Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Covering our last few weeks, in which we take an organized overland expedition from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. NB there are also some more photos, see the link on the left.
The South African Part
This was brief, the itinerary said that we would be stopping in the Cederberg area, which we did. Luckily we had already spent a few days there, since this trip left us no opportunity to go walking in the mountains. It was quite pleasant to relax in some thermal waters for the afternoon, and there was little else to do at the place where we stayed. It certainly made us glad that we had made the effort to visit here by ourselves and spend a couple of days walking.
The Namibian Part
We stopped on the route north at the Orange River, which is the border between South Africa and Namibia. We had a swim and spent the morning canoeing downstream for about 25km, and it was thoroughly pleasant, if not hugely exciting.
The Namib Desert
The first real highlight of the trip was the Namib desert, a huge expanse of incredibly desolate, arid land on the coast. There are huge sand dunes (up to 300m high) near to Seisriem, and we were up at the crack of dawn to ensure that we had a wonderful sunrise view, to catch the sand changing colour in the early morning light. Sunrise was at Dune 45, so called since it is the 45th dune from the sea and 45km from Seisriem. We moved on to Dead Vlei next which is a remarkable dead swamp area. There are still a few regions that get flood water, in a good rainy season, and there are trees and more vegetation than you would expect in such a place. Dead Vlei (dead swamp) has been dead for a while, a large white region of a dried up lake, about 1km long. There are remnants of trees in the midst of this white expanse, sticking up like withered, gnarled fingers from the ground. The scenery here was wonderful, and ranks as some of the most spectacular we have seen in Africa. Sossousvlei, at the right time early in the morning, gives a classic picture of deep orange sand on the eastern face of a dune, with shadow on the western side. (Interestingly the difference in the temperature of the surface of the sunny and shady sides is very significant.) Unfortunately we weren’t able to get to see this classic image because Helmut the German had gone walkabout in search of other photos. As an obsessive photographer (with 3 cameras and 22 rolls of exposed film over 19 days) he was often a little world of his own, even if this meant everyone else had to hang around in the midday sun or miss other opportunities elsewhere. With little regard for anything but the present it was often difficult to get to him realise that there were other things on the agenda beyond that which was in front of him. Given this was only a few days into the trip it was shaping up to be a few weeks of frustration, however, although this wasn’t an isolated incident he did become more aware of the rest of us as time passed.
A little further up the coast, at Swakopmund (a very German town) are some smaller dunes, and this was the scene for a day of sand-boarding and quad-bike racing. Not having been snow-boarding we opted for the “lie on a thin sheet of chip-board” version, rather than the proper board and boots option. Great fun, and not as tiring climbing up thee dunes as it was the previous day at the crack of dawn. The quad bikes were fun, but with a slight weight disadvantage I was struggling to keep up with Phillippa as we went up hill.
Between the desert and Etosha, the National park that is in the North of Namibia, we did go to see a few cave paintings and a petrified forest, but, in comparison to the wonder of Etosha, they don’t really require any commentary.
We had already had a wonderful 6 days in the Kruger park, we had seen very rare black rhinos in Mkhaya (Swaziland), would this not be more of the same? Yes, to a certain extent it was, but you can never tire of seeing some of the world’s most impressive creatures in their natural habitat. Although we had only 3 nights in Etosha it was a remarkable few days that exceeded all expectations. We were particularly lucky to have seen all that we did, and I shall not list it all here. But real highlights included: a leopard eating a springbok so close to us that we could hear the skin and flesh tearing; 6 lionesses with a zebra carcass; a solitary male lion having a siesta; giraffes drinking at waterholes; huge herds of zebras; black rhinos; elephants almost within touching distance. It was, again, like being in a BBC documentary. It was a real privilege to have seen so much, so close.
The Okavango River
The river forms the border with Angola and on a sunset cruise we stopped briefly on an island that is, technically, in Angola. The advantage of a 20 minute visit is that you don’t have to worry about the civil war that is raging or the Marburg virus (similar to Ebola but with a higher mortality rate). We then headed into the delta, a slightly odd eco-system where the heavy rainfall from Angola’s highlands just disappears once it arrives in Botswana. A staggering amount of water is lost through evaporation and the rest just fades away into the dry sandy region around the delta. In the central parts are some of the best game areas in Africa. But these are about US$1,000 per night and our budget overland trip didn’t take us here. We went to the western part of the pan handle, where there are some islands with large mammals, but most of the attraction is birdlife, with the chance of seeing crocs and hippos. We heard hippos fighting in the evening, but didn’t see any here. Very relaxing being taken around the network of channels among the reeds and water lilies on a mokoro: a dug out powered by a chap with a pole, not dissimilar to punting on the Cam, though without all those pesky students and bus loads of American OAPs.
