The end…

The end is upon me. I have been back in the UK now for two days. Just wanted to end this series of blogs with a few reflections.

I never thought I would go travelling again, so I feel I deserve to pat myself on my back for all that I achieved during my time away.

  • I travelled for many weeks completely by myself
  • I planned and organised the whole trip myself
  • I drove the entire way around New Zealand single-handed
  • I crossed continental US
  • I returned back to where I used to live in Melbourne, Australia
  • I caught up with lots of good friends
  • I felt the fear and did it anyway.

It wasn’t always easy. Far from it. I did not take well to hostel life, which made the trip more expensive. I found eating healthy vegetarian food challenging at times. I felt lonely at times. But I also had some wonderful experiences.

  • I delighted in the unbelievable beauty of the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand
  • I was heartened by the resilience of the earthquake-stricken people of Christchurch
  • I retraced my steps through beautiful Melbourne
  • I made Laguna Beach and Orange County my second home
  • I was blown away by the sights and sounds of New Orleans
  • I was fascinated by the museums and galleries of Washington DC.

Anyone who has been travelling will always tell you coming home is hard. And it is. But I would not have changed it for a thing. YOLO as the youngsters say…..

Here are a few of my favourite photos from my trip.

 

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Week 14 – Fjordland, Aspiring National Park, Westland and Abel Tasman

Leaving the very southern tip of New Zealand behind me, I headed west towards Fjordland. This began a leg of my trip with many long days of driving. Getting anywhere in New Zealand takes a while. That’s mainly because there aren’t many straight roads and because there are usually quite a few mountains in the way! On average I think I must have driven four hours each day.

Fjordland

Fjordland sounds like a theme park, and in some ways it is, a natural one. Judging by the numbers of tourists there, it felt like one too at times. The area is very famous for Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. I didn’t make it that far due to time restrictions, but I did explore some of the area. I came across a beautiful meadow area with thousands of wild flowers (see photo below). It reminded me of Tuolumne Meadows in California. I had the place to myself, which was great, as I cannot stand going to overly touristy places with thousand of busloads of Chinese tourists ruining the experience.

Fjordland meadows
Fjordland meadows
Fjordland meadows
Fjordland meadows

I also visited Manapouri and Te Anu, both of which are lovely small towns on two different lakes. I like to go off the beaten track if I can and experience places where New Zealanders live, and not just where the tourists go. New Zealand is much more popular than when I was last here in 2005 and I fear the change is eating away at what made the country great before.

Queenstown, Wanaka and Mount Aspiring

The next day I drove to Wanaka, via the popular mountain town of Queenstown. The two places couldn’t be more different. Queenstown has become a party place, bucketloads of teenagers all looking for their next McDonalds. It is still beautiful, but it’s not for me. I was glad I chose to stay in Wanaka, which everyone says is like Queenstown was twenty years ago.

Whilst there I drove into Aspiring National Park, which is such a great name! Again, I had the place to myself, with great views of huge snow-capped mountains. The town itself has a beautiful backdrop of mountains, see the photo below.

Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka
Mount Aspiring
Mount Aspiring

The West coast

Leaving Wanaka I drove across the Aspiring mountain ranges. I stopped at this amazing places called the Blue Pools. Glacial water is fed down into deep pools which are so clear you can see the bottom. Everywhere you go in the South Island you stumble across majestic waterfalls, mountains streams, rolling hills, it almost becomes commonplace!

River in the Aspiring Mountains
River in the Aspiring Mountains
The Blue Pools
The Blue Pools

I then hit the west coast and glacier country. There are two famous glaciers here, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. They were discovered in the mid-1800s and have been tourist attractions ever since.I stayed in Franz Josef town, and you quickly realise what a tourists trap this area has become. Helicopter flight after helicopter flight ferry people up to the top of the glaciers. That really is the only way to see them these days as they both are rapidly retreating. You can only think this is solely down to climate change. You cannot get anywhere near to Fox Glacier due to rockfalls.

Hokitika
Hokitika

I heard that in a few years they’ll both be gone, and then what will become of this area? It is dependant on tourism. Whilst it is interesting, it is nowhere near my favourite place in the South.

One of the things I love about this country is all the diverse wildlife. At Cape Foulwind, near Westport, I saw families of fur seals with tiny baby seals in tow!

