Back on the road – Hanoi and Hue

Having been a bit shaken up by the Vietnamese police ordeal, we were keen to get back to Hanoi as soon as possible and push on with our own schedule. As good as the Ha Giang experience had been, we’d felt very restricted by staying in one place for a relatively long period of time, with little to stimulate or entertain us. By this point, we were getting a lot out of the nomadic way of life and we wanted to see more of Vietnam and make our own decisions about where to go and what to see. After another long journey back to Hanoi, squeezed into the bottom bunk on the sleeper bus, we were relieved to arrive back at the V4d house and be reunited with a few familiar faces. We were offered the opportunity to stay an extra couple of nights at V4D, but I had been dreaming about a bit of privacy and a plush hotel room and was determined to stick with our plan, despite cost.

‘Plush hotel room’ wasn’t exactly how I would describe Hanoi City Hostel, but it ticked most of the boxes we were interested in – bath, clean sheets, private room, hairdryer! (Ironically, we went to a very plush hotel room first, greeted with porter service and a glass of fresh juice, only to discover our directions had led us to the wrong street. They did look at our backpacks with a certain amount of suspicion!)

There are no other words to describe Hanoi other than chaotic, stressful and choked with traffic. Motorbikes teaming around, weaving in and out of other motorbikes and pedestrains. Crossing the road is a nightmare – you are left with no choice but to walk out ‘slowly and carefully’ and allow the traffic to weave around you. Desperate for a taste of something different, we pounded the streets and ended up walking around in circles until hitting upon a seemingly popular place with plastic chairs and tables on a street corner. We ordered an assortment of things, including nems, sausage and chicken, only to discover it was actually pretty expensive. We made up for this on the following night when we discovered a fab beef noodle stand on the corner of Hang Bo, moments away from the hostel. So good we went twice!

Determined not to be put off by the seering heat and humidty, we enlisted the services of a friendly ‘Hanoi Kid’ – a scheme set up by local university students to offer free tours of the city in exchange for the opportunity to practice their English. First item on the agenda was the Temple of Literature. Very interesting buildings, and history, and nice grounds to get away from the noise beyond the walls. Next we were shown to a little upstairs café, popular with the locals, to try something I’d be desperate to try – coffee with egg! A nice glass of iced coffee arrived with thick, fluffy egg white on the top, ready to be stirred through to make a creamy, sweet drink. Delicious!

The next day, we were up early for a daytrip to world famous UNESCO heritage site, Halong Bay. We had always planned to visit Halong Bay during our trip to Halong Bay, but had become a bit concerned that we might not do it justice in one day. After all, it was a 3.5 hour journey each way in a tiny minibus from Hanoi, so we debated for a while but finally decided it was a must do! When we finally arrived, we got onto a junk boat and immediately sat down to a seafood lunch of fish, spring rolls, omelette and cabbage at long tables with a few other older couples. There were definitely a few ‘trophy wives’ amongst the pack – tottering around the slippery deck in heels and wide brimmed sun hats, overtly posing for photographs. After a brief trip around the bay in the junk to admire the stunning karst limestone scenery and the floating villages, we were invited to get into kayaks to get a closer view. We felt rather sorry for one Russian girl, who was bundled into a kayak on her own and set on her way. She didn’t seem to make much progress in the time we were given. Next it was onto the caves, which were all lit up in different colours (and also home to some slightly incongruous penguin bins). Whilst it was certainly a whistlestop trip and a long amount of time to spend in the cramped minibus, we were glad we had decided to go for just the one day, and felt we’d still seen enough scenery to justify going. Our boat probably wasn’t the best, and we didn’t get much time on the kayaks, but we still managed to soak up the scenery.

After a final goodbye to our V4D friends in the form of a burger (hooray, Western food for the first time in ages!) and a 15,000 dong beer, we got ready to catch the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue. We had booked into a 6 berth coach, and I had agreed to go on the top bunk as a little cost saving measure. I soon found out why these beds are the cheapest option – it was very cramped and claustrophobic, but I turned the light out, stuck my headphones in and got to sleep as soon as possible. After initial reservations, the journey was actually pretty smooth. I was rocked to sleep by the motion of the train early on, and didn’t wake until our Vietnamese roommates cranked open the curtains at daybreak. Before we knew it, 12 hours had passed and we were well on our way to Hue.

Hue immediately appealed a long more than Hanoi. Lots more open space, and pleasant tree-lined riverfront with a view to the ancient Citadel on the other side of the water. Our taxi dropped us at the guesthouse we had pre- booked on the basis of a good write up in Lonely Planet – HueNino Hotel. We weren’t disappointed;l greeted with juice and starfruit and a cold towel in the entrance lobby, surrounded by all the positive write-ups from previous guests. This guesthouse is an absolute gem, run by a very friendly and attentive family who keep the place immaculate. We certainly felt it was worth every penny we paid. The room was also extremely nice, albeit with a ridiculously small bath that I couldn’t even fit into to!

The main reason for staying in Hue was to visit the ancient Citadel, but we were a bit taken aback by the cost of the entrance fee. We decided to pay up though, since we were there. Once inside the walls, we were fascninated by the palaces and ancient ruins, and derelict war-torn ground interspersed with amazing Chinese style buildings and pagodas. This setting made for one of my favourite photographs of the trip.

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Ancient Citadel, Hue

The gardens were extensive, and lovely and tranquil. We could have spent hours there, with a picnic, had it not been for the intense midday heat. We needed plenty of water, and had to visit the vendors twice. Later on, we followed the recommendation of the hostel and enjoyed some delicious chicken in sesame and pork with bbq sauce and pineapple at Golden Rice restaurant.