Chobe National Park in Botswana
Chobe was, if I am honest a little disappointing. It is one of Botswana’s star attractions, but we had a very short time there and were in a busy, traffic-ridden corner of the park, so did not see it at its best, which was a shame. On the way out of Botswana, across the Zambezi into Zambia we spent about 40 minutes watching as a bus got grounded whilst driving up on to the ferry. It was from the “Zambia-Botswana luxury bus company” so presumably they have been on these ferries before, but to see the huge cock-up progress it was as if it was a novelty for them.
Botswana is certainly one place I would very much like to go back to at some point, to spend more time in Chobe, to get to Moremi in the delta and to go to the central Kalahari region.
We ended up in Livingstone, on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. The Zambezi is quite high at this time of year and the spray and mist thrown up by the waterfall does mean that the views are very limited. It may be very impressive when visible, with slightly less water flowing, but from what I saw it was a little disappointing. Certainly nowhere near as impressive as Iguaçu in South America.
And so here ended the overland trip. Despite having not really wanted to go on an organised tour, sacrificing our much cherished independence, it was a great trip. Much of this was due to the enthusiasm and hard work of our guide, Odette. Her knowledge, cooking and willingness to do whatever it took to keep us all happy made a big difference to the whole experience.
After a couple of days in Livingstone (we didn’t venture over into Zimbabwe) we headed back to Cape Town. We revisited the Boulders Bay colony of penguins that we saw 5 years ago but aside from that did little else. Our last night was interrupted by getting up every few hours to have a look on Sky News to see the latest stories and results from the General Election.
On the very last day we had a fantastic long lunch at Constantia Uitsig, great food with a view over the vineyard. Ending, in fine fashion what has been a remarkable year. Strictly the round the world adventure has yet to end, since we have not yet got back to our flat. However, I’m not sure that a few days in Royal Tunbridge Wells and then a few more in Farnham will be as uniquely interesting as some of the other places we have been to.
It was a year that involved…
* 366 days, 5 continents, 17 countries (excluding Antarctica which is a continent but not really a country, 20 minutes in Angola and a change of planes in Madrid), 9 capital cities, myriad cultures and languages
* 60 passport stamps, 31 take-offs in aeroplanes (though only 30 landings), 1 helicopter ride
* 1 kidnapping and 1 mugging
* 17 nights spent aboard boats in open oceans, 31 nights under canvas
* 41 vineyards in 12 wine producing regions of 5 countries
* 5,100km in a minibus in Africa, 8,000km driving ourselves in SA, 4,700km in NZ about 1,000km in Hawaii and more kilometres, hours (and nights) than I care to recall on buses in South America
* 41 novels, including some monsters, like War & Peace and Don Quixote, plus the worst book I have ever read (The Possession of Joel Delaney, only 25p from a second hand book shop in Montevideo that carried a fairly limited selection. Don’t worry you are unlikely to come across it, I believe it has been out of print for about 30 years.)
We now have so many photos, both digital and film (and slides, thanks to a shop in Bolivia) that it will be a mammoth task to organise them all. But rest assured there will be some albums at some point and they will be available for viewing!
Without wanting to end with a paragraph that reads like an Oscar acceptance speech, I would like to thank a few people.
Many of you wrote to offer help in the days immediately following our infamous spot of bother in the Peruvian Andes. Thank you, I was touched by how many people offered so much.
Since so many of our friends and family have been to quite a few of the places we have been to (in particular in Southern Africa) I did ask some of you for suggestions of places to go. I had a flurry of replies with a wealth of information, so thanks to those of you who helped with that piece of the planning.
Thank you to those friends and family with whom we stayed in LA, Sydney and Jo’burg.
It would have been nice, at this point, to thank our sponsors, but sadly we had none!
Finally, and most importantly, thanks to Phillippa, without whom none of the last 12 months would have been as fun.
Monday, April 11, 2005
This update covers The Karoo, our brief journey on the Garden Route, cage diving with great white sharks near Hermanus, a few wonderful days gorging ourselves on good food and wine in the winelands and a couple of places north of Cape Town that have yet to be discovered by the masses.
After Lesotho and the Drakensberg we went south west towards the Karoo, the name of a massive region that covers almost a third of the country. We stayed in a small old style Dutch town of Graaff-Reinet, very picturesque in the centre but, as with many towns, it had an a large township on the outskirts, to provide all the necessary cheap labour for all those people for whom cleaning and ironing is an appalling thought. The surrounding area is a massive expanse of very little. Very few settlements, very little vegetation, almost no water. A harsh and inhospitable place, but somewhere where you really can get away from everything. It is also baking hot, so the walking we did really was more walking rather than hiking, a little half-hearted. Though you only need to go a short distance from the town to be far removed from anyone else, so we didn't miss anything by not struggling on in the heat of the day.
