Sunday 2 April 2017

Jungle Treckin' and Cyclone Wreckin'

We’ve been in Australia for a few weeks now. We’ve won’t lie, its had its ups (seeing quite a few long lost friends) and downs (the crap weather). For every chirpy “spring has sprung!” facebook post coming from the UK, we’ve been sat in yet another biblical downpour here. So this blog post comes with a weather warning – there will be a lot of complaining about the rain.
Sydney Harbour Bridge in characteristic heavy cloud
If we cast our minds back to 6th March, we left our beloved New Zealand on a windy day, even by Wellington standards, so we suspected we might not be in for the smoothest of flights. Indeed we were not. The cabin crew attempted to run a drinks service once the plane has stopped climbing, but turbulence generally prevented this. Katie was quietly muttering her calming bumpy flight mantra: ‘Shruti would love this’ (our friend Shruti thinks turbulent flights are hilarious) and at one point Charlie commented ‘Mummy have we landed?’ to which Katie had to respond ‘No darling, it just felt like we did’. Eventually the captain demanded everyone sit down and belt up immediately and all the cabin crew marched grim-faced to the back of the plane and turned the entertainment system off. Katie has decided to book a space on a container ship for the journey home.

Our troubles were soon forgotten thanks to a friendly face waiting at Sydney airport – Katie’s old Greenpeace colleague Sarah. Sarah and her partner Egon, and her baby Alfie-Henry (they are yet to decide which!) were incredibly welcoming, put us up for two nights, cooked a delicious lasagna and gave us tickets for the fantastic Taronga Zoo, where Sarah works. 

The next day we decided to get out into Sydney and we visited the historic Rocks district and then took the boat over to Taronga. We headed straight for the spider-keeper’s talk to find out just what we were dealing with. We met the highly venomous funnel web and red back spiders and also checked out the non-dangerous but highly terrifying Huntsman. We’re not keen to run into any of these critters on our travels but we figured it would be good to know what they look like in case we do. It seems that unless you go rifling through some one’s wood pile you’re unlikely to meet them, but knowing this hasn’t helped us sleep much better all the same. 
A huntsman as big as the Harbor Bridge
That evening Ed and Katie had a rare night out (thanks to Sarah for babysitting) to see Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats play the Enmore Theatre in Newtown. We started the night at a very good yakitori place, followed by a brilliant concert. If you aren’t familiar check them out – think bluegrass, beards, trumpets and hand clapping. We defy you not to tap your foot.

The next day we headed off to the Blue Mountains to stay in a lovely house and look after Hudson the Cat while his owners were on holiday. The garden was teeming with pumpkins squashes, aubergines, courgettes… and spiders. We wanted that veg, but the arachnids stood between us and dinner. Ed gamely tucked his trousers into his socks and went out there brandishing a broom and a kitchen knife. These weapons were sufficient to harvest a few squashes and pumpkins which Ed expertly turned into pumpkin and coconut curry, pumpkin hummus, vegetable stew and squash and garlic soup. It was a delicious few days. A highlight of the Blue Mountains was seeing Angela, who took us to explore the Blue Mountains a bit further 
Not actually that blue
and we had a very enjoyable BBQ, followed by a hung-over and (rare) sunny Sunday on Bondi Beach. Bondi was quite unbelievable. We have never seen so many muscular and lithe bodies in one place. Luckily we fitted right in.
Banana Boy on Bondi Beach
The second week in the Blue Mountains was mostly spent with our sad little faces pressed up against rain-soaked windows, but Katie managed to get another night out to see her old school mate Sarika, who emigrated to Sydney some years ago. We went to ACME which does small plates of Asian inspired Italian cuisine (?!), some of which were really good. But the $16 teeny tiny baloney sandwiches made us laugh – however much you want to dress it up as nostalgic contemporary cuisine, it’s still a reconstituted ham sarnie people.

Ed took Charlie to a rather spectacular scenic park which included many vertiginous delights including a cable car precariously strung over a canyon,

another climbing the side of a Blue Mountain and Charlie’s particular favourite, a funicular railway claiming to be the steepest in the world. It allowed you to adjust your seat hydraulically to choose how frightening your descent would be and it played the Indiana Jones theme as you set off. 
Der-de-de-der der-de-der...
Needless to say we rode this about 50 times right up until the park closed, even during the most torrential thunderstorm that hit half an hour before we left.

Our last day in Sydney was fun, we drove out over the Harbor Bridge (in torrential rain), went for a wet and blustery walk on Balmoral beach and brunched in the Bathers Pavilion café, an excellent recommendation from Seb. From there we headed back to The Zoo to say a quick “hi/bye’ to Sarah and check out a rather fantastic seal show. 
Sarah (quite appropriately) in climbing gear

Then we stopped in for dinner with another old colleague of Katie’s – Stephanie - and had a lovely evening catching up and spending time with her charming kids Finn and Megan… the latter of whom will probably be hitting a TV or cinema screen near you soon as she seems to forging an impressive acting portfolio for a seven year old. We stayed way later than we should have and then had to slog almost two hours home in yet another thunderstorm.

We left the house in the Blue Mountains to drive to Forster Tuncurry - a fairly unremarkable road trip in the pouring rain, passing through some impressive roads that sheered straight through massive rocks. We ate our picnic in a car park and dined on ready roast chicken and leftover vegetable stew in our little trailer cabin that night after swimming in the rain.

