Ho Chi Minh City

On Wednesday 23rd October we took a bus from Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam. The six hour bus journey with Mekong Express was infinitely better than our previous bus trip (Siem Reap to Phnom Penh), although nothing in comparison to our luxury bus journies in South America. The bus was comfy and they made the border crossing a breeze, especially when compared to some of our previous border crossings (Bolivia to Argentina, for example).

The skyline of central Ho Chi Minh City

Continue reading

Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng

After our days exploring the ancient temples around Angkor Wat we spent some time in Phnom Penh exploring some more recent history. We arranged a tuktuk to take us out to Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields, and then to Tuol Sleng, better known as S-21, on the way back.

Before coming to Cambodia I knew a little about the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields, but I was by no means an expert. Following our visit to Choeung Ek and Tuel Slong I am still not an expert, but now I have some understanding of the horrors that went on during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to early 1979.

A mass grave where 450 bodies were found

Continue reading

Siem Reap

Following our very relaxing week at Melia Benoa, we left Bali on Monday 14th October heading for South East Asia and the final leg of our big adventure. Our flight provided us with a few hours at Singapore Changi airport before arriving in Bangkok at 2100 local time. In anticipation of being asked to prove that we were leaving Thailand within the 30 day visa, but not being prepared enough to have sorted out our visas for Vietnam, we had booked a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia for first thing Tuesday morning.

Hongda picking us up from the airport

Continue reading

Hippie times around Oz

After so long experiencing winter temperatures (even though some were considerably higher than a normal British winter), it was quite a shock to the system as we walked down the plane steps at Ayers Rock airport into the 34°C heat. Actually, it was the hottest weather we had experienced since our wedding day a little more than 12 months earlier. It is always a relief when you see you based appear on the luggage carousel and this time was no different.

The wreck of SS Maheno on Fraser Island

Continue reading

A week in paradise

During all of the planning for this seven month adventure we had intended to have one week of luxury in Bali. We included a stop in Bali when we booked our flights but that was all of the planning we did until a week or so before we were due to arrive! As we travelled down the east coast of Australia we spent our time researching the remainder of our time in that country instead of organising the next country. It wasn’t until we arrived in Sydney and spent a few days staying with family that we finally had time to think about our luxury week. We would spend hours trawling the internet looking for hotels, find some that looked good and then checked recent reviews for them. It was not with surprise that we often found the hotel website telling a very different story to the reviews, but eventually we found a hotel, in our price range, with space and a website that matched the reviews – so we quickly booked it! Finally, with only three days left until we were due to fly to the island of Bali, we had our hotel booked! We had booked 7 nights at the all-inclusive four-star resort of Melia Benoa, located on the northern edge of Nusa Dua. It included all of our food for the stay, all soft drinks and local alcoholic drinks, activities within the resort and non-motorised water sports and the hotel’s private beach. It should be quite a change to the 10 weeks spent in hostels in South America and then the 11 weeks spent in campervans in New Zealand and Australia!

Our flight from Sydney included a brief (3 hour) stop in Melbourne, including a one hour delay because of a temporary closure of Bali’s Denpasar airport because some important person (possibly a nation’s leader!) was flying in for the APEC summit taking place in Nusa Dua. We eventually touched down on Indonesian soil just after 10pm, taxied to the wrong gate, taxied back to the runway and then taxied to our correct gate. The UKBA guys at Heathrow could learn a lot from the immigration guys at Denpasar airport as it took more than 20 minutes for them to process the entire flight through passport control! Our bags took slightly longer to arrive and it was approaching midnight by the time we met our driver and headed out of the airport. At the hotel the check-in process was swift and we were soon being shown around our room, home for the next seven nights and the longest we have stayed anywhere since April. Our bodies were telling us it was later than it was, due to the time difference between Australia and Bali so we climbed into bed and were asleep almost instantly.

Tuesday began annoyingly early thanks to our bodies confusion over timezones. We decided to make the most of the morning, despite still being tired, and headed down for breakfast – a huge buffet spread and a feast for our eyes. Before we could tell ourselves to take things gently as we have a week of this, we had both eaten too much and were feeling worse for it! We took a walk to explore the hotel’s grounds before heading back to our room to get ready for a morning chilling by the pool. My favourite part of the resort, and something neither of us have experienced before, was the swim-up bar – made even better as we don’t have to pay for the drinks! We got changed before enjoying the buffet lunch in the beach side restaurant and then spent the afternoon relaxing on loungers under a sunshade on the beach. In the evening we dined at the resort’s upmarket Italian restaurant, enjoying an amazing three-course meal that was probably the best meal of the entire trip so far.