Tsitsikamma National Park
On the south coast, to the eastern end of the Garden Route is a very dramatic stretch of coastline that reminded me a bit of parts of the Californian coast south of San Francisco: rugged and rocky, with white-tipped waves crashing all around. There is a 5-day trek that can be done, but the first couple of hours is accessible for day-trippers, so we were able to see a bit of the coastal path. Not far from here is the world's highest bungy jump (about 210m), but we both gave it a miss.
We passed along the Garden Route fairly quickly, partly because it was Easter and it was proving difficult to find somewhere to stay, and because the other place we had wanted to go to, Oudtshoorn, was booked out for a festival of Afrikaaner culture (whatever that may involve, over and above some hard core bible worship, reaffirmation of a belief of their chosen status in God's eyes (sounds familiar??) and perhaps some plaintive cries of how much better things were when they ruled SA).
The mountains a little north of the south coast are the Overberg, and we were able to have a couple of good days walking, nothing too strenuous, but the views from the higher parts are great. Swellendam was a lovely, quiet town, and we had a little cottage to ourselves, with fine views over the hills opposite.
Having been to vineyards in many of the countries we have been to so far we were not going to miss the opportunity to go in South Africa. Many people know of Stellenbosch and Paarl but Robertson is another large wine producing region and we spent a day taking in a few estates and sampling a few bottles. MacGregor is one of the best preserved 19th century towns and has a sleepy feel, as it time has just passed it by completely.
We did also go back to Franschhoek, where we had a wonderful couple of days in 2000 and, again, had a great time on this visit. The town promotes itself as SA’s food capital and there are a number of fantastic restaurants here. So it was a couple of days of eating extremely well and taking 3 hours over lunch. Sadly the town seems to have been a little more discovered (by Brits in particular) during the last 5 years and it had grown a lot, losing some of its charm.
Great White Sharks!
There are only a few places in the world where you can get close to one of earth's most well adaptedly predators, great white sharks. Having suffered a bad press ever since Jaws! there are not quite under threat, but numbers have declined massively over the last 30 years. This is certainly something that many people would be reluctant to do, especially the day after a British surfer got part of his leg nibbled by a 4m great white in Noordhoek (where we are staying now). But we were not to be deterred, (although the prospect of another bout of heavy sea-sickness did make Phillippa a little wary).
Apparently there has been some press in the UK lately about a number of attacks (we did see the Yorkshire bloke who was nipped on the foot on the TV news here). But we were not to be deterred, after all they give you a cage! A little south of Hermanus, near to the southern most point of Africa, there are a couple of small islands where there are large seal colonies, a shark larder if you like. So this is one of the best places to see great whites in the world.
After waiting around for a while the first shark appeared and Phillippa and I were straight into the cage first. The water is cold, about 16C, and even with a wetsuit the chill does eventually start to get into your core. But after about 15 minutes the first shark appeared whilst we were in the cage and could watch it under the water. I nearly missed it, and with visibility of about 5-6m it was not much more than a shadow as it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. A little later a second one emerged from the gloom behind us but that too was a fleeting glimpse. Whilst we were out of the water there were a number of other occasions when a shark approached the boat. It is actually better to see them from above the surface, especially when the water is so murky.
It was a good afternoon out, but somehow was not quite as exciting as I had hoped it would be, but that is the way it often is when dealing with such unpredictable wildlife.
There is a small, quiet, unspoilt fishing town north from Cape Town that has, as yet, not been inundated with hoards of tourists, and we had a great few days here, doing very little. We got hold of some very cheap crayfish straight from the local fleet that had just come back in, and the bloke whose holiday flat we rented cooked them for us. The beach was deserted, even at the weekend, it was such a massive expanse of wide golden sand. The sunsets here were possibly better than anywhere else we have been, and that is something. So, of course, that led to a whole load more sunset photos. The benefits of digital can sometimes become a curse too!
The Cederberg Mountains
A little inland from Paternoster is another range of mountains that are ideal for walking, so that is what we did. Some of the scenery is similar to the Drakensberg, though less grand. There are many sites that have cave painting here and we saw quite a few on one walk in particular.
Then back to Cape Town, where the severe drought has been broken by a huge thunderstorm on the one day when we wanted to get all our stuff washed and dried before going to Namibia. Still, we managed to dry it all out in the oevn, os no problem in the end!
Not long left now…
We will be back in the UK early on Sat 7 May and hopefully will be landing to a country that has a new Prime Minister. And, no, I don’t mean Gordon Brown.
Monday, March 28, 2005
Following on from the previous introduction to Africa, we then went to some of the battlefields, to Lesotho, hiked in the Drakensberg mountains.
We have not managed, yet, to see either cheetahs or leopards in the wild, but we did manage to get inside a cheetah enclosure at a centre for rehabilitating cats. They also had African wild cats, caracals and servals, but the highlight was definitely seeing cheetahs from a couple of meters. They were kept occupied by a few large pieces of chicken, so they didn't show too much interest in us. Very beautiful creatures.