The drive from Forster Tuncurry to Yamba was another washout, we set off just as the rain began and decided to do a little detour to the recommended Boomerang beach and scenic drive back to the motorway. 
Really, another beach?
The beach was lovely but Ed spotted what appeared to be washed up jellyfish and decided to ditch the idea of getting in the water - we ain’t in NZ anymore and are acutely aware that the danger of death could be anywhere here! The scenic drive added two hours to our already long drive, most of which was peppered with torrential rain and a nagging worry that just round the next corner the road might be flooded under six foot of water as Katie was helpfully warned about by some friendly lady at a gas station. The highlight of the day was another detour to the upmarket town of Bellingen to visit the Hearthfire bakery, where we availed ourselves of the usual afternoon coffees accompanied by some superb chicken pie and assorted baked goods. Rejuvenated we drove up an impressive waterfall road and directly into a cloud which scuppered our plans to look out over an amazing jungle viewing platform. On our walk back to the car the attack of the leeches started as Ed felt a little bite on his middle toe and then realized a browny-green worm-like creature was on his foot. Trying to brush it off didn’t seem to budge it and when he bent down to flick it with his hand it switched from foot to finger and stuck like glue. He danced around shrieking for a bit and eventually managed to remove it with a little bleeding. Then Katie was also attacked as we got back to the car and we had a panicked 10-minute’s paranoia and squawking as we drove from the scene.

The next day we made a whistle stop visit to Byron Bay, principally to visit the Roadhouse Café, where we had one of the best meals of our trip. We shared a stunning slow roasted lamb lasagna and asparagus soup with goat’s cheese and olive oil, 
Asparagus soup partially covered by tattooed toddler arm, Katie looking smug with her choice
followed by a superlative toasted banana bread, made to a secret recipe. It shall become Katie’s life’s work to figure out how they made it (she has already made one delicious, but incorrect version). Later that day we arrived in Brisbane, (a city thank god!) 
the self-captioning photo
with the vast expanse of concrete making us feel at least superficially safe from the hoards of critters in the countryside. A lovely surprise was in store – a beautiful apartment belonging to friends of our mate Heather in Melbourne – who had gone on holiday and kindly let us stay in their absence. The flat was in a beautiful converted old wool warehouse. It had air con, double height ceilings and retro vintage furniture. We were in heaven.

We had a week in Brisbane and absolutely loved it. The main reason for going was to catch up with Ed’s good friend Dave and his family, which we did several times. The bonus was the city was a lovely place to visit, centered around a meandering river and a regular catamaran service from near our apartment. There were loads of free and interesting activities for both adults and children. First we discovered the Powerhouse, an old power station now converted to an art and theater space, which was running a kids music and jam. The powerful combination of toddler din and many lycra-clad mummies proved too much for Katie and she had to beat a hasty retreat but Charlie and Ed stuck it out. Afterwards we explored New Farm Park that had a rather impressive tree house playground.

Brisbane also sported a city beach and pools, a beautiful town hall where you could take a lift right up into the clock tower and a wealth of galleries and museums. Our favourite was GOMA – which had some great exhibitions including a room full of finches (yes real birds. Why not?) 
little terrors in the bird room
and a huge space for visitors to build stuff out of lego - only white bricks mind you – this is a modern art gallery. Ed built a giant tower and Katie a twee little house. Charlie and Olivia (Dave and Jackie’s eldest daughter) had a great time running around and became firm friends, he probably picked up a few naughty pointers such as when Olivia discarded her lunch wrap to be dissected by an ibis bird, or unplugging her seatbelt mid car ride or liberally distributing bean bag beans all over her room, all done with a cheeky grin! We also loved visiting the Science Fair, which featured real live turtles hatching out of their eggs and a table full of more spiders including a diving tarantula. It came as most unwelcome news to Katie that she’s not even safe from her nemesis in the water.

Sadly the day came that it was time to leave Brisbane and spend the next ten days heading up the coast towards Cairns. We had lots of fun things planned including three nights on Great Keppel Island in the southern Barrier Reef, a visit to the Whitsunday Islands and a snorkel trip to the reef itself. We started with the popular and quite swanky resort of Noosa and had the most awful day. We arrived on a busy sunny Sunday (some sun at last!) in the sweltering heat with nowhere booked to stay and nowhere to park. We finally made it to the beach populated by the requisite cast of Baywatch extras to sweat it out in the full sun with Charlie refusing to the go in the sea (he is very scared of waves, even small ones. Can’t think where he gets that from Katie?). This made us, quite unfairly, irrationally annoyed with him. We then went on an even more sweltering trek through the (admittedly beautiful) National Park during which Charlie fell over and grazed himself. We finally found some quite nice accommodation on the outskirts of town, only to be informed that a massive cyclone was due to hit Queensland and totally scupper all our plans. On the upside, the lady running the motel was a massive fan of the royals and Katie was able to thoroughly impress her by mentioning how she went to primary school with Kate M and Ed’s sister flew in an air ambulance with Prince William. “How wonderful to have such connected people stay with us!” she exclaimed. Indeed.

After going to bed at 8pm and getting some much-needed sleep, everyone was in a better mood the next day for a more successful morning in Noosa. We managed to not have a family row and instead ran up and down Sunshine Beach pretending to be horses (Katie’s favourite game as a child) 

followed by a dip in the sea on the Main Beach (not Charlie though) and a delicious ice cream and iced coffee for Charlie and Ed respectively, the latter of which was the best example of its kind Ed had ever tasted, apparently. Katie smugly sipped a skinny latte, no doubt encouraged by all the bronzed beach bods. Then we continued up the coast on to Hervey Bay and stayed in a comfortable cabin in a nice holiday park with its own peacocks wandering around the place, awaiting further news of the cyclone and whether we would be able to get the boat to Great Keppel Island the next day as planned.