The following day, we decided to buck the trend by not visiting the cluster of tombs around the city. In all honesty, we were feeling rather cultured out, and costs were beginning to mound, so we set off on foot to explore a few undiscovered gems of Hue. Such as an amazing pagoda and collection of buildings hidden down a side road behind the railway station. Amazing mahogany buildings decorated with beautiful silk lanterns and big open rooms for prayer and quiet reflection. As we were wandering around, we came across groups of young adults. One English speaking volunteered explained that it was a social meeting for the parents of children with leukemia. We meandered back towards the main part of Hue, and stopped for an incredible Mango shake at Lac Thien, made by a mute, deaf man who signalled for us to ‘drink up, drink up’ so that he could top up our huge glasses with the rest of the smoothie. Can safely say it was the best Mango Shake of the trip – and that’s quite a testimonial considering how many I drank!

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Trouble in Paradise

It is fair to say that, so far on our trip, we’ve been rather cautious travellers – particularly when it comes to choosing the speed and convenience of flights over and above long distance buses and trains. Keen to save a bit of money and have a bit more of an ‘authentic’ experience, we bought an all inclusive bus/ferry ticket to travel between Koh Samui and Koh Lanta. The journey started well, albeit a painfully early (6am) start from the hostel in Samui, but as soon as we arrived at the ferry port, things went downhill! We piled onto a rickety looking bus, only to discover that there weren’t enough seats for the number of passengers. Consequently there was a rather comic scene when we returned to the bus as people jostled to get on first. We were among the lucky/savvy ones, but it turned out to be academic when the bus broke down about 20 mins into the journey! Another wait at the roadside for replacement minibuses to the bus depot. We were under the impression that we would be travelling on the same bus as all those passengers going to Krabi, but suddenly there was a call for people travelling to Koh Lanta to get into a tuk tuk. Since there were only four of us, they decided in their infinite wisdom that we could be loaded onto a public bus! More waiting, and then a painfully slow drive to Krabi, stopping regularly to allow the public to hop on and off. By this point, it was clear that the journey was going to take considerably longer than we had been told, and we were feeling very unsettled and tired. The only plus side was seeing a lot of the Thai countryside! Finally we arrived in Krabi, but the nightmare journey wasn’t over yet! We were dropped off down some deserted backstreet at a suspicious looking shack, where a Thai lady informed us that they had only been told about 2 passengers, so there was only room for 2 in the next minibus. The German lads who were travelling with us were adamant that they were going first, despite Tom’s attempts to negotiate! Finally we were on the last leg of the journey, arriving in Koh Lanta at 8.30pm… In the dark and in the middle of the craziest storm we have ever seen. Rain hammering down and lightning that lit up the entire sky.

We were staying at ‘Time for Lime’ bungalows on Klong Dao beach. This was one of the places we had found on the internet early on in the planning stages of the trip, and as soon as we arrived we were not disappointed. For the first time, we had our own space, private bathroom and even a few pet cats on the veranda. (Time for Lime is run in conjunction with Lanta Animal Welfare, and the lady who owns the business rescues and rehouse many of the unwanted cats and dogs on the Island). Even though it was dark, we could see we were staying right on the beach front, and we were invited to sit up in a rooftop bar under the canopy of the trees to have a welcome mojito and food. Tom’s meal of King Fish was especially good. Time for Lime also offers a free buffet style breakfast with fresh fruit, yoghurt, muesli and eggs.

One of the main reasons for coming to Time for Lime was the Thai cooking course they offered. (Considering we met on a cooking course in France, this was something we were both especially keen to do) The course started at 4pm and ran into the evening, so our day was spent lounging at the beach and enjoying the sea. Koh Lanta is a lot quieter and more serene than the hustle and bustle of Koh Samui, although we were disappointed to still see quite a bit of rubbish and plastic bottles etc. washed up on the shore. Overall, I think it is fair to comment that, whilst the Thai Islands certainly are stunning in places, we have been to nicer, ‘fresher’ beaches closer to home in places such as Greece and Croatia. The cooking course was fun, but it was a surprisingly large group of people, making it harder to get one-on-one attention as we had perhaps hoped for. Also, a lot of the food had already been prepared and sectioned up for each individual, meaning there was less scope to make the dish your own and learn from the experience. We basically just cooked the food in front of us and ate the food. A great evening nonetheless – particularly from a social point of view as we sat down to eat with several different people and had an opportunity to have a few drinks at the end.

Unfortunately, the night took a turn for the worse for me as I woke up in the early hours with food poisoning. This only got worse as the night and next day went on, and in the end I spent the best part of 3 days in bed and missed a lot of our planned activities for Koh Lanta. The only nice thing was having a cat (ironically a tabby called Tipsy, so not too different to my own Topsy cat!) to keep me company. Tom went to yoga, and enjoyed a bit more beach time with some of the lads staying in Time for Lime.

As we had planned, we divided our week in Koh Lanta between two parts of the island, choosing to move to Horizon Bungalows further down the beach for the last 2 nights. By this point, I was feeling much better, but the relentless heat was pretty draining. We were the only ones staying in the Horizon, but unfortunately our room was fan only rather than air conditioned, so at night it was near impossible to sleep. Food was still a bit of challenge for me, but we highly enjoyed and would recommend Otto’s Bar and Grill on the beach. Excellent selection of simple but tasty meat dishes and very generous portions.

On our last day, we found a deserted beach just around the corner from where we were staying, and made our way down to it, really pleased to have found somewhere away from other tourists and vendors – in other words, the image of the real Thailand we had pictured. Spent a few hours chilling, went for a swim and a snorkel, but then as we were leaving, we noticed a suspicious looking trail of brown slick waste being washed ashore. Most likely oil from the container ships further out at sea, but slightly sickening to think we had been swimming in it only moments before! Slightly disillusioned, we decided to treat ourselves to a Thai massage at one of the beachfront luxury resorts. Owing to the fact it was ‘low season’, the resort spa were offering treatments at very reasonable prices, plus use of the facilities i.e. the pool for the rest of the afternoon. The massage was incredible. Very firm, as you might expect from a traditional Thai massage, but lovely and relaxing given the tranquil setting. A real treat after a difficult few days. The afternoon at the pool was great too. We felt like honeymooners! We remarked that for the first time, our opinions had shifted slightly. It was easier to see why people might want to spend a week at a resort such as Sri Lanta, given some of the difficulties and disappointments we had faced when trying to find our own way. A sad reflection perhaps.