Cape Foulwind
Cape Foulwind

The north coast and Abel Tasman National Park

My final stop in the south was the Abel Tasman area. I stayed in a lovely small town call Takaka, and this allowed me to access the park from the least busy side. Driving into the park, I pretty much was on my own. I found a beautiful beach to have my lunch, with white sand and crystal clear sea, it was amazing. I even had a huge skate glide past me! I hiked up to an amazing waterfall in the hills and then walked on the beach in Golden Bay, it was all pretty idyllic. I could’ve been in the Caribbean.

Abel Tasman
Abel Tasman

I am flying up to Auckland tomorrow, which I am looking forward to, but I’ll be sad to say goodbye to the South Island. It has been my third time here and it’s as beautiful as ever. If you ever get the chance, come see what all the fuss is about.

Week 13 – Christchurch, Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula and the Catlins rainforest

Flying back into Christchurch last week, I was reminded of how much I enjoy spending time here. It is my third time in 16 years visiting New Zealand and I love it more than ever.

Christchurch

Christchurch is a city that’s still recovering from the huge earthquake that hit the city in February 2011. I last was there in 2005, and returning in 2016 I could barely recognise the place. The city centre was devastated by the quake and one of the main buildings, the cathedral, had it’s spire toppled and is still in a state of ruin. I was surprised how long the recovery work is taking, but it is happening slowly, the whole city is a building site.

The ruined cathedral
The resilience of the people however is amazing, and chatting to them you see that they have optimism that the future is bright. They have created a temporary shopping centre made out of shipping containers which was pretty cool and even built a temporary cathedral made predominately out of cardboard!

The cardboard cathedral
The old city is still there is in parts though, the River Avon still flows lazily through the city, and you can still be punted along, it kind of reminded me of the city where I was born, Stratford Upon Avon.

Punting on the Avon

Christchurch tram

Dunedin and the Otago peninsula

After I left Christchurch, I headed south to Dunedin. Dunedin translates as ‘Edinburgh of the south’ in Gaelic, and it certainly does feel very Scottish. Lots of Scottish place names and British looking buildings. Lots of the south of New Zealand was settled by the Scots, including the other city here, Invercargill.

One of the architectural highlights of the city is the railway station, photo below. It also a great art gallery, a great vegetarian cafe called ‘Pou Pourri’ and I also found a fantastic second hand bookshop called ‘Dead Souls’!

Dunedin railway station
I then headed off on a drive around the Otago peninsula, just outside the city. It takes about two hours to drive around, and it is definitely worth it. I got up very close and personal with some sunbathing seals, spotted an albatross soaring in the sky above me and saw some dramatic seascapes, cliffs and rolling hills too. Oh and I also saw a rare yellow-eyed penguin. There are only 6,000 in the world, so that was a good spot I thought!

Otago Peninsula

The Catlins rainforest

The Catlins sit between Dundein and Invercargill. I don’t think many people know about the area. It is very remote and very beautiful. I saw some stunning waterfalls, remote and empty white sand beaches, three hawks swoop past my car, fields and fields of amazing wildflowers and much more.

Waterfalls in the Catlins

Remote beach in the Catlins

Invercargill and Bluff

Invercargill is probably even more Scottish feeling than Dunedin. I spent the night here, and it was blowing a gale when I arrived, so it felt even more than Scottish than I had anticipated!

I drove south to a small town called Bluff. This is the most southerly settlement in the country and probably one of the most southerly places in the world. I arrived there on 11 December 2106, exactly three months since I flew out of London to begin my trip, so it felt a fitting place to mark the milestone. From here on in, the only way is north….

Week 8 – New Zealand, Part Two

I’ve nearly completed my second and final week of my trip around the North Island of New Zealand. I have loved the time I’ve spent here, travelling all the way down to Wellington in the south and back up again. I’m coming back in December to travel around the South Island and to visit Auckland, can’t wait! Have put together a video with the highlights of my trip if you should so care to watch!

Windy Wellington

As soon as I reached Wellington, the capital city of NZ, the weather took a turn for the worse. Wellington has a reputation for that kind of thing. However, it did not spoil my time there. I started by visiting the national museum ‘Te Papa’, which is is well worth a visit. It has some great social history exhibitions including a great one on immigration, as well ones on earthquakes and Maori culture. It is all free too. They also do great vegetarian sushi in the cafe! The setting is fantastic too, right on the waterfront.

