Tuesday, 24 February 2009

New Zealand - Tongariro National Park

On our journey back up north we couldn't resist stopping off in Tongariro National Park for a couple of nights. With volcanoes, some of them snow-capped, on every side it's a hard-to-beat setting. We hiked through heather and gorse-filled scrub lands, with yet more waterfalls (anyone bored of photos of waterfalls yet?!) as well as more tropical forests and spotted (and even more surprisingly photographed) an owl.

Today we completed the Tongariro Crossing, dubbed the "Best one day walk in New Zealand". I actually did it the last time I was here too, but in total white-out conditions! This time the weather was glorious and so I got to see all the breath-taking views and Ben to photograph them. One of the big mountains we walked alongside was Mount Doom in 'Lord of the Rings', and it looks pretty bleak and scary even in the sun.

The 5.30am start and seven hours "tramping" (as they call it here) took it's toll though, and we had to put the bed down again when we got back and have a snooze, before heading to the bar for a glass of wine for me and a bowl of chips for Ben! My legs are pretty achy now too and I've got blisters, so maybe I'm not quite as fit as I hoped I was!

The other bit of excitement to happen here was that Ben electrocuted himself! Well he's not actually dead, but he did get a nasty shock. I heard him shout all the way from the toilet block! It was nothing to do with Margery I hasten to add, and the fault of the fitting we were trying to plug into and of course he's fine now and had lots of TLC from me, so don't fret.

There are more photos here.

Monday, 23 February 2009

New Zealand - Wellington

Wellington is miles and miles from Napier, especially in Margery! It's right on the southern tip of the North Island and it took us seven hours to drive here. It's the capital of New Zealand, although it's much smaller than Auckland. If we were travelling around New Zealand on any kind of sensible route we wouldn't have come this far south until we were ready to head to the South Island, but we've come at this time for two reasons. The first reason being that this is another place that might have a job for me so we wanted to see it in order to decide if it would be worth our while bombing down here from the other side of the country should I be called for interview.

The second reason is that Ben has a couple of friends living here; Rich and Vicky (friends from uni in Swansea - Rich is the one who looks freakishly like him!) and Rich was performing in the Wellington Carnival this weekend. So we've been parked up on their driveway for the last few days, despite the fact the they've just had a baby and Vicky's parents are her too.

I've been to Wellington before and I hated it! All I remember is arriving here the same weekend as some kind of children's sporting event was on. We couldn't find anywhere to stay and the cold, windy, rainy, steeply sloping streets were choc-a-block with matching shell-suit clad kids! However I vowed to not let that experience cloud my view of Wellington this time and visiting a place as a holiday destination and somewhere you may live, we are discovering, are two very different experiences.

Saturday saw us hit the Wellington Carnival. It's a big, free festival in the city centre, with all the usual stuff; bands, hippy clothing for sale, food stalls (none up to the standards of Groovy Smoothies though obviously!) and then a big carnival parade though the streets in the evening. It was the best behaved festival I've ever been to though! Ben and I got a few disapproving looks for drinking beer in the streets (which as it turns out is illegal, but no drinking outside at a festival? Come on!) Anyway, Rich plays in a samba band and their huge fish float, fifty drummers wearing fish on their heads and loads of scantily clad, glittery belly-dancing girls looked fab. In fact they won first place! Ben and I were so impressed whilst we were "backstage" watching them practice that we vowed that if we move here he'd join the drummers and I'd join the dancers (I'm not entirely comfortable with the tiny outfits though!).

Wellington is an attractive city set around a bay, complete with sailing boats :0) It's a manageable size (three hundred thousand population) but has loads going on. In fact it promotes itself as being the culture capital of New Zealand (which admittedly doesn't give it much competition!) but means it has some of the best restaurants, nightlife, theatre, music, shopping etc and loads of events going on. It also has a surprisingly rugged coastline running around it's suburbs, as well as lots of green areas which make it feel as if you're miles away from the city as soon as you get out of the centre.