Stop throwing those bloody spears at me
There are a huge number of battlefields in the region to the east of the Drakensberg mountains and Lesotho, in northern KwaZulu Natal. Zulus v Boers. Brits v Zulus and Brits v Boers. Of course, the one that most people remember is the battle at Rorke's Drift, immortalised by Michael Caine and the 12 VCs that were awarded. A handful of stoic Brits fought off more than 4,000 Zulus. This occured one day after another bunch of Brits took a serious beating at Isandlwana one of the worst defeats in British military history.
The battlefield here is still a place that is quite emotionally charged. There are small piles of whitewashed stones that are where bodies of British soldiers fell. (There are not any equivalent markers for the zulu warriors.) There are those that say that the 12 VCs awarded to the soldiers of Rorke's Drift was the result of a clever bit of media manipulation to try to overshadow the terrible defeat with a tale of glorious victory. There is a film based on this Zulu victory, but it is not as well know, in fact I cannot now remember the name of it.
Some of the most amazing scenery we have hiked in can be found in the Drakensberg mountains, and that is saying something having been to the Andes and NZ. One walk in particular was stunning: up to the top of The Amphitheatre. The views from the plateau are for miles and miles, and you can stand right on the edge where the rock just falls away for about 1,000m, almost straight down. It was partly cloudy when we arrived, which was disappointing, but with a little patience we were rewarded with some of the most spectacular views we have yet to witness. For anyone going to the Drakensberg this is a must-do.
We tried to walk up to a gorge on another day, but high water levels put us off. After crossing the river once (boots off, up to above the knee in icy cold water) and the rpospect of doing this repeatedly further upstream, we decided to give it a miss. From what we heard we didn't miss much anyway.
We had wanted to go into Lesotho, but were wary of doing this ourselves due to very under-developed infrastructure. We had planned to go over via Sabi pass, but people we met said they really struggled without a 4x4. We didn't want to go to the western side, since that is a little more developed, with the capital and some greater chance of running into car-jackers, who can be found readily in Maseru.
As it turned out we saw a very remote and unreachable corner of Lesotho when we took a 1-day trip from the place we were staying. The border post on the Lesotho side comprised 2 caravans, and they were being "renovated" so there was nobody on duty and we just passed straight in. This is a crossing that gets about 5 vehicles per day, so it is not busy.
Lesotho, also a kingdom like Swaziland, is the highest country in the world (apparently judged by the height of the lowest point), and the mountains here are simply stunning. Small villages nestle in the foothills, collections of simple, round mud and thatch huts. We visited on a Saturday, so the school (supported by the company that runs the trip) was shut, but many of the children (those who don't live a 2 hour walk away) were happily following us around.
It is of course very difficult to get any kind of appreciation of a place, even one as small as Lesotho, in one day. But the small part we saw was fascinating. It was barely touched by the 20th century. No electricity, (though we did spot a satellite dish powered by a solar panel and car battery), and a very spartan existence. It would have been interesting to be able to visit for a few days, but having seen the state of the roads I am glad that we didn't try with our car!
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
In which we go to Soweto, the Kruger National Park, Swaziland, Sodwana Bay and the St Lucia wetlands.
The first week in Africa was spent near to Jo'burg, with some of Phillippa's family, including her parents who were at the end of their winter break in South Africa. As ever, it was nice to see friendly faces, though slightly surreal at times since it seemed to conflict with our previous lone and transient existence, just meeting people here and there.
South Western Township, on the edge of Jo'burg, known by most people as the scene of some fairly disturbing and violent news footage during the 1980s, (and before if you are old enough to remember it). Nowadays, since 1994, many of the townships have had the corrugated iron shanty towns replaced by government built housing, but Soweto is still a large sprawling area, a city in its own right as it is home to more than 3 million people. As with any city there ae the posh parts and the less well to do areas. Some districts of Soweto are as wealthy, or more so, than some of the white suburbs of Jo'burg, filled with the current generation of lawyers and doctors. There is no avoiding the history of the struggle, Soweto is littered with sites of importance during the apartheid years. One of these is the Hector Pieterson museum, near to the point where the first schoolboy was shot during the school strikes of 1976. As with the Sharpeville massacre before it, this was to ignite a series of events that can almost be directly traced through to the first elections of 1994. Soweto is a fascinating place, if only because of its normality, well worth a day of anyone's time if in Jo'burg.
On Safari in the Kruger
After Jo'burg we drove up to the Kruger National Park (KNP), with a detour to go and see Blyde River Canyon. In all we spent 5 nights in the park, and it was fantastic. We have seen some wonderful wildlife on this trip, but the KNP was up there near to the best places (though, perhaps, slightly behind). It is one of the more accessible parks in Southern Africa, you can drive yourself around the network of tarred and unpaved roads, and the prices are not as outrageous as others. In all, it covers an area about the size of Wales, and is larger than nearby Swaziland. Once all the fences come down with the area in Mozambique it will be even larger.