The following days followed a very similar pattern, with us enjoying an early breakfast, spending the morning and afternoon lounging around the pool or taking a swim up to the bar, interspersed by various activities including archery, air-rifle shooting, massage demonstrations, and a colouring-in lesson for Lindsay! I also managed to get Lindsay out on a kayak, albeit for a brief ten minute paddle as the jet skis hurtled all around us.

The hotel put on a number of different events for evening entertainment including a cultural Balinese dance show, a fire poi and percussion show and a cabaret show as we dined on the beach, with sand beneath our toes!

We did manage to escape the false world of the resort for an afternoon and hired a driver to take us to Pura Tanah Lot temple, Kuta beach and then Uluwatu temple for sunset. Seeing the real Bali outside of the protective walls of the resort was humbling and certainly worth doing. Pura Tanah Lot temple is an old temple built on a mini island a few metres off the mainland, and there is a causeway which allows access at low tide. Kuta was very, very busy and we could understand why it is known as the party town of the island – even from a visit in mid-afternoon. Uluwatu temple is built high atop a sea cliff and the surrounding area is full of monkeys willing to relieve you of your sunglasses, hat, earring…anything which isn’t permanently attached to you! Unfortunately there were a few clouds in the sky which obscured our sunset but it was still definitely worth a visit.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our week here and are sad to be leaving today, leaving the luxury of the resort and heading back into hostels as we explore Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos over the next two months before we arrive back in the UK.

New Zealand by Spaceship

After 10 week travelling around South America we made it to New Zealand on Thursday 18th July. Because we crossed the International Date Line the wrong way we lost Wednesday 17th July 2013 completely!

After spending a few days catching up with family in Auckland and Hamilton we picked up our Spaceship in which we were to spend the next four weeks exploring New Zealand. Our Spaceship is a bright orange Toyota Estima MPV, converted into a mini campervan. It comes complete with stove, fridge, DVD player, double bed, storage and even a sofa! Our plan was to hot-foot it through the North Island to explore the South Island and the explore the North Island on the way back if we had time.

North Island – part one
After picking up our Spaceship, named Button, on Tuesday 23rd July, our first stop was a supermarket in order to stock up on basic supplies for the trip and food for the next few days. Our first night was spent on the driveway at Lindsay’s aunt’s house in Auckland where we could sort ourselves out and be ready for the start of our Button Adventure bright and early the next day. Well, bright and early didn’t exactly work out as planned and around 1030 we finally set of south, with Waitomo our destination for that night. On the way we stopped at Otorohanga to visit the Kiwi house for feeding time. We saw a number of Kiwi birds, which looked similar to a football on legs drinking through a straw! We continued from there to Waitomo and booked onto a tour of some Glowworm caves the following day with Spellbound. Having practiced setting up the Spaceship as a campervan the previous night we were starting to get the hang of how things worked. For example, although the bed in Button is long enough for either of us, we worked out that if we set the sofa up in a certain way there would be enough space for us both to lie out flat in bed, just!

The glowworms are, in fact, not worms at all. They are gnat grubs and do not look pretty when you see them with the lights on. With the lights off, however, they are quite magical to see, appearing like stars on the cave roof. As part of our tour we were also taken to another cave where we got to see stalagmites, stalactites and various other rock formations. From here we set off south towards Wellington and the South Island. We made it as far as Ohakune for our second night on the road and on day three we stopped in Palmerston North for lunch and a visit to the National Rugby Museum. From here we continued to Paikakeriki for our third night and the campsite was only a couple of hundred metres from the beach. After setting up our Spaceship for the night we took a walk and I got my first glimpse of the Tasman Sea, as the sun set over it.

Our fourth morning saw us drive the remaining 40km to Wellington where our first stop was the Interislander ferry terminal so we could book a ferry to take us across the Cook Strait. We had a few hours before we had to check in so we drove the short distance into the city centre and went for a walk along the sea front. We stumbled across a weekly arts and crafts market held in an underground carpark and just enjoyed the views out across the harbour. Whilst wandering around we didn’t spot any evidence of the 6.1 magnitude earthquake which occurred only a few days previously, but then we probably weren’t looking very hard. We then headed back to the Interislander terminal to check in for our ferry. Once aboard we found some seats by a window and settled in for the three hour crossing.

As we left Wellington the views were good, but not particularly stunning. As we entered the Marlborough Sound at the top of the South Island the views were truly spectacular. The sun was starting to set in the west and the light falling on the hillsides standing over the perfectly still waters of the sound was something to behold. It was almost with sadness that the sun finally set and we docked in Picton.