I then took the cable car up to the botanical gardens and I also drove to the top of Mount Victoria, which has spectacular 360 degree views of Wellington Bay.

Wellington as seen from Mount Victoria
Wellington as seen from Mount Victoria

One of the most interesting things I did was tour the NZ parliament (free). I learn that NZ has a proportional representation system which gives smaller political parties more chance of being represented in parliament, which seems entirely sensible to me (unless it were in the UK whereby the hideous UKIP would get more seats)! I also toured the iconic ‘Beehive’ extension, added in the 1970s and designed by British architect Sir Basil Spence.

New Zealand Parliament
New Zealand Parliament

I stayed with an old university friend which in Wellington, Richard. We had a fun evening reminiscing about uni life and looking at old photos! See the photo below, we barely look older than the day we graduated 😉

Me & Richard twenty years after graduation!
Me & Richard twenty years after graduation!

Whangaui

One of the things I love about travelling is discovering towns and places that aren’t necessarily on the tourist trail but are interesting in their own right for what they show you about life in that country. One of these places is Whanganui.

It was meant to only be a stop on the way to getting somewhere else, but I really liked this place. Set by a wide river, it is a quiet town (most NZ towns are!) with not much traffic and leafy parks. I stumbled across a cultural festival which was a real highlight. Groups from various cultures, such as the Cook Islands, India and China were performing music, singing and dancing. It was so great to watch, particularly the Pacific Islanders dancing and singing, all very colourful!

I also got to sample some great Sri Lankan curries and got chatting to a boy about how great it is to be vegetarian! He was so happy to meet another veggie 🙂 Go veggies…!

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I also got the weirdest underground elevator to the top of Durie Hill, apparently the only example of its kind in NZ! It was so old and shaky I feared for my life :-0

Me in the tunnel leading to the Durie Hill creaky elevator
Me in the tunnel leading to the Durie Hill creaky elevator
Whanganui river
Whanganui river

Taupo

Taupo is situated on a large lake in central North Island. Famous too for adventure stuff like skydiving and white water rafting – neither of which I came close to indulging in.

I did however visit Huka Falls, an impressive huge torrent of water created where the Waikato River is funnelled through a narrow opening of rocks. The video at the top has some footage of the falls, here are a few photos too.

Huka Falls
Huka Falls
Huka Falls
Huka Falls

I also drove past the impressive Mount Ngauruhoe and the famous Tongariro crossing. Mount Ngauruhoe is an active volcano and apparently was the setting for Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.

Mount Ngauruhoe
Mount Ngauruhoe

Rotorua and the geothermal highway

The geothermal highway connects Taupo to Rotorua. Along it’s entire length there are loads of geothermal sights to see. I chose to go to Wai-O-Tapu. Quite expensive to get in but well worth it. There are loads of things to see, including the famous ‘Champagne pools’, which are multi coloured pools, the colour being caused by mineral deposits from underground coming to the surface.

The whole place smells of rotten eggs (the sulphur) so takes a while to get used to that. I also saw some amazing mud pools bubbling away. I kept wondering what would happen if there was some big eruption (answer – I’d probably die). It was very interesting to walk around, there are a few photos below plus some footage in the video at the start.

Opal Pool, Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
Opal Pool, Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
The Devil's Bath, Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
The Devil’s Bath, Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
Champagne Pool, Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
Champagne Pool, Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park

Rotorua itself is a lovely little town, also on a lake. The Government Grounds house the impressive looking museum and are sacred to the Maori people.

Government Gardens, Rotorua
Government Gardens, Rotorua
Lake Rotorua
Lake Rotorua

Some thought on New Zealand

During my two weeks in NZ, I have noticed a few things about the country and the people…