One of the highlights was a morning walk, near to Satara. This area, due to the underlying geology and hence vegetation, has the highest concentration and diversity of game in the park, including the highest density of lions. And here was where we first saw these amazing big cats. There was a dead wildebeest beside the road and a lioness lying beside it, only a few metres away. Once this cat disappeared 2 more lionesses appeared from the grass and wandered around the vehicle for a couple of minutes. At one point one lay down on the verge of the road, right beside us. It really was (another) David Attenborough moment. We did see lions on a couple of other occasions, but never as close as this, where they were almost within touching distance.
It is difficult to go very far without seeing something, although on some of our trips we saw very little. But generally there are animals everywhere: elephants crossing the road just in front of us; groups of Burchill's zebra grazing beside the road; herds of buffalo; families of giraffe nibbling at the upper branches of trees; hippos chilling out in water holes; spotted hyenas wandering around at dawn. There are antelopes everywhere, we saw, over 6 days, thousands of impala and some of those harder to spot, like kudu, steenbok and klipspringer.
But it is not just the larger life that is interesting. We saw huge numbers of birds, leopard tortoises,the odd mongoose etc. The list is too long to enumerate.
We also had a flat tyre, near to Satara, the area with the highest lion population in the park. So that needed changing, we couldn't limp back to camp on it. Of course, there was no problem, but it makes for another interesting tale.
The Kingdom of Swaziland
After the Kruger NP we went south into Swaziland for about 5 days. We spent a couple of days walking in the Malalotja Nature Reserve, in the West, which was fantastic, glorious unspoilt mountain scenery, no signs of human life anywhere once we got a few minutes from the car. Large herds of blesbok were often around our little hut, and we had a few night time visitors scrabbling through our room looking for food too. But it was not about the wildlife but the views. Here, and elsewhere in Swaziland, there is some of the most beautiful countryside we have seen. The other high point in the Kingdom was the Mkhaya Game Reserve, where, they say, you are most likely to see a black rhino in the wild. It was here that we had our best views of white rhino (having only caught a glimpse from a distance in the Kruger) and the elusive, and endangered, black rhino.
Swaziland has managed to retain its original African essence, in a way that has been impossible in South Africa. Their culture is still very strong, and efforts are being made to keep it that way, and not let it be diluted by outside influences. We had a great time in our short stay, and managed to pick up some quite nice souvenirs. Now we just have to work out how to get all the stuff home.
St Lucia Wetlands Marine Reserve World Heritage Site
On the east coast of South Africa, south of the border with Mozambique is the St Lucia wetlands and Sodwana Bay. We went diving in Sodwana Bay, apparently Africa's most southerly coral reef, and it was great. Huge schools of tropical fish, colourful coral, a massive variety of life in a small area. The fact that the water was about 25C, compared to 13C for our last dive in NZ, helped enormously too. On our first dive we saw a few dolphins swimming around the boat so just leapt in, there and then, and dpent about 10 minutes snorkelling with them. This was a great free bonus, especially since dolphion swimming trips are normally about £50!
That doesn't take us quite up to date, but I will try to fill in the last couple of weeks soon. (Internet access here is still diabolical.)
Monday, March 14, 2005
In which we go to the outback and then back out to Sydney, and on another trip to Antarctica.
It has been a fair while since an update here, mainly due to it being next to impossible to find any internet cafes that a) exist, b) function at all, or c) are not so painfully slow that it takes more than 20 minutes just to seee if anyone has written to us, let alone read any emails. It appears that this part of Afirca is years behind South America, where finding reliable and fast connections was never a problem. Here, it is 10-20 times slower and 10 times more expensive!
After leaving NZ we went to Ayers Rock Resort, (which saves flying to Alice Springs then travelling the 300+km to the rock). I was expecting to be slightly disappointed by Uluru (Ayers Rock), after all it is just a large rock in the middle of the desert. The region is red, it is smack in the middle of the continent, it is dusty and it is hot. It also has some of the most persistent flies I have ever seen.
It was, however, well worth the trip. We did the obligatory sunrise and sunset viewings, and walked around the base of the rock. We didn't climb up the rock, since the Aborigines prefer you not to, because it is a sacred place for them. So why don't they just close the rock to climbers? Well, perhaps money plays a part. But we also heard another interesting reason. The title to the land was given back to the people in the 1980s, and is now leased back to the government for the National Park. But the government gave the land back to the wrong tribe, group A. The land holds no particular significance for group A, but it does have spiritual value for group B. But group B are not represented at all on the board that controls the Park, group A has a majority, the rest representng the government. So group B has no voice. Groups A & B have also had a long running acrimoniou feud over the millenia, hence A has no interest in helping B! Hence you can still climb Ayes Rock, despite it being desperately offensive to some of the local people to do so.