South Island
We decided to drive the few minutes from the ferry to the Top 10 campsite in Picton, rather than head anywhere else. The following morning we took a walk along the headland from the campsite towards Snouts Point. The walk to the point and back takes three hours, but we only did a two hour loop so that we could spend the afternoon driving to the Abel Tasman National Park. During our walk we were treated to beautiful views across the sound and we only saw a couple of other people – the joys of travelling in winter! Back in our Spaceship we set off towards Nelson, driving through wine country. We stopped in Nelson for a resupply at the supermarket as where we were going for the next couple of days would have limited options. Another two hours and we arrived in Marahau, a very small town and the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. We stopped in the water taxi office on the way to our campsite and booked a trip for the following day. Our campsite had a kitchen and facilities block, but turned out to be the most basic site we stayed on.

Early on Monday 29th July we awoke to find a good frost on our spaceship! After a quick breakfast we were picked up and taken back into town to get our water taxi into the park. We went for an option which included a tour of the coastline before being dropped at Bark’s Bay, from where we would walk the 12km to Anchorage and get another boat back to Marahau. At Bark’s Bay the boat beached and we jumped off the front onto the bright, white sand. As the boat continued on its journey we stood in awe as we had this amazing beach completely to ourselves. The sand was white and the water a clear turquoise colour. As we walked to Anchorage we saw only five other people in just over three and a half hours as we were treated to stunning view after stunning view. Amazing bays that no doubt are heaving in summer were completely deserted. Back at Anchorage we had a few minutes to paddle in the sea before our boat arrived to take us back to town. The boat dropped us back Marahau and we realised that we had forgotten to arrange a lift back to our campsite, so we set off to walk the 2km out of town to our Spaceship.
The following day we set off relatively early as we had a day of driving planned, with Hokitika our destination for the night. We stopped at a beautiful cove at Charleston for lunch overlooking the water. We also took a break at Punakaiki for a walk to see the ‘Pancake Rocks’ – layered rock that is said to look like a stack of American pancakes. In Hokitika we treated ourselves to fish and chips whilst watching the sunset from Sunset Point. We parked the spaceship sideways to the beach, opened the side door and spun the sofa sideways so that we could enjoy the view and dinner in some comfort! The next morning we visited the turquoise waters of Hokitika Gorge and then continued south to Franz Josef. Our first stop was to book a trip up to the glaciers for the following day and then we settled in at our campsite just out of town.

Our trip to the glacier did nor start until 12:15 on Thursday so we took advantage of the first few hours we had off since leaving Auckland by enjoying a late start, a chilled morning and a pasty from Picnics European Bakery in town. Our trip up to the Franz Josef glacier started with us bring provided with the necessary kit, including crampons and boots to put them on. We were then taken across the road to the heliport – yes, we were being taken up to the glacier by helicopter! It was only a short flight and after being dropped off on the ice we were taken around the glacier for around three hours by our guide and saw ice tunnels and caves. I even managed to squeeze through a small gap, that our guide challenged us to, although I did learn that crampon spikes are quite sharp as I put one through my trouser leg! After our guided walk on the glacier the helicopter returned and took us for the short flight back to town. On the way back to the campsite we stopped off at the hot pools to relax our muscles and warm up a bit!

Our next destination was Queenstown for a fill of adrenaline-fuelled fun. My cousin, Adam, drives coaches for Contiki and we knew that, as we were travelling around the South Island, he would be too. He was told to look out for our bright orange spaceship and we were keeping a lookout for his Contiki bus. We hadn’t seen any Contiki buses so far, but as we drove along the shore of Lake Wanaka, just north of Wanaka, we spotted a Contiki bus in a lay-by. As we got closer Lindsay recognised my cousin standing in front of the bus, laughing. We pulled over for a quick chat and it turned out that he had just pulled over to allow his passengers a photo opportunity overlooking the lake! I know there aren’t that many roads in New Zealand, but we were still very surprised that we happened to be passing just as he had pulled over, allowing us a quick catchup! After bidding each other farewell we continued south to Wanaka for lunch and then to Queenstown, while Adam and his bus continued northwards to Franz Josef.

Arriving in Queenstown we checked in to our campsite in the middle of town, had dinner and then walked into town for a wander. On the way in we popped in to the office of NZone, a skydiving company, and booked a jump for 0830 the following morning! We then discovered an amazing Wine Tasting Experience. You take a smartcard and chose a type of wine you would like to taste (they have a machine for each wine type). Each machine holds six different wines and there are tasting notes against each bottle. You then insert you smart card into the machine and select what quantity taster (20ml, 75ml or 110ml) you would like and voila! The tasters were priced depending on the size of the taster and the price of the bottle of wine, varying from $1.60 for a 20ml upwards. We thoroughly enjoyed our evening trying six different wines each and our bill only came to around $34! As we had an early start the next day we didn’t stay out too late.