The next day, we learned that our ferry was cancelled due to the approaching cyclone and some quite enormous waves (quite a good reason, we thought) and so we decided to head to the nearby large town of Rockhampton thinking this would possess the necessary amenities should a crisis arise. We drove through an unbelievable rainstorm and arrived in a holiday park to rent a slightly overpriced cabin featuring two cockroaches lying supine, apparently having decided that death was better than putting up with this weather. However, it was raining too much to return to reception to complain. We made a foray out into Rockhampton which sits right on the tropic of Capricorn
Latitude straddling
which is the beef capital of Australia and is jam packed with life size sculptures of bulls, all with improbably large testicles (which are, according to an informative leaflet we read, anchored in steel to prevent any summary castrations). We popped into the legendary Botanical Gardens, which has its own free zoo. We walked in and the place was deserted. We spotted a couple of giant spider webs and then the mosquitos started massing, dive bombing us, clinging to any visible bit of skin. We’re not ashamed to say we ran out screaming and flailing and jumped back in the car, where it was safe. To add further insult to injury, the recommended steak restaurant was closed on Tuesdays. Rockhampton, it seems, had it in for us.

The next day we went to Great Keppel Island as the ferry was running. The crossing, they said, would be rough – but they’d had worse. What followed was quite simply the most terrifying boat trip Katie has ever been on. As soon as we left the harbor our boat (a small catamaran carrying about ten people and a lot of food and bedding for our holiday park) starting pitching about wildly, at first rearing up on a wave and then slamming down the other side, the vessel shuddering with the impact. Waves washed over the top of the boat. Ed spent most of the voyage in the outdoor area at the back and came back in just before the end looking like a Labrador that’s been swimming in a river – quite wet and rather too pleased with itself. He declared the 45-minute trip “exhilarating” and said he’d experienced much worse seas as a child on a yacht in Turkey. Katie gripped onto a seat muttering prayers to anyone who would listen. Charlie decided to follow Ed’s lead and said the boat trip was “amusing”. By the time we ran onto the beach at Great Keppel Island and disembarked, Katie and even Ed were feeling a bit nauseous, dropping to their knees and kissing the sand à la Kevin Costner in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. 

Katie commented on a number of occasions that anyone considering sailing the round the world clipper race (you know who you are) would have to be clinically insane.

We got settled into our cabin and that night the tail end of Cyclone Debbie hit the island. All night the wind howled and shook our cabin and the sea whipped up enormous waves coming a bit too close for comfort. When we awoke the next morning there was about seven metres between us the cliff edge and part of the bar area of the holiday park had been washed into the sea. We spent the morning mostly hiding, but in the afternoon the sun came out and so we went for a walk/rock climb to the next bay where we found plenty of hermit crabs, broken off bits of coral and clams on a deserted beach. We were even treated to a pretty decent sunset. 
Just another sunset
We're happy to say that the weather improved after that and we even cautiously swam in the sea. The boat ride back to the mainland passed uneventfully and then we hightailed it up the coast past Cairns and the destruction wreaked by Cyclone Debbie was evident as we passed through coastal towns badly hit like Proserpine and Bowen. Last night we arrived in the jungle paradise of Port Douglas, right in the far north of the country. Sadly it turns out Charlie is too young to go on a proper Barrier Reef trip, so Ed has just left for a full day's snorkelling and Katie is going tomorrow. Today, Charlie and Katie are going to visit some crocs... wish us luck!

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Three Boat trips and a Burger

It rained on our first full day in Ohakune (although this was probably better than the volcano going off) so we had a lazy morning doing jigsaws and reading. By the afternoon we started getting cabin fever so while Katie went to the library to work Ed took Charlie to the railway museum. This was more of an elaborate shed with salvaged paraphernalia but crucially as far as Charlie was concerned they had a number of electric trains and he had the run of the place for almost an hour until two more small boys turned up at which point he proudly displayed his prowess as controller and then stood back hands on hips with a supercilious smirk on his little face.

"A train, a train, a train, a train"
We hired mountain bikes towing a trailer behind for Charlie and set off up the quaint sounding 'old coach road'. What we discovered was a nightmarish climb up the side of a mountain over rocks and grass, our unfitness hampering us combined with dragging the dead weight of a large child being pulled along like a lord in his own personal carriage. We made it about a third of the route to a quite spectacular railway viaduct where we lunched before deciding that it was more effort than it was worth to push on to the top and that we had probably sweated enough for one day.

The next day found us in Rotorua visiting a Maori village where people seem to live in imminent danger of being boiled alive in a hot pool or have molten magma rained down upon them at a moment's notice. We watched a performance of traditional Maori dance, songs and a haka, which was excellent and performed with much good humour. It was worth it to see the look on Charlie’s face when they did the haka – absolutely transfixed with his hand clamped over his mouth!
A terrified Charlie barely consented to this touristic shot
The unexpected highlight was camping by the Blue Lake just outside Rotorua. This is a scenic reserve with the campsite the only habitation allowed on the lake. We had borrowed a tent from Lois and Dom and when we arrived at the lake we were stunned by how, er, blue it was. The next day we woke up to burning sunshine and blue skies and Ed and Katie uncharacteristically decided to engage in some fairly vigorous physical activity, both taking it in turns to run the three mile perimeter of the lake followed by a swim to a pontoon in the middle. 