The other wondeful site worth a visit to is about 40km from Uluru, The Olgas. A series of exposed lumps of rck, up to c. 500m high, with canyons between them. Another good place for walking, and it was here that we saw a wallaby with a joey.
The flight to and from Sydney was also interesting, but only for a short while as the scenery is a tad repetetive!
It was good to be back in Sydney, it feels almost quite familiar now. The last time I was here was for a wedding, and that couple have since emigrated out here, so we were able to stay with them and catch up over a few drinks. (There is a mix of Aussie and Scottish in this marriage, so it was quite a few drinks.) So thank you to the Stobos for looking after us.
We didn't feel any pressure to do much of the touristy stuff in Sydney, having covered much of that before. We did head up the coast for a couple of days, stopping at Hunter Valley to sample a few wines, then visiting various beautiful beaches up towards Forster.
From Sydney we flew to Jo'burg, on what has to be one of the most stunning scheduled commercial air routes. You set off over Tasmania towards the Antarctic circle, then at 65 degrees south follow this latitude, which is very near to the edge of the continent, around towards Africa. We could clearly see ice flows, big ice bergs etc. The pilot would interrupt the movies to anounce particularly impressive ice berg sightings, and, in an almost comical cartoon fashion, people would ruch from one side of the plane to the other! A great sightseeing flight, a real unexpected bonus. But, of course, not a patch on being down there with the penguins!
So far in Africa we have seen some wonderful things but they will have to wait for another day!
Monday, February 07, 2005
In which we visit a few more vineyards (including Cloudy Bay), walk on a Glaciar, skydive from 15,000ft, jump off a ledge into a 120m deep canyon, dive Milford Sound, kayak in Abel Tasman and relax in Dunedin & Christchurch.
After taking the ferry to Picton, through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, we headed a little to the south to Renwick. This is the small town that is nearest to the main vineyard area of Marlborough, (Blenheim is a bit further away). We had a wonderful day cycling around from estate to estate, samling a little as we went, with a long lazy lunch overlooking some vines. It is all very flat so cycling is no effort and it was one of the first proper hot and sunny summer days that they had had so far this year. Very pleasant, and it left us with a few bottles to enjoy over the following weeks.
When I was last in NZ, (Nov 2000), I only went to the South Island, but didn't manage to go to Abel Tasman. So we corrected this mistake this time and what a stunning place it is. Some of the most gorgeous beaches I have seen anywhere. The water is a very clear emerald green, fringed by dark blue as it gets deeper. It is just a shame that the water is quite cold. Not so cold to stop us getting in mind (and not as cold as the sea was in Antarctica!). We spent two days paddling up the coast, with most afternoons lazing on a beach, after we had put the tent up. The third day we walked back down the coastal track for about 7 hours before being picked up. The forest stretches all the way down to rocky a shoreline that is interspersed with golden beaches, many of which are only accessible from the sea. We saw a few seals and a solitary penguin and had a great few days splashing around in the sun. This trip has been one of the highlights in a couple of great months in NZ.
From Abel Tasman we went to Arthur's Pass. Sadly the weather was pretty poor, but we still got out in the rain for a few hours to walk part of the way up the Bealey Valley track even though the views were disappointing. It rained heavily for about 3 days as we were around the northen part of the West Coast, but since then we have been blessed with sunny skies. It looks like summer has finally arrived in NZ.
We have seen many glaciars in the Andes, including some of the most visually impressive to be seen anywhere, but we didn't actually get on them to have a walk around. This had to wait until we got to the glaciars on the west coast of the South Island. Like Perito Moreno (see the Oct 04 archives) the glaciars here descend down through temperate rainforest, and the termainal faces of the 2 main ones in NZ (Fox & Franz Josef) are currently advancing, as is Perito Moreno. We went for a walk on Fox Glaciar, which is slightly cheaper than Franz Josef, and more importantly was easier to find accommodation at short notice. We spent about 4-5 hours on the ice, found a few caves that enabled us to get some photos of the blue hues that are characteristic of compressed ice. Although the trip was well worth doing, Foz can in no way match the grandeur of Perito Moreno.
On the southern shores of Lake Wanaka, this town has a great location, and here was the next stop after the glaciars. One of Phillippa's ambitions for the NZ part of the trip was to go skydiving. So we did. Wanaka has fantastic geography, which becomes even more impressive from a small plane at 15,000ft (about 4,600m). Since it is a tandem jump, with a qualified bloke strapped to your back, there is very little to do, it is a very passiev involvement. Hence there is actually very little to worry about, and there is no requirement to make that decisive leap out of the door. Before you know what is happening, the plane is disappearing, the wind is rushing all the way through your sinuses and the ground looks a long way away.
It was very memorable. We had near perfect conditions, with great all round visability and limited cloud cover. Were it not for the cost I would have loved to go straight back up and do another one! There are some photos of us just before we jumped (Phillippa and me), these can also be found via the link on the right.
