250 you can harness yourself to the bridge and walk on top of it which we would have done- if not for the pricetag! We walked part way across it on the road level and got a great view!

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We could not leave Australia without seeing kangaroos and koalas! We saw several kangaroos in the wine country as we drove through the country but we hadn’t seen any koalas, so we snagged some cheap tickets to the Wild Life Sanctuary in Sydney to see some. They were even cuter in person and we were able to get quite close to them- they didn’t do a whole lot, mostly napped up in the tree all curled up in the fetal position but they were still cool to see!

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There is also a resident crocodile- 40 years old and 4 meters long at the center.

After that we took a 30 minute ferry ride to Manly to meet up with John’s cousin Michael who moved to Aussie from the UK around 2007. We found a deal on beers beforehand then went to a great microbrewery for some excellent beer and dinner!

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Return ferry ride and a nice walk through the park back to our place. On the way we saw a possum trying to get into the garbage bin. Although a pest to the Aussie’s, we found it cute and in typical tourist fashion, several pitures were taken:)

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Amazing Bhutan- a very late posting from our time in Thimpu and Paro!

We learned about Bhutan after reading some articles about the least visited countries in the world. It is a small land locked country between China and India that controls many of the Himilayan passes and was only recently opened to tourist travels. They have heavy regulations regarding tourism so the only way to get in is to book a “tour” with a government approved agency- the agency will then book flights, make hotel arrangements, provide a guide and transportation and even take care of meals! There is a government minimum spend which is ever-changing but currently $280 per person per day. I suppose this is so they can influence the number of people in the country. This was a lot of money so we only stayed 3 days (and in that time, spent the same as a whole month in Thailand)!

It was great because there were so few tourists there- in fact, most places we saw there were only a few other people there and sometimes, it was just us. Our guide was Kinga, he picked us up from the airport, escorted us everywhere giving us a great history of Bhutan and the things we were seeing- he taught us a great deal about Buddhism. It really felt like a friend was taking us around showing us the best stuff and telling us about the history which helped to make this one of our favourite trips.

There is only one airline that flies into Bhutan, Druk Air, which is owned by the Bhutanese government. The airport is a tricky one and relies on visual approach without instruments (much like Lukla) and with the weather off the mountains, it can be tricky. We were meant to arrive on March 13 but even between the time we took off from Kathmandu and 20 minutes into our 30 minute flight we had to change course due to weather. We landed in Kolkata, India to wait out the weather. We waited all day in the transit lounge but in the end, went back to Kathmandu.

The next morning, we tried again and luckily, the weather cooperated and by 9am we were in Paro, Bhutan! I should mention that the view of the mountains were spectacular – we could see Everest and tried to identify Island Peak without success but it was amazing to fly at the same altitude as those mountains.

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Kinga met us and we spent the first day exploring Thimpu after a lovely 2 hour drive from the airport. We stopped along the way at a beautiful old iron bridge and monastery. Our lunch spot was the only place we ran into other tourists- most of whom we knew from the flight! The food is excellent and our favourite dish was roasted chili in a cheese sauce which is quite spicy but very delicious and a traditional Bhutanese dish.

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Our accomodation was really nice- very spacious, clean and comfortable. This felt especially good as we had become accustomed to much less:)

Day 2 was spent on visiting Punaka Dzong (a 3 hr drive) which is a huge dzong built in 17th century where Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers come together and is the country’s most beautiful zhong.

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We really appreciate being able to walk around these historic buildings which are still very much in use- after taking these pictures, we walked into the dzong among the monks the Kinga spent a couple hours teaching us about the principles of Bhuddism which is really interesting (and complex) and so different from the religion we know.

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Day 3- We got an early start and despite me feeling a little rough made the jourey to Paro to start our hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). It was a fairly good hike to get to the top but the sun was shining most of the way and the view was inspiring so it was enjoyable. It took us about 2 hours to get to the top where we had to surrender our cameras, bags and phones (all electronics as this is a holy place) then went into all 3 shrines. The first shrine was very small and inside housed the usual Buddhas and offerings but there was a monk inside who blessed me and John with white scarves which we took with us. Kinga explained that when we get married, we are to exchange scarves with each other. We have kept our scarves separate throughout all our travels and just mailed them home to London for safe keeping but we intend to exchange them on Dec 8!

Our first good view of the monastery after 45 minutes hiking.

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The view improves after 2 hours- we round the corner to the left and hook around to enter which takes another 15 minutes.

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Us in front of the town of Paro.

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Tiger’s Nest Monastery was built in the 17th century but destroyed in a fire and re-built in 90′s. It was originally built over a cave where an Indian Bhuttist guru meditated for 3 months in the 8th century. We saw this cave which is basically a small, dark and cold hole in the floor which is in one of the shrines. The legends and stories of how the monastery was built and why it is named after the tigers liar is interesting but complex and with many versions- the wikipedia link covers both stories we heard and is worth a read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paro_Taktsang

All in all, Bhutan is at the very top of our list of best places so far. As we travel, a popular question people often ask. Our answer varies of course but often includes Bhutan. It is beautiful with an interesting history. The people are friendly and easy-going and there are few if any tourists. Bhutan is led by a young king who recently married and they are progressive, supporting innovative things like hydro-electricity. Bhutan earns 60% of their government revenues from exporting hydro electricity to India. This especially stands out next to Nepal who have a similar landscape and capacity to generate energy but can’t even manage enough for their own needs (12hr blackout scheduled regularly) nevermind exporting any!

Given the chance, I would definitely return to Bhutan and I might do some hiking and explore the other parts of the country as we only saw 2 villages (the most popular bits).