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‘Buckets’ of fun in Koh Samui.

We arrived in Koh Samui feeling a little bit anxious about our next few weeks in Thailand after the scams and fast pace of Bangkok. This soon changed after a smooth journey when we were greeted personally by Ricky – owner of Backpacker Samui Hostel. 

A small hostel of 24 beds; two 12 bed dorms either side of a common room area. A really socialable hostel with a pretty cool owner who helped us out whenever he could, although he was so relaxed it was a bit frustrating! ” I’ll tell you about that later, you’re here all week”.
A much nicer feel in Koh Samui due to the Westernisation, even though at times it felt a shame to be in such a touristy place.
Songkran – Thai New Year April 13th. This is celebrated with a gigantic water fight ( the water poured over the head banishes the sins). Scooters and pick up trucks drive along the main roads with everyone on the pavement spraying them with water and visa versa. It all kicked off the night we arrived at which point we loved it, however our enthusiasm dampened ( !!! ) after 24 hours of getting sprayed. At one point we had a bucket over us whilst fumbling with the lock of the hostel gate, and Claire got a watery mix of white talcum powder sprayed all over her nice black dress. A very funny spectacle and amazing to see how they could keep that energy going all day, literally queuing to get onto the main road to go round again.
We met Jasmin, a German girl in the hostel with exceptional English and went for an eye wateringingly spicy meal – I had one eye on Liverpool – Man City though (what a game! ) ,erupting when Sterling slotted that first goal. Claire and Jasmin soon realised I wasn’t much company for them and left me in the Irish bar for the second half whilst they went to drink 70 baht cocktails and listen to live music at the excellent night market. I sat down with two nice lads who we later went for a few drinks with on the beach at Ark Bar.
Koh Samui was filled with drinks and lazy mornings, a nice holiday feeling.
Unfortunately this feeling came crashing down with the very sad news of Great Auntie Joyce’s passing. A quick point to say it’s nice to know how interested Joyce was in our adventures but also how sad I am not be able to tell her all about it. A special lady.
After speaking to my family we decide to continue with everything as planned: (somewhat inappropriately, that night’s plan was to head to the full moon party.) We were hesitant, but Mum and Dad assured me I should go.

Ricky had kindly organised a couple of minibuses from the hostel to take everyone to the shuttle speedboat to Koh Phangan. Arriving just after 8 we went for a couple of drinks and to neon paint it up. The beach party was a good laugh but must admit we expected it to be a bigger, more dramatic event and assumed it would be a couple of djs playing to big crowds rather than lots of bars. Loved the fire rope skipping though – many a burn! A couple of potent buckets were consumed but not enough to be left in the ‘pass out area’! Spotting one girl completely sparked out face first in the sand I decided to ‘bar one style’ put a cup on her – it proved an unwise move as she woke from her slumber like a wild animal! Heading home at 3ish on the speedboat with 2 lads from the hostel telling us they were so tired of getting scammed/charged more they had just stolen a Mars bar as revenge on the Thai nation but now felt really bad about it!

Ang Thong National Park – An early start in preparation for the 1 1/2 boat trip to the park with Australian, Jack who was on his Easter break from his job as a secondary school teacher, I enjoyed quizzing him on teaching and talking all things sport trying to keep up with his Rob Tucker-esque knowledge. On arrival at the park we were told we could do a 30 minute walk to a viewpoint. We set off – in flip flops – up some of the most difficult terrain I have ever walked up – slippy, rocky, roots and mud. As our compatriots dropped out and headed back down we carried on up sweat dripping from my brow barely stopping to look at the monkeys playing in the trees. The view from the top was stunning and the guy from our tour boat waiting with a bottle of water was a huge relief. After a very quick swim (the walk had taken almost an hour and half) we got back on the boat for an excellent buffet lunch and watermelon before setting off for a kayak, Jack and I paddling, Claire cotching in the middle taking pictures, loving life. Enjoyed the boat trip back to Samui with Jack and a South African couple who we chatted to.

We enjoyed our time in Koh Samui; looking back I think it was perfect for what we wanted, it was westernised but with some nice Thai restaurants and Thai sunshine! We found the middle narrow strip pretty .. Well everything you’d associate with the word strip-noisy,touristy, Burger King, McDonald’s. Unfortunately, this was the only way around the resort other than walking the long way round through the incongruous shopping centre. This walk way was a welcome relief from the Songkran activities and the pick up trucks with speakers on the back advertising the Mai Thai fights (is driving one of these trucks around on the worst jobs in the world?!) We were also disappointed with the fact that there were only 2 or 3 public access points to the beach, which were down dark lanes – resulting in disaster one night with me stubbing my toe, cue blood pouring out whilst I lay faint on the floor!

Jesus what a grumble! It’s actually pretty decent in Koh Samui, hostel good, lively but not too lively, nice warm shallow bay, cheap food and drink and a good place to nip across to the full moon from with some good friends made in the hostel!

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‘Wat’ to do in BKK

On April 9th, we left all the comfort and familiarity of New Zealand behind and flew to Bangkok with a little pit stop in Australia. Another long flight… Not really worthy of comment with the exception of Tom’s visible disappointment that the episodes of ‘Bondi Rescue’ he’d yet to watch had been cut from the in-flight entertainment system. Instead, he made do with ‘Mr Bean’ – highly entertaining! We also found it surprisingly difficult to spend our remaining $11 Aussie dollar. Burning holes in our pockets… Several large Toblerones seems the obvious choice but since we were heading to a 30+ degree temperature zone, this didn’t seem the best idea. A pack of facial wipes was the most inspirational thing we could come up with.