Saturday 3rd August saw our alarm going off at 0600, allowing us plenty of time to get up, eat and get to the NZone office for 0830. We signed our lives away and were shown a promotional video showing what we were to expect and what photo/video options we had. We then piled into a minibus to be taken out to the airstrip were everything would take place. There were ten of us in the group, five of whom were jumping from 12000ft and fice of us who had gone for the 15000ft option. We waited while the lower jumpers were taken through, kitted up and briefed. Once they had boarded the plane and taken off we were taken through to get kitted up. It was at this stage we were informed that the low cloud had prevented the first group from reaching their target height, jumping from 9000ft instead and falling through rain. We were given the option of jumping from this lower height or rebooking for tomorrow. As we weren’t in a particular rush and wanted the longer free-fall we took the option to delay, rebooking for 0800 on Sunday morning. After being taken back to town we returned to our campsite for lunch and decided to walk to the viewpoint above town in the afternoon. There is a perfectly good cable-car which will take you to the top but we decided to take the very steep walking track instead! It took an hour to climb and by the time we reached the viewing platform we were both hot! As we stood looking out over Queenstown a helicopter came in to land on the helipad next to the viewing platform, bringing a bride and her bridal party to her wedding which was to take place in the restaurant on the other side of the viewing platform. After enjoying the view we started to walk back down to town just as the first few spots of rain fell. Fortunately most of the walk down was in the shelter of trees so we didn’t get too wet. Back in town we took a wander around the shops before making our way back to camp for another early night.

Sunday started at the same early hour as the previous day. Opening the curtains (yes, we even had curtains in the spaceship!) we saw cloudy skies and were not feeling confident about our jump this morning. Nevertheless we got up and headed in to town for 0800 only to be told that our suspicions were correct and the cloud was too low. However, the weather was supposed to improve greatly during the morning and we were advised to rebook for 1030. We made the most of the extra time by heading back to camp and relaxing! At 1030 we were back in the NZone office and were given the thumbs up as we walked in the door. We had to fill out the same forms as the previous day (and I had to be weighed for the 5th time in less than 48 hours) and watch the same promotional film. We then piled onto the minibus to be taken back out to the airstrip and the news continued to be positive. The 12000ft group went first and managed to make it all the way to their desired height before jumping, so we were good to go! We kitted up, were introduced to our jump-master and our cameraman (we had a cameraman each who would record our jump and take lots of photos) before being loaded onto the plane. As Lindsay and I were both heavier than the two other jumpers in our group we had to sit closer to the cockpit and would therefore be jumping after the other two. The plane took off and climbed steeply all the way to just over 15000ft before the door was opened and the first two jumpers disappeared out through it. Then it was our turn! We shuffled down towards the door. Lindsay’s cameraman climbed out and hung on to the side of the door while Lindsay was left dangling out the door. Then she was gone, falling into the distance. My turn next – my cameraman climbed out and hung on to the side while my jump master left me dangling out the door with nothing but air between my feet and the ground 15000ft below! As we fell out of the plane the world seemed to flip as we went end over end before we stabilised and the drogue chute was deployed. This little chute provided stability as well as slowing us down by around 100km/h so that my jump master and I together would fall at the same rate as our cameraman. The views over the lake and snow-capped Remarkable mountains were amazing as we fell and tried to take it all in. In what felt like no time at all the cameraman pulled away, our chute was deployed and we slowed with a very sudden jolt. Dangling under the parachute I was able to enjoy the view even more and watch the rest of the group as they came into land. Just before we landed my jump master told me to stand up as we landed. As we landed and I stood up he quickly changed his mind as he discovered just how much taller than him I was! We managed to remain standing and that was it – 15000ft done with 10000ft of free fall in less than 5 minutes!

We were taken back to town and we had a three hour wait for our photos and videos to be ready to collect from the NZone office. Our first stop was lunch – pies from a bakery and then we rounded it off with an ice cream from Mövenpick. Afterwards, we decided to continue with adrenaline as a theme for the day and took a trip on a jet boat down the river. At rest and slow speeds the boat needs around a metre of water to float it. At speed it only needs 10cms to float and this was demonstrated by our driver along with the ability of the boat do do 360° spins! After an hour on the water and my hair now standing on end courtesy of the wind, we collected our photos and videos and set off for our next destination – Te Anau. The drive down to Te Anau only took a couple of hours and we checked in to the campsite, had dinner and got an early night after the excitement of the day and ahead of an early start tomorrow for a day trip to Milford Sound.