  1. Kiwis drivers are some of the worst in the world! I’ve never seen so many overtaking attempts on windy roads. I even asked some Kiwi friends who agreed! Slow down people, what’s the hurry?
  2. Kiwis are also some of the friendliest people in the world. Everyone says hello, which can be disconcerting at first to an introverted Brit like me!
  3. There are loads & loads of German tourists here. Not sure why they love it here particularly. I even asked a German girl and she did not know why either. I’d say 50% of people in hostels are German.
  4. Wellington has it’s own weather system. The rest of the North Island was glorious. Wellington, not so much.
  5. The Coromandel Peninsula is stunning. Why it is not world famous beats me. But heh, I like it quiet so don’t tell anyone else.
  6. Maoris have a very proud and strong culture and they seem pretty integrated into Kiwi life, a lot more so than when I was in Australia and witnessed the dispossession of the Aborigine people.
  7. Kiwi food is pretty good, very fresh and the coffee is ace too!
  8. New Zealand has some great small towns, off the tourist trail. I’d recommend anyone to adventure further off the tourist map and see the real NZ.
  9. New Zealand TV – I tried it for ten minutes and gave up.
  10. The nature, the wildlife, the emptiness. If you want to go somewhere that is beautiful and where you can lose yourself, you couldn’t go wrong with New Zealand! And to top it off I’ll be back in December to do it all again…

Week 7 – New Zealand

So, I finally made it out of California! I was really sad to leave it behind, but there’s a whole world out there!

The Coromandel Peninsula

After a mammoth 13 hour flight from LA to Auckland, I (perhaps unwisely), decided to jump straight in a hire car and drive up to the Coromandel. I have visited NZ before, but had always wanted to visit this part of the country, and boy, was it worth waiting for.

I cannot overstate it enough how beautiful it is. I would have to say it is one of the most amazing places I have ever visited in the world. I drove up the west cost of the peninsula, from Thames to Coromandel town, then across to Whitianga where I spent two nights. The drive is spectacular, and I had the place virtually to myself. Parts of it looked like a set of ‘Lord of the Rings’, parts of it stunning vistas that would not look out of place in the Caribbean.

In Whitianga, I got the ferry across to a small place called Ferry Landing, and walked across to Mercury Bay, a place where Captain Cook anchored on 15 November 1769 and observed the transit of the planet Mercury, and subsequently named the bay Mercury Bay.  The beach there is out of this world, and as I was there at 9.30am I had the place to myself, save for a few seabirds. Heaven. Another couple of beautiful beaches are Lonely Bay and Cooks Beach, see photo below. I also walked up to Shakespeare Scenic Reserve. Apparently this is where William Shakespeare used to vacation. True story.

The other cool thing I did whilst there was visited Hot Water Beach. Wondering what the people in the photo below are up to? They are digging into the sand to create their own mini hot tubs! This part of the beach has geothermically heated water bubbling up.

 

Whakatane and the Maori people

Whakatane (pronounced Phak-Are-Tar-Ney I am reliably informed) is a lovely little town on the east coast. It also has a big Maori population. I visited the ‘Mataatua Maori Marae Experience’ and learnt all about the house that came home. A marae is a meeting ground, and they build a carved house as a place for community celebrations, funerals etc.

In 1870 the house in Whakatane was taken away to Sydney as part of an exhibition, then travelled to Melbourne, London, Dunedin and finally back home over 100 years later after a lot of negotiating It is a beautiful building and was fascinating to hear about its story.

Gisborne, Captain Cook and the first light of the new day

So Gisborne was my next stop, and as it turns out, it is rather an important little place. It is the first place in the world to see the light of the new day. It was catapulted onto the map in 1999 when the hype around the new millennium reached fever pitch and thousands descended on the town to see the light of the first day of the millennium. Apparently Dame Kiri Te Kananwa performed and everything!

Gisborne is also the place where Captain Cook first landed in New Zealand.

 

I also visited a lovely little museum there too and saw some beautiful Lalique glass bowls and vases.

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Napier and the beauty of art deco

The town of Napier in Hawkes Bay was virtually destroyed by fire and earthquake in 1931. This meant the town was then rebuilt in the height of the art deco period and the town has benefited from having some great examples of art deco architecture. Spent a lovely afternoon strolling around admiring the architecture, a few shots below.

I am not even halfway through my tour of the North Island yet (south island to come in December) but am loving my Kiwi adventure so far!

USA, New Zealand and Australia – or there and back again…

To travel is to live, and I need to start living!Ben Hills-Jones

So I’m off. For a while at least.

As of September 2016 I’m heading off to the golden shores of California.

Then I will be carrying on to New Zealand, Australia, back to the US and ending us in Canada in February 2017.

I’ll be blogging and videoing my trip as I go, so watch this space!