Anyway, we arrived in Bangkok airport, and headed straight onto the airlink sky train system. Very impressed with this. Cheap, fast, clean and nicely air conditioned. Meant we remained oblivious to the searing humidity until we left the underground station near our hostel. Straight away, we were hit by the noise, the frantic pace of people and traffic moving, mopeds driving down streets. Our hostel, Etzzz hostel, in the Silom business district was nothing special, but well placed. Despite tiredness, we headed out in search of food… Straight into the red light district. Lots of calls and offers for ‘Ping pong shows’. Whilst we understood what this meant we were amused at the thought of table tennis supremeo Sarah Jackson heading inside to learn about the latest techniques!!!

Our first morning got off to a pretty disastrous start. We (totally naively in hindsight) powered out of the hostel and straight onto the subway without really consulting a map or thinking to ask at the hostel about the route we were taking. ‘Junior’. When we got off the subway, we were immediately disorientated because none of the road signs bear much resemblance to the map, ended up walking around in circles and down some back alleys selling vehicle parts! Pretty much everything we’d read and researched about avoiding scams and being hassled went straight out the window as we were told by a ‘helpful’ local that the street ahead was closed due to the protests. Next thing we know, we’re being encouraged into a tuk tuk, and whipped down some back alley to catch the ‘ferry’ up the river. The ferry turned out to be a long tail boat company that had us completely at their mercy. Dubbed into shelling out a massive 1000 baht, we were on the boat, only to pull up at a grim, slum-like docking platform where a menacing man charged us a further 40 baht as a landing fee! Bad times. Shaken by the experience, we made it to Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha statue, taking comfort in the hourds of other Western tourists. We commented we wished we could attach ourselves to them, and wondered how they had got around. So advice to future travellers to Thailand… Plan your route! Check with the hostel before leaving and try not to check the map too many times when out on the street.

After getting on the actual ferry, 15 baht, and a nice way to see the city we headed to the MBk mall. This is Bangkok for softies, not just us, a few other westerners too. All the stalls selling knock off gear along with a food mall which has not pictures of the food but rather examples of the meal plated up under cling film, very helpful! We managed to visit the Grand Palace (our intended destination on the first morning). We were pretty chuffed to arrive just in time to get a free English speaking guided tour, but a combination of heat and accent made it very difficult to concentrate on what the tour guide was saying. Stunning buildings though. Lots of good picture opportunities, and a chance to chat to some fellow travellers from Turkey and France. The girl was a lawyer tasked with overseeing the pharmaceutical companies “after weapons, it is the the most dangerous industry in the world”.

A definite highlight of Bangkok was an evening at the Moon Bar sky bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel in Silom. We dressed up for the occasion – Toms shoes rather than flip flops, and went up through a very fancy hotel entrance to the roof. We walked out onto an open air terrace right on the roof, through an extremely fancy candle lit restaurant, to sit at the cocktail bar right at the edge of the building with a panoramic view of the Bangkok skyline. Drinks were expensive, but worth it for the memorable experience. Came back down buzzing!

As the few days passed, we definitely got more street savvy in Bangkok, but commented how out of character (and how sad) it was for us both to feel so suspicious of everyone all the time. Anytime anyone stopped to say something to us – apparently perfectly friendly and chatty – we ended up being almost rude and unengaged so as not to be scammed. We also found the disparity between areas and aspects of the city very obvious. The subway system was so quick and seemingly cheap but it didn’t seem to be widely used at all. Very empty compared to other cities. And you came out of expensive shopping malls to tiny stalls and back streets littered with rubbish. Not totally unexpected of course, but interesting to observe first hand none the less.

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New Zealand… Highs and Lows

We’ve come to the end of the New Zealand leg of our trip so thought it would be good to summarise some of the best (and worst) bits of our trip. We came to New Zealand with high hopes and it certainly delivered. Stunning scenery around every corner, incredible hospitality, great food and wine, and we’ve been unbelievably lucky with the weather into the bargain.

 

First of all, let’s get the lows out of the way (because there aren’t many!)

1) Sandflies!!! Especially in the Nelson Lakes and Hanmer Springs, but pretty much anywhere near water. My (Claire!) legs are in absolute trauma!! So many bites, we have worked our way through nearly two whole tubes of bite cream. So. Itchy.

2) Campervan problems. Having a camper van in NZ is great. Not so much when the hob, fridge and starter motor all pack up at one point or another! Rather stress inducing!

3) Cost of two of my (Tom) favourite things, beer and cake. Alcohol generally London prices and NZ could defiantly do with a Greggs or two. 

4) On arrival in Auckland we picked up a magazine with lots of helpful vouchers inside, but we forgot almost all of them at the crucial moment or realised afterwards we had a voucher for it. Probably added up to a fair bit over the trip. 

5) Although we have done some really good walks we have done some bang average ones too, some in the bush for hours, some hopelessly signposted, some hopelessly maintained. Best example is our Arrowtown walk. However we do appreciate that the beauty of this country is partly it’s sparse population and thus undeveloped landscape which whilst meaning some less good walks do create some of the incredible views and places we have seen.

Here are our top 10 Kiwi moments…

1) Our first night in Queenstown. Walking along the waterfront, the place was buzzing with people eating al fresco – both at waterfront restaurants, and just casually sitting on the beach or cross- legged on the wall. We did a lap, and had the most amazing taste of Patagonia ice cream. Mmmm…

2) The skydive above Lake Taupo. Perfectly clear day, stunning views, drifting in to land feeling incredible about having just jumped out of a plane. And survived! 

3) The WWoofing experience in general. We only wwoofed for 3 weeks, and are aware we probably struck amazingly lucky, but we were treated to amazing hospitality from both families and got a real taste for the local area as well as some fab home cooking. Particular highlights were the drive back from Wanaka with impromptu stops for a wine tasting and a whitebait butty with Sally, and cooking and preparing for the dinner party in Purakaunui with Barbara. The pavlova was top. 