As you're probably gathering by now... We really like it! However, we're very torn. All the stuff that goes on in Wellington appeals to us, and we would make the most of it, but... Do we really want to live in a city? Did we come all this way to move to another city? I honestly think that Wellington has more to offer us than Cardiff does (which is of course where everywhere inevitably gets compared to). It is beautiful, I'd be happy and proud to have people visit us here and I think we could have a much higher quality of life here than at home. Plus this is the best option when it comes to geek jobs for Ben.

BUT... the climate is nowhere near as good as in other parts of New Zealand. The Winters are pretty bleak and Wellington is famous for it's wind - and it REALLY is windy, even when the sun is shining like today. It's also more expensive to live here than most of the rest of the country and obviously comes with those other city delights like commuting and traffic jams (which you hardly ever see in the rest of New Zealand) and people who are less friendly and have less time for you.

So there you have it. We do really like it and could, I'm sure, be very happy living here but maybe it's not quite different enough for us to have moved to the other side of the World for. We will have to see what the rest of the country has to offer :0)

More photos here.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

New Zealand - Napier

We decided that we should really go and visit some of the places that potentially have a job for me, so we can decide if we want to live there or not. Top of Ben's list was Napier and sure enough the guide book makes it sound lovely. It's in the middle of New Zealands wine growing territory (can't be bad!) on the east coat of the North Island and famous for it's art deco buildings. It's often described as "Mediterranean" in terms of it's climate and scenery and with the combined population of Napier and neighbouring Hastings at around a hundred and twenty thousand, it should have a fair amount going on. It's a fair old drive away from everywhere else though. It took us a good five hours, through the separating mountain range, to get here. Admittedly Margery wasn't quite a nippy up some of the steep, windy roads as other vehicles, but none-the-less it is quite a long way.

Knowing that the beach in Napier is pebbly I presumed that it would have a sea-front something like Brighton's, but with a bit of Miami Beach (art deco) thrown in for good measure. However, we pulled up on the front one grey, cloudy evening (Mediterranean?!) and found ourselves next to a crazy golf course - it felt much more like Barry Island than Miami Beach!!

We've been trying desperately to keep and open mind though and have spent a couple of days exploring the region. We happen to be here during their biggest event of the year too, which is some big art deco thing. It's pretty cool seeing people wandering the streets in 1930s outfits and lots of old fashioned cars driving around. We even stopped to listen to a 1930s style band which proved to be pretty amusing when we realised that we'd sat down in the middle of a big group of adults with special needs. Ben coped very well but was heard to say "I'm hoping for one that the crowd doesn't know" as they all sang / groaned along to "Down by the Riverside"!

It's not that there's anything wrong with the place exactly but it's just not special enough to come all this way and settle for. The sea-front is really disappointing and the surroundings are Mediterranean, which thinking about it means quite barren. Admittedly it's handy for wine but you know what? They transport that all over the World! What there is around here however, are some absolutely beautiful beaches (no not the one in town!) but they're at least three quarters of an hours drive from the town and loads of places in New Zealand have beautiful beaches. Plus it's so far from everywhere else it's really quite isolated. Anyway, the long and short of it s we don't want to live here. But in the mean time we've made the most of the beach and the sun and spent last night parked up right next to the beach and this morning I went for a run along it. Can't be bad :0)

The highlight of our time in Napier though has undoubtedly been going on a wine-tasting tour. When we did one in Argentina we went to three wineries and tasted a couple of wines in each one. Not in New Zealand! We went to four wineries and tasted eight or nine wines in each one! We were battered by the end of it! It was a really good laugh and believe it or not we've learned something about wines too. I'm proud to say I now can tell the difference between a Malborough Savingion Blanc and a Hawkes Bay Chardonnay, so I have a new method of choosing which wine to buy which isn't based entirely on what's on offer in Tesco!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

New Zealand - Rotorua

Rotorua is smack-bang in the middle of loads of volcanic activity. There are volcanic "wonderlands" to visit where and walk between incredible multi-coloured pools, geysers that spew water twenty meters into the air, bubbling mud ponds and hot springs. But you can see a lot of it just walking through the town's park. It's even weirder in a way to see smoke coming out of holes in the ground right next to people's houses! We've seen some fantastic sights, but to be honest I think I'm a bit volcanoed out! What with this and all we saw in South America I'm reaching the bottom of my volcano-related awe pools!