Hardly a better start to the day has ever been had and by the time we’d finished that Charlie had made friends with a boy on the campsite whose parents conveniently owned a boat, so that afternoon they took us all out on the lake. First we were towed round on a big inflatable ‘biscuit’ while the skipper Aaron tried to chuck off the riders and then Ed tried his hand at wake boarding and managed to stand up for a few seconds. 

Our fun afternoon came to unexpected end when the boat ran out of petrol and we had to flag down a jet-skier and get towed back to shore. Then we hightailed it back to Auckland for a late dinner and many bottles of wine with Kirsten, before saying goodbye to the North Island and heading for Queenstown the next day.  

Queenstown is in a stunning location, tucked in between mountains and flying in there on a clear day is quite a jaw dropping experience. We went straight out for dinner with Jess and Matt, contacts of an old colleague of Katie’s who were kind enough to show us round town and give us some tips on the most fun things to do. We checked out the weather forecast and it was set clear, so we decided the next day would be the best time to go to Milford Sound and photograph it in all it’s glory. So we headed out on the 5-hour drive the next morning and caught the afternoon boat. It was beautiful. Words do not suffice so here are some pictures.  

Sunny delight

Seals - centre bottom, lazy
The Glacial facial
That night we headed to Manapouri and stayed in a very rustic cabin where Ed had to engage in an extremely bloody mosquito and sand fly extermination programme. We plugged the bottom of the door with towels and hoped for the best. Needless to say it helps knowing that nothing really nasty and bitey lives in NZ – if it had been in Australia Katie may well have been stomping off with her credit card to the nearest luxury hotel (anyone working for PEAS in Uganda c. 2011 will understand).

Our plan was then to head back through Queenstown for two more must-dos – the gondola and luge up the hill and a visit to Fergburger. The latter is a seemingly world-famous burger joint that serves up burgers the size of your head with names such as ‘Cock Cajun, ‘The Dawn Horn’ and ‘Bun Laden’ (a falafel burger). The tiny restaurant is busy all the time and their marketing is pervasive and pretty irritating (think girls in tiny shorts) so we went in with a healthy dose of cynicism. However, it pains us to say that it was epic. The burgers are stupidly enormous and delicious, served rare, and if you attempt to eat the whole thing (as we obviously did) at the end you suffer a sort of meat-induced whitey where you actively consider whether or not you should just go and be sick in the loos. If that isn’t what everyone should be looking for from a dining experience then we don’t know what is.

Shocked and nauseous, we then headed up the gondola and onto the luge, a funny little over priced go-kart down a quite disappointingly short track at the top of a mountain. Then Charlie had a fit because he found some giant toy diggers in the playground and they cost $2 to use and we didn’t have any cash. This was symptomatic of Queenstown – everything costs a lot of money. It’s a beautiful place but it is ultimately it seemed to us a rich person’s playground and most things apparently cost around $200. You could rinse a lot of cash taking the crazy Shotover Jet boat through a canyon, doing a bungee jump and paragliding. We will come back when we’ve finally made a million or two.

After a disappointing overnight stop in Cromwell and a swim in a chilly lake, we headed for the West Coast on SH6. However, instead of heading straight up towards Fox Glacier at Haast Junction, we took a 100km detour on the promise of a good feed of fush and chups (sic) from TheCraypot at Jackson Bay. 
Charlie with some dear little Kiwi salt and pepper shakers. Should have nicked them.
Our meal of gurnard and turbot did not disappoint, but what we did not expect was a) the swarms of sand fly down there that would descend on any piece of flesh like murderous piranhas (they make mosquitos look positively disorganized) and b) that we would swim with dolphins. As we drove out of Jackson Bay, we noticed that a pod of dolphins were playing in the surf on the beach really close to the land. We screeched to a halt and ran out on to the beach to watch them, all the time madly swatting away sand flies. It became obvious that if we didn’t get into the water we would be both missing a massive opportunity and be eaten alive, so in we jumped in our underwear. The dolphins were riding the surf and doing very cool jumps and flips, passing around 2m from us. They clearly knew we were there and it felt as if they were being friendly. It was an experience we won’t forget for a long time and all the better for being so unexpected.

The next few days were spent being awed by the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, U-shaped valleys, moraine landscapes, mirror lakes, and the mighty Mount Cook always towering in the distance. 

Hands on hip for the glacier in the distance
Family glacier shot
Katie holding an ice block we found floating down stream.
We continued to head north and came across possibly the highlight of our entire New Zealand trip: a cafe with 2 kittens. We stayed for an hour playing with them. 

So. Cute.
We passed through cool Hokita, where we saw the remnants of the driftwood sculpture festival on the beach and ate a pretty passable whitebait pizza and Greymouth, which had a great campsite and we watched the sun go down on the beach while enthusiastic scouts lit bonfires around us.
The next day a drive over Arthur’s Pass on the way to Christchurch gave us a second opportunity to see some Kea, who we met for the first time during the amazing drive to Milford Sound. These endemic parrots love to hang around rest stops and be photographed by tourists while they tear strips of rubber off their hire car. They are very tame and are really fun to watch, as long as they are sat on some one else’s car. 