4) Our last day/afternoon in Mount Manganui with Liv. Watching the surf life-saving, eating sushi, lying in the sun watching Tom getting his surf lesson, followed by a cider in the sunshine. Topped off with steak meal back at our home away from home. Great weather, great place. We didn’t want to leave!

5) Dinner at ‘The Crab Shack’ in Wellington. Lived up to expectation. Great atmosphere, really packed out restaurant, and the best mussels. 

6) A proper Queenstown day – Ben Lomand track – along with Mt Robert in Nelson Lakes, my favourite high walk. A really steep climb, which I love, stunning views from the top, walking down whilst the vast majority of people were still coming up after getting out early. A feeling of being on top of the world and an amazing situation where you have no idea what the view is on the other side until you reach the top, in this case mountains for miles and miles. A Fergburger as a reward and a night out with a drink in every Irish bar in Queenstown for St Paddys topping off a really good day.

7) Sunrise and sunset at Ocean Beach in Whangarei Heads – a place I fell in love with, reminds me of the best of Devon and Cornwall and the Isle of Man, in a way I’ve found NZ scenery to be a bit like the UK on steroids! In a way also nice knowing it’s a place no one we know as been or is likely to go any time soon! A walk and swim at 730am, sunsets watching the surfers and chatting to locals and the moon reflecting on the sea out the van window. 

8) Hamner Springs – a great little find, after intending to go for the afternoon, we stayed 3 nights, a nice alpine town with good walks, good mountain biking and a nice hot pool. 

9) Rugby, sorry for the cliche! Watched a couple of good games in bars on the tele in Wellington and enjoyed our trip to the Highlanders in Dunedin. 

10) Abel Tasman National Park – a stunning drive from Nelson at 7.15 seeing the sunrise over the mountains to start us off. A fun boat trip up the coast and a long but beautiful walk back to the van followed by some lovely and well deserved wedges at the pub. Stunning scenery and in true NZ style completely different to what we had seen before and would see again on our journey through this magical country.

All this combined with sampling L&P lemon drink, hokey pokey ice cream, plenty of Mac’s beer and ginger ale and cider, Marlborough wine, chocolate fish (especially good on the side of a kickass coffee), feijoas, lots of juicy peaches, Omega plums, a multitude of caramel slices with the right generous amount of caramel, and a genuine kiwi pavlova. Happy times indeed. 

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WWOOFing Part Two- Purakaunui.

20 minutes after creating our wwoofing profile and sending off our details, Barbara and Chris responded saying they’d love to have us. Brilliant, their profile had very complimentary feedback about the views and the pavlova that someone had enthusiastically said they had had two times!

We arrived in Dunedin and whilst I headed for a much needed hair cut, Claire went for a taste of home in Starbucks. My haircut was entertaining with the gentleman querying how one finds out where to get his haircut on the internet and stopping half way through to get his laptop and test this out.

We were picked up by Barbara and Chris’s friends Karen and Kelvin. They were very friendly, interesting and interested in us! Karen being ridiculously posh at least in accent but playing on it in a very entertaining way. They educated us in the world of house swapping – they have ‘banked’ weeks in Vancouver, Lake Como, Greece, France and Slovenia! Definitely something to consider. As is hosting wwoofers… both Claire and I have commented that it looks fun, as well as helpful and we look forward to being in a position to do so in the future.

The first day of work started with us walking upstairs to the smell of freshly baked still warm bread with homemade jam, pure. We started attacking the garden, something I got quite into, later removing a huge patch of bushes with saws and loppers, good fun really! Claire I think had less fun dragging the branches down the drive into a pile, a good work out though. This workload continued with time spent weeding and composting; both good work outs again. Claire did however prefer making the beds in the holiday cottage they rent out. ‘As ye like it’ was built on the queens belt by the sea but unnoticed by the authorities until Barbara and Chris bought it a few years ago. This makes it a rare property being right on the waters edge. It is a real oldy worlde place with wood stove and outside toilet, perfect though for a romantic retreat or family trip. It has featured in NZ lifestyle magazines and is worth a look at online:

http://www.bookabach.co.uk/491 (Any prospective holiday makers, we’re working on commission… Name drop us and you might get a discount!)

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Free time was spent walking on the two nearby beautiful beaches although one of the trips was slightly tainted by seeing a baby seal washed up on the beach and nearing the end of its short life.

I also went to Speights Brewery which was interesting but I did feel that the best bit was the 35 mins free bar at the end of the tour with a chance to try all six of their beers and chat to fellow travellers. I managed to scoff down a bit of food to absorb the 2 pints before the lift home with Karen and Kelvin but I shouldn’t have bothered, Karen was keen on us all getting through 4 bottles of wine at the dinner party that night.

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Claire and I had already cooked a beef curry and pavlova and set about making condiments for our curry. A really enjoyable evening with Barbara and Karen and Kelvin, wine, fire and loads of food, made us feel very grown up.

The following evening was spent at the rugby in Dunedin. Otago Highlanders vs Melbourne Rebels as part of the Super15 series. A proper kiwi night out, an exciting 33-30 win for the Highlanders including an extra time push for a try to get the bonus point rather than being careful not to concede themselves, bold tactics! Arron Smith was one to watch, Highlanders scrum half, scoring a try in a man of the match performance despite giving away an intercepting and a penalty both resulting in Rebels tries. Claire really enjoyed her first live sport experience and whilst I told her it was nowhere near the atmosphere at Valley Parade it was good. We were disappointed with the lack of haka and the immediate start after the teams ran out did catch us by surprise too.

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A break from the hacking for me and weeding on the steep garden slopes for Claire meant a cooking workshop. We made some lovely jelly and meatballs (not together!) as well as some oatmeal biscuits. We were slightly sceptical of the oatmeal biscuits though and wondered why these ingredients weren’t being used to make flapjack. ( I miss flapjack! Thomas the Baker has a lot to teach NZ bakeries). Whilst Claire made a delicious YSE cardamom pannacotta she proved she has a lot to learn in the kitchen as she loudly attacked my (recipe to follow) cooking of the meatballs in the sauce. It turns out that this is the much better way to cook meatballs and avoids the burnt oily nature that pan frying gives.