For the other few days that we were here we did a bit of walking and a fair amount of just lounging around in the sun. We took a friend's advice and went to the cinema in Wanaka, a quirky place that has sofas and lounge chairs, with an intermission for pre-ordered food. A much more enjoyable experience than a cavernous, characterless cinema. In fact we also went to another boutique cinema in Motueka that was even smaller, with space for only about 18 people.
Our stay in Wanaka was blighted slightly by the presence of bed bugs! Eugh! Having avoided them until now, despite staying in some places of dubious quality, dear old first-world NZ was where we found them. Or they found us. Very unpleasant, and extremely itchy it was too!
On the way to Queenstown we stopped at a few more vineyards, and restocked the boot of the car for the final couple of weeks!
QT is known as NZ's adrenaline centre, so we indulged a little. The latest craze, post-bungy, is for large swings. The same idea as the swing you find in playgrounds, but here there are just much larger. The Shotover canyon swing that we did involves a fall of about 60m before a gentle arc that bottoms out at about 110m below the platform. All this takes place in a gorge, with a gorgeous river flowing down below. Having jumped forwards at the 134m Nevis bungy before, this time it was time for a backwards jump. People say this is more scary than going forwards, but I'm not so sure. Hands behind the head, then you just fall gently backwards, as if falling onto a bed. But rather than being held on a big fluffy duvet, you just keep falling. We have a photo of this, and one of Phillippa, but not a digital copy. Phillippa kept running once in mid-air, a bit like a cartoon character. It was so much fun I decided to do a second jump. This time I was hung upside down, back to the near canyon wall, but with arched back, my arms stretched above my head and looking directly down and slightly behind me. When they let me go I rushed down the side of the rock face before levelling out. Quite good fun really! The second one was not particularly scary since it didn't involve a conscious decision to jump, someone else pulled the pin. I think that maybe going over forwars, as Phillippa did, is perhaps the hardest way, since you can clearly see where you are going and it is that which drives the fear factor.
The other trip we went on was to go river surfing, something I had done and enjoyed last time. Riding through 1-1.5m waves on a white water river is much more fun on a small polystyrene board than in the comfort of a big rubber raft. Having your head a few inches above the water certainly makes them appear a whole lot bigger!
After QT we went to the fiords, Milford Sound in particular. This is the most touristy, and we had thought about going to Doubtful Sound, but because we went on a diving trip we managed to avoid nearly all the other tourists in their large ships. Because of a layer of freshwater, stained by organic matter, sitting above the salt water of the sea, a lot of the light is filtered out. This means that conditions at 20m replicate those that are normally found at nearer 100m. So we could see black coral (which is actually white) and red coral, plus a variety of deep water fish. It was a great couple of dives, with a great company that we would highly recommend (Tawaki Dive). Plus the sea was very flat, inside the protected fiord, meaning Phillippa could enjoy it too!
Since that point we have been quite relaxed for the last 2 weeks. No long hikes, a few short walks, some beautiful coastal scenery in the Catlins, which is at the very south of the south island, along the Southern Scenic Highway. We then proceeded up to Dunedin for a couple of days and are now at the end of a few days in Christchurch.
We didn't make any real effort to see penguins in Dunedin, having seen thousands in Antarctica. (In fact earlier to day we picked up 10 rolls of developed photos that cover Paraguay to Antarctica, and we have a lot fo snaps of penguins. A lot of icebergs too!) Christchurch is very attractive: large enough to have most of what you might need, but small enough to make getting around easy, with limited congestion. A very pleasant way to end our time time in NZ, relaxing with a beer, in the sun on the banks of the Avon, watching punts drift by.
A wise old geezer once said that he was glad to have gone to NZ before going to South America, since some of the scenery in NZ is similar to but utterly dwarfed by parts of the Andes. I think that is a fair comment. Before this trip I still thought that NZ's south island had some of the most beautiful countryside that I had seen anywhere. But the northern Andes, the glaciars in Argentina, the lake district by Barriloche (Arg.) and Torres del Paine, to name a few, are places that put NZ well in the shade. The advantage of NZ is that most of it is slightly more accessible to your average punter.
NZ been wonderful, especially the south island, which was helped in part by the arrival of summer. It has been a slightly different type of trip from the earlier Latin part. Our time in the US was really like a holiday. Our time here has been a bit like an extended holiday. Having a car makes life easier and there is none of the sense of adventure that there is travelling through remote regions of South America. It has been very enjoyable, but not quite as exciting in many ways as the first 7 months. One of the surprises here has been the need to be a little more organised than we had been for most of South America. We were used to making few arrangements ahead, never booking accommodation in advance and only occasionally booking buses more than the day before. But here, because it is summer and peak season, we have found some places we wanted to stay have been booked a couple of days ahead, and the whole thing requires a little more thought as to where we may be 5 days hence.