Also I have to admit that my views might have been slightly tainted by the experience of standing on a wooden viewing platform over-looking some bubbling lake or other when I somehow managed to get my leg wedged between the wooden bars! Ben's so-called attempts to help me just resulted in me shouting at him, so he ignored me and carried on taking photos (not of me - I'd have killed him!). I was stuck there for ages and in the end had to scrounge some suntan lotion from some strangers to use as a lubricant to squeeze my now bruised knee out! How embarrassing!

The countryside around here really is beautiful though. Rivers and lakes with water so clear you can see right to the bottom, surrounded by tropical forests full of ferns. I'm loving exploring and seeing what mother nature has to offer, and we've parked up in some spectacular spots. What views to wake up to in a morning.

We had a lovely, romantic Valentine's Day here too :0) We celebrated with a BBQ (not something you could do in the UK!) and some delicious New Zealand wine (which went straight to my head thanks to my current healthy on-the-waggon status!) Ben's Rotorua highlight though is probably the 3D maze that he got pretty excited about and (unsurprisingly given my very recent semi-conversion to puzzling) was far better at than me!

Ben, you'll be pleased to hear, has now upped his previous "it's alright" opinion of New Zealand to "it's good". Not particularly articulate but an improvement none-the-less!

There are more photos here.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

New Zealand - Hamilton (again!)

I'm diseased! Really I am! It was those bloody (not literally - that really would be a worry) poo samples! Apparently in South America (probably) I picked up some disease that means I've had to be reported to the Communicable Diseases Department! By rights I should be really ill. Some kind of nasty food poisoning apparently. Anyway I'm not, I'm fine, in fact what will all this running and healthy eating I'm the fittest I've been for ages. So they're not going to treat me they're just going to leave it and presume it'll make it's own way out at some point. So lets hope so.

The other crappy thing to happen during this, our most recent, visit to Hamilton is that whilst we were in the supermarket, even though we couldn't have been more than ten minutes and it was a busy carpark and the middle of the day, someone broke into Margery and nicked our stereo :0( The stereo was pretty rubbish so we don't really care about that and but it's a bit scary how easy it was to do. Luckily they didn't take any of our valuables from the back, all Ben's camera equipment was in there, ipods, laptop etc etc, and our insurance doesn't cover us anymore (I won't bore you with why) so it could have been a lot worse. But now Ben's obsessive-compulsive traits have gone into over-drive with repeated doorlock checking and curtain pulling! We've got a steering-lock and stuff now too so fingers crossed we'll be ok.

The good news though is we have a clearer idea about where there are some potential jobs for me. Now we can have a think about where we might want to live and be on stand-by to head off for interviews etc. So far the places on the list basically cover all corners of the North Island, for anyone that wants to check a map they are: Wellington, Tauranga, Napier/Hastings, Hamilton and Whangarei.

New Zealand - On route to Waitomo

Even just driving from one place to the next in New Zealand is something of an adventure. All along the way there are places next to the road that you can pull over in and disappear into the "bush", on incredibly well-maintained paths, to see some other natural wonder! We've wandered through forest and jungle and seen yet more waterfalls for Ben to photograph :0)

We've also called into a native-bird house to catch our first glimpses of the famous kiwi. For those of you that don't know, New Zealand has no native land mammals. So due to the lack of predators loads of flightless birds evolved, including of course the kiwi. Some of them were huge (we saw a model of a moa in the museum and it was way bigger than an ostrich). They used to be really common but the bigger species have, over time, been hunted to extinction for their meat and feathers. Also the smaller species have been hunted by the mammals introduced by man. There are several species of flightless birds remaining in the wild in New Zealand, but they are endangered and heavily protected. The possum, which I personally think is a lovely, fluffy little creature is considered slightly less evil than Satan himself by the kiwis! They were introduced from Australia and have decimated the native bird population. Resulting in them being generally hated by all and killed whenever possible. You can buy all kinds of possum fur goodies which come with a little "Congratulations you have helped preserve the New Zealand environment" label and are actively encouraged to go possum shooting!