Better off leaving the cooking to Barbra …our final night has come and we have just finished a delicious seafood paella with freshly picked clams. Picked from that at 5:30 and eaten at 7, doesn’t get much fresher than that. Picking shellfish of some sort myself and cooking it was abit of an aim for NZ so I’m glad I’ve finally done it.

So comes the end of our NZ trip. It is very fitting that our visit to this special country ends with a bit of everything that we have enjoyed whilst here – good food, good wine, good beer, outdoor activities, stunning deserted views, nature (kingfishers, herons) and perhaps most importantly nice people and great hospitality. So thank you to Barbara and Chris ( and Karen and Kelvin) for providing us with a really good end to our visit to New Zealand.

 

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The wonderful world of WWOOFing

It took about 10 minutes into our walk around the waterfront in Queenstown for us both to realise we didn’t want to leave anytime soon. However, despite having sorted NZ working visas, we were aware that it was going to be pretty unlikely that anyone would employ us properly for the length of time we had left in the country. In another massive stroke of good fortune, I was casually chatting to Tessa online and she suggested we get in touch with her mum – who just so happens to live 15 mins out of Queenstown – and see if she would be willing to take us on as wwoofers for a week or two. (For whose who don’t know, ‘wwoofing’ involves doing around 4-5 hours a day of casual work in exchange for food and accommodation). We had already struck upon the wonders of wwoofing and created an online profile, but somehow must have missed Tessa’s mum when looking for people in the area. Anyway, we emailed, she replied she’d love to have us, and miraculously everything fell into place very quickly. We were made up… We got to stay in the area for longer, and into the bargain, when we looked up the address we discovered we would be staying at an incredible architect designed property with views right to the Remarkable mountains. Hit the jackpot!

When we arrived, the house was every bit as stunning as in the photographs we’d seen, and we were a bit overwhelmed to discover we’d be staying in our own apartment complete with its own kitchenette and lounge area, and the fridge had been stocked up with all sorts of treats. Including houmous!!! (This had been one of the luxury items I’d never quite been able to justify on our supermarket trips when we were in the van) The icing on the cake was waking up the next morning, drawing back the curtains in time to see a hot air balloon flying over the fields outside. ‘Pure’, as Tom would (and did) say!

Our work at the McChesney’s was largely garden based – weeding, digging up trees, planting etc. Tom did get to use the ride on mower, and I helped make chutney and trial some cake recipes. Sally is opening up a new food and wine venture, and is an amazing cook, so we had countless opportunities to taste test some great things. Every morning we’d stop for coffee and cake, and I’d be given a proper strong espresso coffee which anyone who knows me will know is a real bonus! Highlights included banana chocolate chip muffins and ginger and apple shortbread. We were treated to restaurant quality food on a nightly basis, eaten in the ‘lobbia’; the glass corridor room between the two main parts of the house. This looked out onto the water trough and we were often eating as the sun was going down, so rather spectacular views. All of the food was delicious, and has really inspired me to focus on my cookery and experiment a little bit more once I get home. Whilst we were at the McChesney’s, I discovered a fantastic foodie magazine called ‘Dish’. Thinking of getting a subscription on my iPad. And we got hooked on NZ Masterchef – going to have to google it in a few week’s time to find out the result.

It was actually really good to do some tasks and be outside and feel muscles working. Needed it to justify having the cake and desserts! What we hadn’t anticipated as part of the deal was being taken out and treated by our host Sally. As well as a trip to the Remarkables Farmers Market, we had a really good day trip to Wanaka. On the way back, we stopped off at a couple of wineries including Sally’s sister’s vineyard, and were educated on different grape varieties, and we also stopped at the Gibbston Tavern for a spontaneous drink and a whitebait fritter butty! My first encounter with whitebait… It was just like having a fishfinger sandwich as long as I wasn’t looking too closely at all the little fishes…

A real highlight of the stay was an invitation to the local cinema. When it was suggested, we automatically assumed it would be the Kiwi equivalent of Vue or Odeon, but we walked up a quaint alleyway past a tiny French style bar, into an art house style room with signed photographs and posters on the wall, selling books. ‘Do you want a glass of wine?’ I was asked. Well, would be rude to refuse given the surroundings. We were invited to enter ‘The Den’; a dimly lit room with no more than 15 seats in total, some armchairs with cushions, some sofas, some beanbags. All very comfortable. Settled in with a glass of Pinot Gris, and in Tom’s case, boysenberry ice cream, the film began. ‘The Railway Man’ – very good, but rather academic compared with the experience itself.

Our stay coincided with ‘Otago Day’ so we were given the day off (a bit laughable seeing as the work to reward ratio constantly seemed to be in our favour) so we attempted another big walk in the Arrowtown area. Yet another steep climb up the ominously named ‘Big Hill’ beginning to take its toll on my knee. When the time came to descend, it wasn’t entirely clear from the map what the route down was. There were two trails to pick from; one was definitely the long way around but the other claimed to be for ‘experienced’ walkers with no further info. Although this was rather ambiguous, we decided we fell into the experienced walker category (mostly because we didn’t want to add much more time to our walk!) and set off. Next thing we know, we’re scrambling down through the undergrowth, on the raised edge above a creek, holding back and ducking under brambles and other prickly bushes. Felt rather precarious! So it seems that certain tracks in NZ aren’t maintained and unless people are walking them on a regular basis, they became very overgrown. After this battle, I was feeling very ready to get back to Arrowtown, but (as if it could get more laughable) as soon as we had got to the bottom and breathed a sigh of relief at having reached a bonafide track, we turned the corner and discovered we had to wade through sections of ice cold water. Shoes and socks off, trek through the mud on the other side of the stream, shoes and socks back on… And then we rounded the corner to find the same thing. Needless to say, we were veeeery glad to reach Arrowtown for a well deserved beverage at the end of the day!