Charlie hanging out with Kea
We stopped at Castle Hill on Arthur's Pass, although Katie declared herself too hot and grumpy to go for a walk and so spent an hour swatting away wasps in the car park while Ed and Charlie marvelled at the strange rock formations. 
We headed straight to the Bank Peninsula beyond Christchurch, which is about as inaccessible as Cornwall, and stayed two nights in Akaroa. It’s a lovely place and our campsite had a great view over the bay. We booked a ride on a jet boat but sadly Charlie wasn’t up for it in the end, so Ed went for a blast by himself and managed to spot a penguin. 
Got an hour to myself, even if I did have to endure a terrifying jet boat ride.
We saved just one day for Christchurch, which in retrospect was a shame as we really liked it. Clearly it’s still a building site after the 2011 earthquake, but the gaps the quake left have often been temporarily filled with the work of local artists, there’s a surfeit of cool looking cafes and bars, a lovely circular tram ride and an awesome children’s playground. We spent a very happy day there before flying out to Wellington for our last few days in NZ. 

Fun on the tram
Sad post-earthquake cathedral
Wellington is hilly and windy and we arrived just in time for a music festival that we were  neither aware of nor participating directly in but were subject to the sound system nonetheless. Our room in the YHA looked directly out to the harbour… and the main stage, so getting Charlie to sleep was an interesting experience. Wellington was full of young people drifting around in tiny playsuits that show off their thigh tattoos, so as Dalstonites we should have felt right at home. A highlight was the magnificent Gallipoli exhibition at the national museum, Te Papa. This is an exhibition that First World War enthusiast and film director Peter Jackson created to mark the centenary of the First World War and particularly NZ’s involvement. The exhibition is incredibly moving, informative and absorbing and tells the stories of men and women who left their families to fights and die, in many cases, thousands of miles from home.

One of the giant and incredibly life-like models created by Weta for the exhibition
New Zealand was absolutely brilliant and has shot straight to the top of our list of favourite places to be. If it wasn't so darn far from home we'd be buying that section up in Whangerai and building our own personal NZ palace, but sadly our good old family and friends are just a bit too nice to leave behind so we may have to come home after all. But not before we've braved the world's most deadly everything in Australia...

Wednesday 15 February 2017

The 400 dollar apple

The first two weeks in NZ have been great. The marathon flight was OK, Charlie spent most of the 28 hour's travel time watching the same episode of 'Gojetters' on constant rotation. When we stopped in Dubai to refuel and take on more passengers, an Australian woman got on the plane and observed Charlie eating crudités and hummus that Ed had diligently prepared for the journey. She commented "how healthy, that puts the rest of us to shame, that's mother of the year award stuff, that is!" to which Ed interjected "I think you'll find it's father of the year!"

However our smug middle class parenting came back to bite us on the arse when we arrived in Auckland to be fined $400 for inadvertently trying to smuggle a rogue apple into the country. Katie's sister sagely admonished us that had we been regular watchers of '24 hours in immigration' (or some such programme) we would not have been so lackadaisical about NZ's famously stringent bio security rules. This was the least auspicious start to our visit and certainly put a downer on our arrival. We panicked that our taxi wouldn't wait for us as we had been detained so long at immigration so we rushed out into the arrival hall without checking that the department for homeland security apple division had returned Katie's passport (which they had not). This was our next mistake. It's safe to say that our brains were pretty scrambled through lack of sleep. We headed to Kirsten's in Auckland and after a quick power nap felt much better and set off to explore our surroundings. We discovered a lovely beach at St Heliers where we investigated rock pools, sushi and coffee.

The next day we rode the local train to downtown Auckland and spent a delightful day hanging round the harbor area, we watched seaplanes and all manor of boats, got our faces painted in Maori warrior style 
Charlie is getting used to pulling faces to ruin/enhance our photos

(resisting the urge to have the full facial tattoos) and Charlie played for hours in a vast shallow paddling pool with three girls he befriended. Then we managed to drag him away with the lure of a tram ride, and sashimi straight from the fish market 

what the hell is this?
The next day we had to go back to the airport to retrieve Katie's passport and pick up our trusty hire car. From there we hightailed it to the Northlands and our next stop Whangarei. We were staying in an awesome house belonging to our very kind hosts Bill and Mina high up on a hillside overlooking some stunning mountains and lush vegetation, but the best thing about it was the outside dining terrace where you could sit and drink wine late into the evening taking in the view.

Whangarei had two immediately attractive selling points- the marina and the waterfalls which was where we headed for on the first day (after scoffing down another helping of sushi- it's the cheapest eating out option and the only thing that's less expensive here than the UK and we're obviously complete raw fish fiends so we're making the most of it). The falls were spectacular 

and despite warnings that the water was unsafe to swim in- not due to the 30 meter drop just downstream but because of all the animal hormones that run into it as a result of the massive increase in cattle farming in recent years- anyway this was not putting off the local kids who were throwing themselves in with abandon from the high branches of the surrounding tree canopy.

The next day we headed up to the Tutukaka Coast to the most beautiful sheltered almost deserted cove -
Matapouri Beach. We built sandcastles, climbed rocks, had a picnic and swam in the crystal clear water. Unfortunately this was our first full day’s exposure to the antipodean sun and despite slathering ourselves in factor 50 we were rather resembling lobsters by the time we returned home.