We were picked up from our campsite reception at 0800 to discover that there were only six of us on a 22 sweater coach – another example of why you should travel in winter! An example of the downsides of travelling in winter followed, as the fog was so dense you could only see a couple of metres off the side of the road as our driver tried to point out various sights that we would normally be able to see. The fog did lift as the morning continued and we were able to see the sights further along the road to Milford Sound. We were able to take see why the ‘mirror lakes’ are so callrd and see some of the scenery used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Once at Milford we were taken out on a cruise of the sound seeing Mitre Peak, numerous waterfalls, fur seals and some rare Fjiordland Crested Penguins. On the cruise back to town we stopped at the discovery centre and underwater observatory where we were able to see some of the fish and other lifeforms, including Black Coral (which is neither black nor a coral), which call Milford Sound home. A short boat ride later and we were on the coach heading back to Te Anau, stopping at the appropriately named Chasm en route.

Waking the next morning to find nice weather greeting us, we decided that we would walk part of the Keplar Track today. Starting at Rainbow Reach we crossed a big swingbridge and spent a few hours walking along the well maintained track through beautiful forest until we reached a lake where we sat on the shores and enjoyed our picnic lunch before retracing our steps back to the carpark and our spaceship.

A day of driving through heavy rain was on order the next day as we made our way to Aoraki Mount Cook. Our plan was to stay at the campsite at Glen Tanner, half way up the road to Mount Cook. Upon arrival, however, we were informed that they were renovating their amenities block and we could only stay if we had our own toilet and shower facilities. I know that our spaceship was well equipped but this was beyond the capabilities of Button and so we turned around and headed back to a campsite at Twizel, which we had driven through just over half an hour previously. To say that the campsite in Twizel was quiet is a bit of an understatement as we were the only people there! After a very quiet night we headed back past Glen Tanner and made it all the way to Mount Cook village and walked along the Hooker Valley to get a stunning view of Mount Cook, the highest mountain in Australasia. After lunch we returned to the village and visited the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre where we watched a 3D film showing off Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and then a docu-film about Hillary’s expedition in which he, alongside Tenzing Norgay, became the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Realising that there was more to do here than we had time for in one day we made the decision to treat ourselves to an early first wedding anniversary and spend the night at the renowned Hermitage Hotel. The balcony in our room offered amazing views along the Hooker Valley to Mount Cook in the background. We freshened up and then watched a docu-film called A City Dark, about light pollution in the worlds cities, before we dined in the Panorama Restaurant, where the curtains were closed!

Waking the following morning to sunrise over Mount Cook was something special! We spent the morning exploring the visitor’s centre before setting off on the drive towards Christchurch, stopping for lunch on the shores of Lake Takepo on the way. Reaching Christchurch earlier than we expected we decided to continue on to Akaroa, thinking it can’t be much further. We discovered our error when we reached the next roadside which said that Akaroa was another 80km away! This 80km took the best part of two hours to drive as the roads became very wiggly and steep. Akaroa is described in the guidebooks as a quaint French town – while it was a pretty little town in a nice bay, it is not very French. We took a walk around town the following morning and then made our way back towards Christchurch, stopping at Lyttleton, the epicentre of the big 2011 earthquake. The town has made a good effort at rebuilding since then but there is still a lot of evidence of the quake, with a number of buildings still being help up by steel support structures. We continued from here into the centre of Christchurch. Knowing that it was also badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake we expected it to still be showing signs of the quake. However, we were both surprised at just how much it resembled a warzone, with most of the buildings in the centre, along with a number of roads, behind fencing all off limits. It was confusing to drive around due to the road closures and other roads that were now one-way. The only car parking available was on gravel areas where buildings once stood. There were multistorey carparks but these were all cordoned off for being unsafe. As we wandered around town we only saw one shop open in a building in the CBD and that was a large department store. One thing that did impress us was the Re:Start mall, made completely out of brightly coloured shipping containers. Around the Cathedral there were images depicting what the skyline looked like before the quake and looking around you could a marked difference to what is visible today. It appeared that they have spent the past two years cleaning up and were just starting the rebuild phase.

We spent the next day visiting the International Antarctic Centre, learning about what is happening down at Scott Base, some history of Antarctic exploration, experiencing a -18°C wind chill in a snowstorm, taking a ride in a Hagglünd and seeing the Little Blue Penguins being fed. The afternoon was spent at the Quake Centre, a museum about the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that caused so much damage to the local area. There were pictures and eyewitness accounts of the devastation and the huge clear up operation that had been ongoing since, including the efforts of the Student Army of Volunteers.