You have to love a country that has a tourist attraction called Sheep World. An attraction that showcases farming methods, different breeds of sheep and has shearing and dog shows. There are also adverts on the TV for tractors! NZ does seem at times very parochial. But it can be quite enchanting.
I did once say, in 2000, that if I came to this part of the world again I would go to NZ and not to Australia. I think that still remains my view, but with a friends in Oz we can't come all this way and not drop in! So off to Oz next.
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
As in "God's own country". We have been quite busy for the last month, hence no updates here. After Auckland we went to the Bay of Islands, Rotorua, Waitomo, walk the Tongariro Crossing, kayak down the Whanganui river, Hawkes Bay and down to Wellington. We have had about 10 days on the South Island so far, but details of that will have to wait for another day.
Auckland is, to the Kiwis, a large megatropolis. But of course it isn't really. Nice enough for a few days but little to hold us there. We did catch a comedy gig on a Saturday night, a change from the entertainment options available nearly everywhere else we have been. We also went to an aquarium that included an Antarctic exhibition but, frankly, it was not as good as the real thing.
Christmas was spent in Paihia, in the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland. A beautifully scenic part of the world, and the town itself was very small and picturesque. It was a slightly different Christmas but we did still manage to go to a carol concert on Xmas eve and have a few drinks on the day itself. Unfortunately, after we had gone to a nice hotel for Christmas lunch, some oysters disagreed with Phillippa which rather put a dampener on the afternoon! But she was fine by the next day. We went diving for 1 day out at Poor Knights islands. This was certainly different from the tropical places where we have done most of our previous dives, and more interesting for that. It was however very cold, with the water temperature about 13C.
Rotorua is known for the thermal waters and hot springs, as well as being one of the main centres of Maori culture. We had a couple of good days, seeing some amazing natural phenomena, most remarkable of which were some brightly coloured mineral pools.
The weather for the first couple of weeks was pretty miserable, a pattern that has only recently been broken by some sporadic sunshine. The media are speculating as to whether this is indeed the worst summer since the 1940s. It has been cold and very wet. The odd good day has sometimes coincided with us doing something, the rain being on travel days. But even so, it has been a little depressing at times.
The heavy rain in Waitomo almost prevented us from going caving so see some glow worms, all the trips that were planned for after ours were cancelled. Swimming through underground rivers was fun, certainly different, but not un-missable.
From here we travelled south to National Park, the main point of which was to walk the Tongariro Crossing, said by some to be NZ's best 1-day walk. Heavy rain stopped us going on New Year's Day, which was the original plan. When we finally did go, on Jan 2, the visibility was about 50m for the first half of the walk, meaning that we couldn't see the craters or the lakes. The wind was howling around us and with a persistent fine drizzle it was a fairly long slog up to the top. Once we started down the other side the weather lifted and we had marvellous views across to Lake Taupo. But it was too late for us to see the more spectactular views that were by now behind us.
We'd been told that kayaking down the Whanganui river was something we shouldn't miss, so that was the next stop. 3 days paddling down a river that runs through some amazing landscapes. There were quite a few other people out and about, both on the river and at the campsites, (it is high season now), but that didn't really spoil it too much for us since we were able to get away from the crowds most of the time. Kayaking was "interesting" to start with, until we changed round to better balance the weight in the boat. The last night we went beyond where most peopl;e had headed for and were rewarded with a campsite that overlooked a bend in the river and where there were no other people, (until a bloke turned up a couple of hours later). Very tranquil, only slightly marred by the presence of thousands of sandflies, and this the only time when we had forgotten to take the insect repellant. They are far, far worse than mozzies. A lesson learned there.
We didn't stop in Taupo on the way to Havelock North, in the Hawkes Bay wine region. Another day of visiting vineyards (after quite a few in South America) and sampling their wares was very enjoyable and Havelock North and Hastings are great town to relax in: good food, good wine, good countryside. We treated ourselves to lunch (a very long lunch) at the Black Barn vineyard and had a table outside overlooking the vines. Wonderful.
Then down to Wellington, which seemed like a nice enough town, I can see why some of our friends had decided to live here rather than Auckland when they lived in NZ.
Apart from the weather, which has been shocking, we have had a great time here so far. Having only been to the South Island the first time I came to NZ it has been interesting to see some of the rest of the country that I missed out on. Having said that, most people believe the South Island to be a better holiday than the North so we have a lot to look forward to.
Updates, and emails in general, seem harder to put together here than in South America. The PCs invariably have more problems and crash more frequently in NZ than they did in La Paz, or even in some tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. So that is partly the reason for the lack of communication. In addition, gone are the days when we could pay 15 pence an hour and so frivolously while away hours writing up a blog rather than doing research for the next part of the trip. But keep reading, because there will be a South Island post to follow...