After that we ventured to Bream Bay where luckily there was more cloud cover. We saw dolphins swimming just offshore, then Charlie resoundingly refused to try body boarding despite desperately wanting to have a go. From there we headed on to the Waipu caves which took us down a 12 mile gravel track - nervous times in a hire car - and sporting wildly inappropriate footwear we descended into pitch darkness. Once our eyes adjusted the cave ceiling began to light up like a panoply of stars on a clear night with all the glowworms. It was worth wading through chilly subterranean streams in old flip-flops to see. Waipu town was a quaint little place with a small museum commemorating the Scottish settlers who founded the region. It also stocked us up with some decent ice cream, ribeye steak and local (frickin’) merlot to be consumed the next day for Katie’s birthday.

Katie's birthday was spent with a grumpy Charlie eating ice cream, then he ventured out on a jungle trek with our small seven year old arachnid enthusiast guide, Ben. This guy was brilliant, as was his whole family (Dave, Melissa and daughter Mia) who were our neighbours while in Whangerai. Ben and Mia took Charlie under their wings and off into the bush to find all manor of creepy crawlies. Charlie was quite emboldened by the presence of older kids and had a wonderful time scrubbing round learning about the Northlands indigenous bugs. Charlie and Ed disappeared off with Ben and Melissa down a cave for an hour and came back wet up to the chest.

The next day we caught a boat out to Bay of Islands, which took us through a hole in the rock in pretty turbulent seas. 

happy face
The boat then dropped us at a desert island - Otehei Bay, where we picnicked and snorkeled and Ed was befriended by a group of rowdy sun-burnt and inebriated kiwis. We ate fush 'n' chups on the seafront using Charlie as seagull repellent before heading home. (Charlie is most useful in this respect and shoos them away with a random, but effective war cry of GADGET!!). Bay of Islands was great but we heard what we should have done was a ruinously expensive boat trip to Poor Knights Island according to professional diver and underwater (ca)mer(a)man Dave. Maybe next time...

The other big excursion in the deep north was to Cape Reinga the New Zealand equivalent of Jon O’Groats but more so. We traveled via 90 Mile Beach, (pedantically closer to 90 Kilometer beach) where Ed and Charlie surfed down the 60 foot dunes and Katie watched nervously from the bottom. We ate BBQ on the beach at Tapotupotu bay before climbing down to the lighthouse 
to point Charlie in the direction of his beloved London a mere 18,029 km over the ocean thataway. 
Closer at hand, however, was the meeting point of the Tasman Sea with the Pacific Ocean where you could see the waves colliding one body of water noticeably different in colour to the other.

caught between two seas
On another one of our day trips to Whangerai Heads we were alarmed to hear a siren which is either to call the firemen or a tsunami warning. Your clue is whether there’s just been a massive earthquake, and judging by how laid back the other residents were we decided we probably didn't need to worry too much...this time.

Our last day in Whangerai was spent on the Mimiwhangata Scenic Reserve – a sort of paradise 8km down a dirt track. Insanely beautiful and almost entirely deserted, we took a wrong turn for the beach and set off on a five mile walk around the entire peninsula. We scrambled up and down hills, over fences and visited a couple of completely deserted beaches. One of them was sufficiently remote for an American couple, their yacht anchored in the bay, to drive their outboard over to the beach and check we were OK!  It transpired they had sailed from Boston. Ed did some snorkeling and swam right over a Sting Ray, and with the tragic death of Steve Irwin in the back of his mind, made a hasty retreat to the beach.

Sadly that was our last day in wonderful Whangerai and we have to say a huge thank you to Bill and Mina who have been wonderfully kind lending us their house. If they ever sell their the Whangerai place, we’re buying it!

Then it was back to Auckland to stay with Lois, Dom and their son Jack. Lois, the sister of a former colleague of Katie's moved with Dom to New Zealand 9 years ago and they have built the most incredible house on a hillside outside Auckland. They cooked us a beautiful meal, including some enormous New Zealand mussels, which Katie loved and vowed to cook herself at some point soon. We also managed to nip down to the local vineyard for a quick wine tasting and the procurement of a bottle for dinner. They did a lovely Pinot Gris and a great dessert wine.

The next day we set off on a 10 day tour of the North Island south of Auckland. First stop was the Coromandel Peninsula, where we stayed in a ‘bach’ (that’s what people call a holiday home here) belonging to a friend of Kirsten’s. According to the family photos proudly displayed on the wall, the owners – originally from Ireland - had six strapping ginger boys. It’s a shame they didn’t have another one and then they could have been like that lovely 1950s film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers  (a childhood favourite of Katie’s) based on the ancient Roman legend the Rape of Sabine Women. The bit of the Coromandel Peninsula we saw was quite different to Northland – even hillier with lots of forest and dramatic beaches. Our favourites were Cathedral Cove – an impressive natural arch linking two beautiful white sand beaches
church on a beach
and Hot Water Beach, which, as its name suggests, has running hot water thanks to thermals running underneath the sands that are exposed two hours either side of low tide. We also did a spot of body boarding on this beach which was very fun indeed, observed by Charlie who was relaxing in a hot pool like a lord.

From Coromandel we passed the interestingly named ‘Bugger Café’ and crossed some fairly dull farmland to Raglan, surfer’s paradise, although thankfully somewhat quieter than its UK equivalent Newquay. Raglan’s Manu beach apparently has the longest left hand break in the world (thanks to Kent for this insight). We spent a long time watching expert surfers ride the waves for in excess of 30 seconds. It was very impressive, the sort of thing that makes you want to ditch big city life and dedicate your life to learning to surf. Nearby Ngarunui beach is supposed to be for learners, but still features some pretty violent waves that can (and in Charlie’s case did) knock you clean off your feet. This black sand beach is huge at low tide and good for a barefoot run, especially if you’re trying to justify some great fush ‘n’ chups for dinner.