As we’d hoped, being at Slopehill Road gave us enough opportunity to go back to Queenstown (not ashamed to say we had another Fergburger. Sweet Julie – sweet chilli chicken – this time in my case, and beef and blue cheese for Tom. Just too good to miss out on, and an incredible pecan and praline tart to top it off). Another walk around the beautiful lake and catch up drink with Anna. We were also able to explore the wider area – Lake Hayes, Frankton and Arrowtown – which we probably would have missed if we’d been following the standard tourist trail. Arrowtown in particular is a fab little town, and not to be missed. An excellent introduction to the wwoofing experience, so thanks to Tessa and family for helping us on our way, and good luck to Sally with the business. Anyone in the area in coming months check out ‘Taste and Savour’ – you’re guaranteed a kickass coffee and banana muffin.

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The promised land. Queenstown.

We had heard many things about Queenstown…Hannah, Tucker, Dudley, Sally, Tessa, Liv all singing the praises of this adventure mecca. Everything we had heard was added to by new friends, great weather and the ‘best hostel in Oceania’ TM.

We arrived in QT after an 8 hour journey from Christchurch with a scenic lunch stop (with zip line!) and good views down the valley to the lake. After checking into the undisputed hostel to beat all hostels – Adventure Hostel Queenstown – we went for a wander, the place was buzzing with people, piano playing on the waterfront… a real holiday feel. Cue Patagonia ice cream, white chocolate and hazelnut and mascarpone and berries….a la pure. Claire was euphoric. Not since she met me has she been this happy…

On to Macs pub on the wharf (we’ve enjoyed a few drinks in various Mac bars-decent) where we met two friendly Germans, then on to meet Anna for some jaeger and an invitation to go canyoning with her the next day..for free!

The deal was that if there were spaces we could go, if not we couldn’t unless we wanted to pay up the steep fee of $185! This led to us hovering around the shop like dodgy criminals hoping they had space before getting the all clear from Anna. A really good chance to have a catch up with Anna and a fun afternoon spent zip wiring, jumping in and out of the gorge and abseiling down into it which aligned with a couple of the jumps was probably the best bit. A really cool QT type activity without the QT mark up cost! Back to the hostel for their $8 roast dinner with the other guests and a chill out.

Ben Lomand – 1,748m, dispatched. 4 hours up, 2 hours down. This was a hell of a climb, arguably the toughest yet.  A very steep last hour with both us struggling up the rocky scramble to the top. The resulting views over range after range making it worthwhile, until the rain and wind picked up and we made a hasty retreat down the summit.( there are a number of sad stories in the press, in hostels, from wardens about people getting caught out in the mountains even on a hot summers day and on a couple of occasion we have gone from shorts and vest to trousers and North Face very quickly.)

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Fergin’el…Is this the best burger joint in the world? After a 6 hour hike we felt we had done enough to deserve this famous burger. We joined the crowd outside to assess the menu, beef, chicken,lamb,veal,fish,falafel,breakfast..so many possibilities. I went for beef with Swiss cheese , Claire went for beef with pineapple and bacon. 20 minutes passed with us watching the team behind the line work like clockwork churning out hundreds of burgers. There is a screen with the order number on, it goes up to 200 and then back again, they average 11 loops of this process during their 830-5am opening hours. A lot of burgers. Each Chef had a very specific short task that they repeated to keep the whole system going. The burger arrives, numbers up, all I can say is that it was banging! Juicy, full of salad, full of messy salsa, top chips with aioli on the side too. Really really good.

Time for a Guinness. A few beers and Guinness’s with Andy,Bec and Pat our fellow travellers from the hostel, an Irish bop to some live music topped off with a Ferg Baker Apple Pie and Ice Cream and an invitation to go mountain biking with the gang the next day.

After a slow morning with a a lie in I hired my bike to join the biking crew. Whether I would have done this if I’d had known the days plays I’m not sure but it was all good fun. Naturally Queenstown has one of the best bike parks in the world, aided superbly by a gondala to do the hard work. Unfortunately this was off for the day/ I don’t think anyone could afford it anyway. So we rode up. Not far off the levels of exertion used to carry my crap to across Glastonbury last year, this was traumatic.

This involved a huuuuge cycle and a huuuuuuge push up through a beech forest. However, as is always the case with these sort of experiences, it was totally worth it as we skidded and slid around corner after corner, breaks howling. Pat and Andy very much leading the way with Bec and I brining up the rear. As I watched the others for some tips my riding improved and it almost felt like skiing. A trip to the park where I was as useless as I am on skis at first but got the hang of it after the 28th lap! There was no way I wasn’t going to nail that last jump!

Bags packed quietly in the room and ready for Milford Sound and WWoofing tomorrow. The quietly packing seems to be a habit for us in hostels. We keep encountering roommates that just sit all day. Why come to Queenstown and watch films/general internet stuff in bed. Really strange, a waste of life and a waste of the opportunity you have which many others don’t to travel to NZ/Auckland/Queenstown. Get out and do something you mammals!

7 am bus from QT toMilford. Milford Sound was one of the things we really wanted to do whilst in NZ. It didn’t disappoint, a really interesting bus journey with the coach driver Paul giving an informative and entertaining commentary with plenty of jokes that of all 52 on the coach, only Claire and I seemed to laugh. The most entertaining part of the journey however came when we parked up at Mirror Lake for a great photo opportunity of a beautiful rainbow mirrored in the lake. All sounds nice, but the real spectacle was watching the other 10 coach loads of people taking the same picture, 500 cameras all taking the same picture, wild scenes and not like I’d ever seen before on my caravan holidays in Isle of Man or Padstow!

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Another interesting commentary on board the boat in the sounds, the weather was fairly wet and miserable but the mist and waterfalls made for some interesting scenery.

As you can tell by the length of this post, so many great memories from Queenstown. A fantastic place that lived up to its massive reputation. Quite rightly the adventure capital of the world ( if you’ve got the money/fitness or nice friends giving you a freebie!)  or just a wonderful place to enjoy the sun and scenery.