I have a vague memory of visiting a similar bird-house last time I was here, and standing in the gloom (they keep the enclosures dark during the day in the hope that it will encourage the nocturnal birds to be a bit more active), struggling to spot a little brown thing among lots of other brown stuff! Well, not this time! Bold as brass they were, bouncing about and coming right up the the viewing glass. Some of them were fed while we were watching and they wanted to be stroked and everything. (Easy to see why they wouldn't be too difficult to hunt though ay?! - Ooh look at that... "Ay?", how very Kiwi of me. I must be assimilating already!) So back to the kiwis... they're much bigger than I thought, their bodies are about the size of a football and they have quite long legs and necks, as well as beaks, so they stand quite tall. In any case you'll have to have a look on the net or something because we weren't allowed to take any pictures. But we did get a nice one of a duck that seemed to think it was a puppy and kept following me around, not quite the same though is it?!

So Waitomo is where we were headed to see it's amazing caves. The caves themselves are pretty impressive in their own right, but the main reason to come here is because they are filled with glow worms. But this being adrenaline-fuelled New Zealand, just walking through the caves and looking up is not good enough, oh no! So instead we got wetsuited up and wedged into a big rubber ring each, and more or less pushed bum-first over a couple of waterfalls, in the dark, before we were allowed to look up and see the glow worms!! And very pretty they are too (even with the knowledge that they're not worms at all but maggot-like creatures with glow in the dark poo!)

With such action-packed days our evenings in the campervan have been unsurprisingly sedate. However, I have a confession to make about a new past-time... Ben really likes puzzles. He has received much stick for this particular geeky quirk as I think they're nothing but a frustrating waste of time. Or at least I did... But then I discovered that you can puzzle for prizes!!! I've taken to buying trashy magazines, you know the sort "That's Life" or "Take a Break" or whatever and entering all the competitions, the thinking being that given the fact that there are so few people in New Zealand, we're bound to win. Right?! Now don't ask me why but "puzzling for pleasure" feels wrong but "puzzling for prizes", even when what we stand to win is a Candy-floss maker or My Little Pony game is somehow so right :0)

We've had a call to say I have to go back to the clinic where I had my immigration medical done to discuss some of the results :0( That doesn't sound good does it? I bet it's those poo samples! So it's back to Hamilton - again!

More photos are found here and here

Monday, 9 February 2009

New Zealand - Raglan Bay

So now we're at Raglan Bay on the West Coast of the North Island. We're on a campsite, plugged into the power, sat in our van, drinking cold beer out of our fridge. We've had our first meal cooked in the mini kitchen (thanks Ben, it was lovely!) and will shortly be setting up the bed (and discovering if Ben fits in it!). The plan is for a few relaxing days on the beach. Well that's my plan anyway! Hopefully Ben can do some surfing and then I can get some peace to lie in the sun and do nothing :0)

It's actually the hottest weather they've had in New Zealand in over a hundred years. It was 32.4 degrees C and 100% humidity in Auckland recently. After the unbearable heat of Chile and Argentina it doesn't feel all that hot to us but the weirdest thing is that all this is going on whilst the UK has the worst snow for 25 years! I must admit that I am a little bit jealous when I hear everyone's sledging and snowman building stories but I'm sure the novelty of the snow will wear off a lot quicker than that of the beach in the sun. So I shouldn't complain :0)

It's so funny; nothing actually happens here. Well nothing really bad anyway. A loud siren went off earlier which called all the voluntary firemen to action (apparently almost the whole fire service is voluntary) and we could see smoke in the distance. The whole town had an air of excitement about it. It's obviously the most interesting thing to happen here for months! Don't believe me? The national weekend newspaper today's front-page headline is... "Couple accused of rent scam". Amazing!

I definitely feel that coming to New Zealand was the right thing to do. It's early days obviously and it's sunny and I don't have to start work yet and all that, but I really do love it. It feels like home - only better!! Ben's apparently "reserving judgement" before stating any opinion on the subject of whether he likes it or not other than to say "it's alright" (like a teenage boy!) but I'm convinced he's going to love it too.