We've just driven south to Ohakune and into volcano country (Mount Ruapehu is near the house and alarmingly last erupted in 2007). We intend to fill our days by bike riding along an old train track including 45m high viaduct, taking the chair lifts onto the ski fields and visiting a train museum. Then we're off to Rotorua and all its sulphurous delights and back to Auckland for a night before flying to the South Island for ten days  and then on to Australia (see itinerary below).

Here’s our vague itinerary below – if anyone has any tips, accommodation ideas, fun stuff to see etc. please get in touch! We are particularly looking for a house sit/ pet sit or plant watering responsibilities in Melbourne in April and if you have any bright ideas about that please let us know!

22nd Feb – Queentown. Followed by Milford Sound and probably the West Coast Glaciers, up to Greymouth and then across to Christchurch. Alternative route would be via the Mount Cook national park, which some people say is more stunning…

1st – 3rd March – Christchurch

3rd – 6th March – Wellington

6th – 18th March – Sydney and Blue Mountains

18th – 20th March – drive up to Brisbane

20th – 26th March – Brisbane

26th – 6th April – messing around on the Gold Coast and Great Barrier Reef / Whitsundays.

6th April – 26th April – Melbourne and around.

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Sand Castles and Sardines

On Sunday we left Greece after what has been an unexpected, fascinating and wonderful month. Ed’s sister Alex and Dad David have been out to visit and we have enjoyed showing them some of our favourite spots as well as visiting some new places.
Enjoying a Thess sunset...
...with a coffee
The day before Alex’s arrival we explored the old town up on the hill and decided to visit Thessaloniki’s zoo. We’re not quite sure what has happened to the zoo, but its population consisted of some deer, a flock of sheep, some rogue goats stood on top of a shed, and confusingly, pigeons in a cage. It was unclear whether they had broken in or had been put there by design. There was also a solitary pelican, living in a pond with a large number of ducks. Most of the enclosures were empty and it was a rather sad place, clearly the money had run out some time ago. We did pick up a stray kitten however, who followed us round the entire time and even to our car. It took a lot of will power not to take her with us and smuggle her back to England!

Cutest cat ever
Finding very little to excite us in the old town, we drove east and miraculously found a parking space near recommended restaurant Olive and Lemon and had an excellent lunch of meat skewers.

Postprandial tooth pick
The next day Al arrived and we took her straight to Perea for a slap up fish lunch at our favourite restaurant. Instead of sea bass we ordered three Dorades, along with the obligatory enormous Greek salad and some fried courgettes. These underwhelming vegetables are transformed (like most things) when encased in a delicious tempura batter and we proceeded to order them in virtually every restaurant we’ve visited since.

Several fishy on a dishy
Once Ed’s Dad had arrived, we all bundled into the car and spent one of the most enjoyable days of our trip on the beach at Halkidiki. The temperature was about 17 degrees, but the water was still clement so we all went for a swim (except Charlie, who though better of going any further than up to his waist). We played frisbee and did some underwater filming with the go pro, which will no doubt be cropping up on a film in December. 

It was beautifully sunny and we set up our camping table and had a picnic of cheese pastries, tzatsiki, aubergine dip and Greek salad. Sadly Ed was suffering from a bout of toothache and had an impressively swollen gum. Happily Greek pharmacies let you buy antibiotics over the counter so he dosed himself up on those and a load of painkillers (luckily Dr. Cross was with us). After we’d built an impressive sand castle complex with Charlie, the sun slipped behind the hills and the temperature seemed to drop about ten degrees. We suddenly found ourselves in wet swimming costumes on a freezing beach so we deployed our faithful thermos of coffee and made a hasty retreat to the car with the heating on full blast. 
Could be July frankly if it weren't for the Greek person in a bomber jacket and scarf out of shot.
We drove back to Thessaloniki and ate at a well-known fish restaurant in the eastern district of Kalamaria. We wouldn’t have got a table on a Saturday night, only we arrived at 7pm, which is at least two hours before any self-respecting Greek person would think of having dinner, so they squeezed us in. We all shared a delicious whole grilled Kingfish along with, guess what, another mountain of fried courgettes. Ed also realised that in terms of treating toothache, gargling with ouzo is by far the most effective medication and managed to get through about a bottle by himself in this pursuit. 

On Alex’s last day we ate at Estrella, a brunch place that had been recommended to us by our airbnb hosts as well as a random woman in the street, who took it upon herself to tell us to eat there apropos of nothing. Maybe she works for them?! It was actually a little like being in Hackney again – eating eggs on toast surrounded by people much younger and more beautiful than you. Katie ordered a dish that came with ’64 degree eggs’, presumably referring to the cooking temperature. These were a real misfire and were milky and cold. Blurgh. We found it a bit try hard and not a patch on some of the more authentic eateries the city has to offer. 

God these weird eggs are boring
For example, we have recently discovered a meze restaurant in the covered market, which is absolutely superb, so much so we visited it two nights running. Some of the dishes would not have been out of place in Barrafina or Jose’s (our two favourite tapas haunts in London). We paritcularly enjoyed the cod’s roe tarama, octopus cooked in squid ink and red wine (this was divine) and fried sardines served in the skillet. Service was fantastically friendly, a seafood bisque arrives on the table when you sit down, without being requested (or charged for) and the same goes for the raki after the meal is finished – they just leave the bottle on the table. When such a good meal with gallons of wine comes to just £30 you know you’re onto a good thing.