The following morning we packed up and set off for Kaikoura. It was only a short drive and we had arrived by lunch time, so we parked up at Point Kean Seal Colony to eat our sandwiches. As we sat there enjoying out picnic we were treated to numerous NZ Grey Fur Seals playing on the rocks in front of us or simply lounging around in the sun all over the car park. We spent most of the afternoon there watching the seals, reading and enjoying some downtime. On the way through town to our campsite we booked a Whale Watching tour for tomorrow morning.

Due to the unique geological set up just off the Kaikoura coast, with a continental shelf dropping around 800m, it is a popular spot with Humpback Whales enjoying the deep ocean conditions. The proximity of this drop-off to the shore makes it popular with boat trips looking to see the whales. We took a trip out on an 18m catamaran and the whales we were hoping to see were the same length and twice the weight of this boat! The sea was rough with huge swells which made the journey out to the deep water interesting but on the way we had a treat. Our guide was part way through his talk about the whales when he stopped and told us we were changing course slightly as they had found some dolphins ahead. When we reached them we discovered the ‘some dolphins’ actually meant a pod of around 200 Dusky Dolphins playing around. We had about ten minutes watching them as they continually showed off jumping, flipping and somersaulting for as far as the eye could see. We only had a short time enjoying this sight as we had to go further out to find the whales. We were lucky enough to find two whales on the surface during our trip and saw both of them do the classic head down, tail up dive you see on TV. On the way back to shore we located the dolphins once more and enjoyed another 10-15 minutes watching their playfulness before it was time to head back to the harbour. We drove back out to Point Kean to watch the seals as we ate our picnic lunch before we hit the road towards Picton. It was another rainy drive and we arrived in Picton just before the ferry booking office closed for the day. After booking a trip back to the North Island for first thing the following morning we headed to the campsite we first stayed at when we reached the South Island two and half weeks previously.

North Island – part two
The ferry trip back across the Cook Strait was just as beautiful as our earlier trip across it and we were back in Wellington by lunchtime. As we had not really seen much of the city on our previous visit we decided to spend the afternoon there. We visited the Te Papa museum, learning more about the geological and human history of the country, and then visited the Mount Victoria lookout overlooking the city. We managed to time our exit from the city to coincide with rush hour and so queued all along the motorway to Hutt City where we would spend the night.

The next morning we set off north in the direction of Taupo. It was another beautiful drive, first along the west coast and then along the desert road beside the Tongariro National Park. The weather was favourable for us and we were treated to amazing views of Mt Ruapehu. We stopped off at the i-Site in Turangi to enquire about the feasibility of doing the Tongariro Crossing and left with it booked for the next day! We hotfooted it to Taupo Top10 campsite, as that us where we had arranged to be picked up at 0550 the following morning.

It was still dark as we stood at the campsite entrance awaiting our transport to National Park Village. We picked up five more people from hotels in Taupo before we set off for the 90 minute drive. Most of us slept for the first part of the journey and then once the sun was up we started to enjoy the views, initially across Lake Taupo and then across the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. The clouds cleared for us as we drove along the side of the park, affording us views of the three peaks of the park – Mount Tongariro, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe (the latter being better known as Mount Doom to Lord of the Rings fans). Our guide said that we were very lucky as it was the first time for more than a fortnight that the clouds had cleared enough to see the top of all the peaks. We were taken to the Adrift Guiding office in National Park Village where we were kitted up with everything we would need for the day, including hard hats, ice axes and crampons! Then we piled back into the bus and were taken to Mangatepopo, from where we would start our walk. The walk started off easily, with an hour long walk along the valley, although the guide did set quite a high pace to ensure that everyone in the group was fit enough to undertake the complete walk. As we neared the end of the valley the wind was picking up quite a bit and so we didn’t hang around long before starting the next part – a steep one hour climb up to the Tongariro Saddle. This used to be a tricky scramble up a steep slope but the Department of Conservation have recently put in a new, gentler path involving lots of steps. Once at the saddle we still had more climbing to do to reach the South Crater. By this time we had past the snow line, but the path was still relatively clear of snow and ice. As we crossed the South Crater towards the Red Crater, the path became less well defined and we started walking on ice and slipping around. It was at this point that our guides stopped and instructed us to put on our crampons and hat, as well as how to use the ice axe. Once they were happy that we knew what we were doing we continued on up to the Red Crater. The visibility was closing in and by the time we reached the highest point on the walk we were unable to see more than around ten metres – certainly not enough to see into the Red Crater and understand why it is so called. As we stood resting, the clouds rapidly dispersed and we were treaded to almost perfect visibility in all directions! We could see the streaks of red rock that give the Red Crater its name, we could see back across the park to where we had started our walk from and beyond as well as across the Central Crater to where we would be walking during the afternoon. We descended from the top of the Red Crater down to some shelter below on the Central Crater for lunch. This was also where one of our guides had been digging holes for avalanche testing, trying to work out whether the the avalanche risk had reduced enough for it to be safe enough to continue, or whether we would have to retrace our steps back to the carpark at the start. (The trip the previous day had to retrace their steps at this point as the avalanche risk was deemed too high to complete the walk). Having decided that the avalanche risk was lower than low enough to continue the weather closed in completely, reducing visibility to less than five metres. It was compounded as the white cloud met the white snow, making it very difficult to make out undulations in the snow! We made it across the crater to the Blue Lake Ridge and were somehow only a few metres off course, despite not being able to see where we were going. Another avalanche test was carried out and again the snow was deemed hard enough to continue. We now walked around the side of Mount Tongariro, crossing numerous steep snow fields one at a time to further reduce the risk of avalanche. If the weather had been clearer we would have been able to see the Te Māri crater steaming, following its eruption on 6tg August 2012. Arriving at Ketetahi Hut we did see some of the damage caused by that eruption. The hut is 1.5km away from the crater that erupted, but the crater spewed rocks up to one metre in diameter up to 2km. One of these rocks went straight through the roof of the hut and destroyed one of the bunk rooms inside. Another rock took a chunk off the roof at the back of the hut and another completely obliterated one of the hut’s water tanks. The area all around the hut was covered in craters up to five of six metres across with rocks firmly wedged into the ground in the centre. (The eruption occurred in the early hours of the morning so there were no walkers around. It was lucky that no one was staying in he hut at the time though!) From the hut we continued for another hour and a half to meet the bus, where we were each presented with a cold beer each in celebration of completing what is known as New Zealand’s greatest one day hike – and doing it in winter! We were taken back to our campsite in Taupo where we had an early night.