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Container City. Creative City.

We arrived in Christchurch with a certain amount of trepidation, having heard so many conflicting views about the post-earthquake landscape as both a place to live and visit. Many buildings are still in a state of complete disrepair, homes have been condemned and abandoned, and the city is marked by cranes and containers and the sound of heavy-duty construction. It is easy to see how many would find this a depressing and upsetting sight. However, others that we spoke to – our lovely host Suzanne included – see this as a space of opportunity; a blank canvass upon which to build something new. I was particularly interested to experience Christchurch as the perfect case study for ‘The Creative City’ having studied pop-up spaces, community led development and ways of facilitating social interaction in public spaces during my Urban Studies Masters at UCL.

We arrived at the temporary bus station and were immediately hit with the reality of post earthquake Christchurch. Since we had a bit of time to kill before heading to our lovely host’s house, Tom had suggested we go somewhere for a drink to sit with our bags – not an unreasonable suggestion in most places. However, looking around, all we could see was construction sites and strips of derelict land behind fences. Whilst neither of us wanted to say anything out loud, I think we were a bit overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of the surroundings.

The following morning, we walked into the centre of town and immediately chanced upon the container mall – a collection of brightly coloured shipping containers that have been brought in to provide opportunities for retailers to get back on their feet and carry on business as usual. The place was absolutely bustling, with lots of individual shops and outdoor eating places and artsy planting to create a really convivial atmosphere. There was also lots of graffiti with messages of optimism and encouragement, demonstrating the extent to which the Christchurch community was looking to the future. Pallet Pavilion was especially interesting, as it showcased how people were willing to pitch in and work together to create spaces for fun and creative expression. Having been massively inspired by all the regeneration that was clearly in the pipeline, we wanted to find out more, so went on a bus tour where we got to see the extent of the damage, and later we went to the offices for the city masterplan. I managed to sit down and speak to one of the planners who showed me the planning documents for many of the individual suburbs, as well as the overall master plan. After speaking for a little while and outlining my background, I was told that if I was ever interested in working for Christchurch urban regeneration projects, I had a pretty good chance of getting a job!! Such an amazing opportunity… Something to consider! With so many things such as new residential development, new sporting development, new public spaces in the pipeline, this is the opportunity to sculpt a ‘dream city’. Would be incredible to witness the changes over the next few years.

Amongst the rubble, we managed to find some pretty good eateries, including an amazing coffee shop in the old post office building which has been lovingly revived by a dedicated owner. C1 espresso – amazing mocha with a chocolate fish on the side (very kiwi) with water dispensed from an old Singer sewing machine. You turned the handle and the water came out where the needle should have been. On the recommendation of our host Suzanne, we shared an incredible pizza at the CBD bar. So many great flavour combinations, but we eventually plumped for half blue cheese and pear and half chicken and guacamole. So good!! And on our last night, our search for live music but lack of enthusiasm for the long walk back into town led us to a small restaurant come bar around the corner from where we were staying called Cortado. They were holding their weekly ‘Gin and Jazz’ evening. We were torn originally, thinking it may be rather sedate but turned out it was a really cool band who did chilled out, jazzy, off beat renditions of popular music, such as Katy Perry ‘Roar’ and Beyonce ‘Single Ladies’. Kate Taylor and Co – Kate was the singer, and had an awesome voice. Excellent evening…. And the gin cocktail wasn’t bad either.

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Nelson Lakes and Hanmer Springs

After a good few days in Nelson we had just less than a week before giving the van back. Too short to head down to the glaciers but too long to head to Christchurch straight away. Luckily NZ is the sort of country to come up with a few unexpected little gems. We made the short drive to St Arnaud in the Nelson Lakes National Park and aimed for another DOC site by the lake. We woke to a beautiful day and set off up the gravel track ( dreaming that I was Colin McRae in an Imprezza rather than in a clapped out camper) for the hill climb half way up Mt Robert. A beautiful day with beautiful views down to the lake and the valleys surrounding the village. A good 2 1/2 hour hike to the top chatting to a nice local who had a place in the village.

On to Hanmer Springs after a water bottle shower after the sweaty hike. A long drive around a couple of huge mountain ranges and to a nice little camp site 2km outside of Hanmer. The next day we continued the impressive fitness regime with 4 hours mountain biking. A couple of steady laps of Easy Rider (including Claire’s mountain. Biking debut) we headed off to the tougher stuff. Unfortunately the map we paid for didn’t think to add which direction you are supposed to do the trails in so we headed off up the berms before realised this was completely ! I am in the process of drafting an email to point this out to the tourist board! Anyway, I had great fun on the advanced trails, the best mountain bike I have done, with tight technical climbs and swinging berm tracks out in the open. I returned to the agreed meeting point, no Claire, so I did another lap to find her back at the start looking knackered after busting out another pace lap too!

Another walk in Hamner with some good views after a steep climb revealed snow on the top of the peaks was enough to reward ourselves with a trip to hot springs. Really nice pools with trees surrounding it, plenty of amusement with all the different shapes and sizes wallowing in the pools too. A chat to some retired people from Christchurch and a few spells spent hoping that the mammals taking their cameras into the pools would drop them in also good fun.

Last night in the van, 4 course meal to use up all our food – French onion soup starter (powdered), then pancakes (both savoury and sweet) with a coulis whipped up with blackberries picked from the hedge behind the van. Chef! on to Christchurch tomorrow!

We decided to return the van a couple of days earlier than scheduled. We’d been offered a place to stay in Christchurch and the offer was too good to refuse. Bit of a dilemma since we’d already paid up for the extra nights in the van. We’d spent a fair bit of time agonising over how best to negotiate a bit of compensation from the company for all the problems/trips to the garage we’d had, but when we got there, they did offer us a refund of a day’s rental without much prompting. So that was the end of Holly, our not so happy camper!

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