With Ed’s Dad here we have been visiting some of the archeological sites. Ed and Charlie took David to see the ruins at Dion and to visit Mount Olympus. Eerily, while they were there, someone set off a load of flares from Mount Olympus and it was as if Zeus himself was chucking down lightning bolts at us mere mortals. This has rather fuelled Charlie’s imagination and we are pretty sure he thinks the Greek Gods are real. David has been reading to him from an exhaustive, but incredibly dry treatise on the Greek myths by (the generally brilliant) Robert Graves, published in 1912, although we hope he skipped over the more unsavoury bits like Oedipus accidentally killing his father and marrying his mother. 

Actual proof that Greek Gods EXIST
The most impressive of all the sites was Vergina, the place where King Phillip II of Macedonia (or Val Kilmer to us) was buried, along with some other important people.
Macedonian royal family
Their tombs were uncovered in the 1970s and it has all now been developed into an impressive museum, containing the artifacts discovered within them (think blingy gold crowns). The whole place was beautifully done and up together. Most Greek archeological sites are presided over by at least five members of staff all chain-smoking next to the no smoking signs and doing absolutely nothing else other than following you around like you might be planning to rob the joint (not unreasonable after we pulled that trick with the Elgin Marbles). Not so at Vergina. The museum sits beneath the mound of earth containing the tombs and around the tombs themselves, so you walk into the hill. We also managed to piggy-back on an English speaking tour, which really illuminated the whole thing. Obviously Charlie was bored witless and all this visiting tombs brought up the Death Conversation again (while we were in Dion, Charlie saw a dead cat and we had to have an extensive conversation about death and explain that all people die and it’s the one thing we know will happen to us. Heavy).
Charlie thinking about serious stuff
Greece was brilliant. It could even be our favourite country so far. This month didn’t end up being quite what we expected, but that’s actually been a positive. The weather has been amazing (it’s rained once) and we have swum in the sea in November!
Good old Thess waterfront
Greek pirate ship
Greek people are lovely and Charlie has milked the situation for all it is worth. One evening we walked into what can only be described as a dessert emporium – row upon row of tiny beautiful cakes and pastries. We were hardly through the door and a waiter had performed the obligatory cheek-pinch and thrust a chocolate biscuit into Charlie’s little paw. We don’t know how he does it.
A cake young sir?
One of our most enduring memories of Greece will be the totally mad driving. You will never see hazard-warning lights deployed with such wanton abandon – they are literally a license to do whatever you want. We’re not sure what the Greek driving test consists of, but if you own a fluffy dice, you probably automatically pass.

We imagine a Greek driving handbook reads as follows:

- Fancy double or triple-parking on a dual carriage way while you saunter off for a coffee? Stick your hazard lights on and go for it!
- Don’t have time to wait at a red light? Flash your hazards and then creep through.

- Lorry driver in need of a wee or a kip? Just stop on the motorway’s slow lane (hazards on obvs.) Everyone will swerve around you.

- And motor cyclists – you don’t need to wear a helmet, just sling it over the handlebars.

However, the longest lasting memory of Greece will in fact be Katie’s hair. In a fit of madness and nostalgia, she decided it would be a good idea to go red again. She got a bit carried away with an over-enthusiastic hairdresser who was already sporting her own garish shade and was persuaded to go for a colour that could only be described as adventurous. At the final reveal, all the other hairdressers in the salon downed tools and gathered round saying things like ‘wow, new you!’ eagerly eying her to see if there would be tears. As Katie was leaving the hairdressers, a stray dog started barking at her. Ed gallantly said it looked nice, but nevertheless, walking past shop windows is now a deeply shocking experience. But it will really annoy Katie’s parents which probably makes it all worth it in the end.

On Sunday morning we began heading home, via a 2,700km drive through eight countries (Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Belgium and France). We planned to spend a couple of nights in Belgrade, a night in Ljubljana, a few nights in Sonthofen in Southern Germany, probably finishing with a night somewhere like Cologne, then making a mad dash for the coast, a ferry and a pork pie as soon as we hit the white cliffs of Dover. 

On Saturday, the day before we left, we had a quick chat about the journey by way of preparation. It suddenly dawned us that neither Macedonia or Serbia are in the EU (something we should frankly get used to). This means our car insurance didn't cover us, so we spent a panicked two hours researching alternative routes back through Italy or via Bulgaria and Romania (and although we were keen to meet Vlad the Impaler on a dark country road, it would have added serious mileage to our journey). 

Then after some internet sleuthing we discovered we might be able to buy a third party insurance 'green card' at the border to cover us while we drove through. Sounds dodgy and it probably is, but 50 euros and some very careful driving later, we made it through the lawless non-European hinterlands and are safely back in bona fide insurance zone. Mind you, we thought the game might be up at the Serbian border, when they requested our vehicle registration certificate, which is safely filed (at an unknown location) in the UK. We managed to bamboozle the border official by handing them a folder with all our MOT and service receipts for the last 13 years. After about 20 minutes they got bored and sent us on our way.   

We've visited Belgrade (probably the new Berlin - you heard it here first) and Ljubljana (chocolate box) and we're now in Sonthofen, Germany, looking forward to a couple of days R&R, eating wurst and drinking beer.