The next morning (Saturday) we were on the move again, heading for Rotorua. It was only a short drive and so we had checked in and were on our campsite in time lunch. Over lunch we decided to head out of town for an afternoon of Ogo-ing. Ogoing is just like Zorbing, but it had the longest wiggly Sidewinder course available. And because it was winter, they use hot water in the Ogos, which kept us nice and toasty warm. We had two runs each. Our first run was a race down the straight course and we were in an Ogo each. I won but Lindsay said I cheated as I helped my Ogo get a better start. Our second run was down the wiggly Sidewinder course, which we did together in the same Ogo. Lindsay was all giggly and happy until maybe three-quarters of the way down the course when she suddenly went very quiet and white-ish… I think we were going a bit too fast for her! We had a great time then headed back to camp to get showered and warm.

My cousin Adam, who drives for Contiki and we bumped into on the South Island, was on another tour and also staying in Rotorua so we took advantage and went for a nice curry and a catch up. After dinner we went to a bar which was the venue for the Hen Party of the first same-sex wedding in New Zealand due to take place first thing on Monday morning. The happy couple had won a radio competition for their wedding and Adam knew the couple! We stayed for a few drinks before heading back to Spaceship as we were still sore and tired from the walk the day before.

Sunday morning we awoke and decided to take advantage of another activity on offer locally – whitewater rafting on the Kaituna, including the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall. Oh, and did I mention that this was our first wedding anniversary? And I managed to get Lindsay to go whitewater rafting! We were picked up from town and taken out to the rafting company’s office where we were kitted up, before heading out to the river. The rafted section on the Kaituna is quite short – only taking around 50 minutes. The trip started with a few smaller falls before the big one. At the big waterfall, which is around a 7m drop, we managed to get the raft and all of the rafters completely submerged! After this there were a few smaller rapids that we played but the trip was quickly over. Oncd off the river we stopped at the offices to get changed before we were taken back to town, where we immediately set off for our next destination – Phakarearewa Thermal Village. We watched a ‘cultural show’ and then took a walk around the village looking at the various hot pools, thermal baths, Hungi ovens, geysers and bubbling mud pools before joining a guided tour where we were shown the same things again! With the afternoon rapidly disappearing we were back in the spaceship and heading for Hamilton, and dinner with Bob and Gaye, my aunt and uncle. We arrived just in time for dinner and followed this with a lovely evening simply chatting and catching up. We were also treated to only our second night in a proper bed since picking up Button almost a month earlier (the first being at The Hermitage at Aoraki Mt Cook). We had planned to sleep in Button on their drive, but the drive was too steep and we would have both ended up sliding off the end of the bed and sleeping in a heap behind the front seats! We enjoyed a very lazy Monday morning sat on the patio with Bob and Gaye before we bid our farewells and set off for Coromandel Town, on the Coromandel Peninsula. The first part of the drive was not particularly interesting but the second half was beautiful, as we drove the coast-hugging road up the west side of the peninsula. We left Coromamdel Town the next morning and headed across to the east side of the peninsula. Our first stop was for a walk to New Chums Beach. You park your car at the end of a road and have to cross a stream (I had to give Lindsay a piggy-back as I was wearing flip-flops and she was wearing her walking shoes), walk along a beach and then some rocks before crossing a saddle near the headland and descending on to New Chums Beach. This is the only way to access this beach and it is completely undeveloped, save from a few steps that have been put in over the saddle to limit erosion. Our first glimpses of this beach took our breath away as it was one of the prettiest beaches either of us have ever seen. And to top it off, we had the beach completely to ourselves! We walked along the beach, paddling in the clear turquoise water and we thought to ourselves how lucky we were to be here. Our second stop was at Cathedral Cove, where coastal erosion has left a cathedral-esqe arch in the headland. This beach also required a walk to get to, but the walk was more developed with boardwalks and staircases. Back in the spaceship we continued south to our campsite for the night at Hot Water Beach. The tide times the Wednesday morning were favourable, meaning we would be able to take advantage of the selling point of this beach the next day.

Low tide on Wednesday was as 1230, meaning the hot springs that give this beach its name would be uncovered from 1030 (two hours either side of low tide). We were sat in Button in the beach carpark in the rain, along with a number of other vehicles, clock watching and waiting for 1030 to arrive. There was no let up in the rain as we started walking along the beach to find the hot springs. There are two springs on the beach, one with water at around 60°C and the other around 64°C! We were fortunate in that we weren’t the first group on the beach – and they had already done the hard work in locating the springs! We started digging and quickly had our own hot pool on he beach. We had to be careful where we sat or stood though as the water could be very hot. I enjoyed sitting in the hot water and Lindsay was content with standing in the water, just keeping her feet toasty! It wasn’t long before more and more groups arrived and soon the area around the hot springs was very crowded. We decided that we would donate our hot pool to a newly arrived group and make our way down the peninsula towards Auckland which was to be our destination for the night, parked on the driveway at Lindsay’s aunt’s house. We had intended on spending the night in Button, but we ended up spending our third night in a proper bed after an evening sat around chatting and catching up.

Thursday morning we enjoyed more sitting around and chatting before we set off on the drive to Paihia. Arriving in Paihia we booked a trip up to Cape Reinga and 90 Mile Beach for the following day and then spent the afternoon relaxing at our campsite overlooking the water. It was nice just lying and reading my book with the water’s edge no more than 15m from the edge of our pitch.

It was another early start as we were picked up at 0650 for our trip to the very north of New Zealand. After picking up the other travellers (we always seem to be the first pick up on trips like this) we headed north until our first stop at Puketi Kauri Forest, where some of the trees are thousands of years old. We took a 15 minute walk along a boardwalk installed for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit. (Millions of dollars were spent installing the boardwalk and the queen only took four steps along it!) From here we headed to Taipa for morning coffee and where we were able to see some kind of Rays swimming around the harbour. Our next stop was Cape Reinga where we walked to the famous lighthouse that is often mistaken for the most northerly point of NZ. This honour actually falls to a headland a few kilometres east of the lighthouse. The headland we were standing on, however, is where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea and you could actually make out the line of rough water where this was occurring. Back on the bus we started heading south before turning off down the Te Paki stream, a riverbed which is also an official road! We stopped part way down the stream to throw ourselves down the sand dunes on body boards, for as many times as our legs would carry us back up! With tired legs we climbed back aboard our bus and headed off for a blast down 90 Mile Beach, stopping once or twice for photos along the way. Once off the beach we headed to the Ancient Kauri Kingdom, where they work with ancient Kauri wood which has laid in the ground for thousands of years. Once the bus had been washed to get rid of the sand and salt it was time to head back to Paihia and the end of our last day trip in New Zealand.

Saturday morning we pack up our spaceship and set off back to Auckland and took a trip up Sky Tower to enjoy the views across the sprawling city. It was then time to head back to Lindsay’s aunt’s house, where we spent the next couple days unpacking the spaceship, doing washing and repacking our belongings into our rucksacks ready for the next leg of our round the world adventure – Australia!

New Zealand photos

We have spent the past six weeks in New Zealand, five of them in a Spaceship named Button. We have managed to explore both the North and South Islands and our activities have included ‘tramping’, glacial hiking, skydiving, jet boating, zorbing and alpine hiking. A full blog post details our exploits will follow in the coming days (once I have written it!). I have managed to sort out some of the photos from our trip and they are available on http://photos.andywicks.com

Crossing the Cook Strait

Continue reading