A few days later...

Well all didn't go exactly to plan. We did have some well appreciated beach time and explored Raglan, which is a friendly slightly arty/hippy little beach town, but Ben never did get to do any surfing. As we were about to drive to the surfing beach we discovered that we had flattened the engine battery. Duh! (There are two batteries in the campervan; one for the lights and fridge and stuff and the usual engine one, and it turned out that we'd been using things that run off the engine battery rather then the other one.) But to cut a long story short a lovely Kiwi couple, with the biggest motorhome I have ever seen (which they let us have a look around!), came to our rescue and Margery is good as new :0) (Ben is also very keen for me to mention that he's been hard at work with his newly acquired tool kit and beloved WD40 and has now fixed the slightly dodgy door. Well done Ben, extra testosterone points for you!) We'd have both been happy to spend a few more days in our little beach haven but unfortunately the rain has set in, so we're off.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

New Zealand - Cambridge

Margery got a gentle introduction to life in the Smith-Gourley household as our first stop was only twenty minutes away! (Actually all the locals say it's twenty minutes away but I'm starting to wonder if a Kiwi twenty minutes might be a bit different to ours, well it definitely is in the van anyway!) Molly's a Welsh friend of ours that we worked the festivals with over the Summer. She lives out here now, so we came to stay. It's so nice to see a familiar face and we had a day on the beach together, as well as a night on the beer. As we were walking home (baring in mind Cambridge is a VERY small town) the sight of Ben with two women on his arm caused enough of a stir to cause someone to shout "Respect to the man in the glasses!" That's our Benji - Super Stud :0)

The people here are so friendly. I know people say that about everywhere, even Wales, where in some places you're lucky to not have your head knocked off! But here it really is true. A prime example being that when Ben was messing about in the campervan outside Molly's house, one of the neighbours came over. I was completely convinced that she would complain about the van being parked in the street. What other reason would a neighbour have for coming over at home? Well it turned out that she has a campervan too and wanted to compare notes! We were taken over the road to see her's, introduced to the three dogs, chatted to "gramps" etc, etc. It really is different here, I promise.

So after a few lessons in Kiwi; chilli bin = cool box, jangles = flipflops and trundlers = shopping trollys we leave Molly to go back to work and finally head off in Margery...

Thursday, 5 February 2009

New Zealand - Hamilton

Next stop is Hamilton. Not particularly a tourist destination, in fact it's main selling point seems to be the fact that it has good transport links and is near to other places (much like Birmingham) but it's not a bad place (unlike Birmingham)! Anyway the reason for being here is that this is where the agency who are (hopefully) going to find me work and help me with my visa / residency application etc are based. We're actually staying with the couple who own the business, in their own home, which is really nice. Anyone who knows me well will realise that something as huge as moving across the globe and starting a new job in a place where I don't know anyone, has the potential for causing me major stress and drama! However the whole process (so far) has been remarkably crisis-free. Christine and John have held my hand and guided me through the whole thing.

We still don't know where we're going to end up living. I'm waiting to hear where the jobs are and then we can go and visit places to see if we'd want to live there or not, and I can have interviews etc. I've said I don't want to start until late April anyway, so there's plenty of play-time left yet :0) Also, the good news is that it may be possible for me to get full residency (rather than just a work visa) within a year, which would be great. That would mean that I wouldn't be tied to one job, or even remaining in healthcare if I didn't want to. Also we'd be free to move somewhere for Ben to get a computing job if needs-be.

There's been paperwork to complete and I've had to have a medical. Much to my disgust (and Ben's amusement) it included having to give poo samples! And as a result of the poking and prodding I found out that I'm apparently two inches shorter than I always thought I was! The most devastating thing about that news is that it massively reduces my healthy weight range!! I had to have a breast exam too, and when I told Ben that the doctor had been poking at my boobs he asked me if he had done it with a stick (weirdo!).

We've both had our hair cut, which is just as well as Ben's had become like a big, blond helmet! He said it felt like Lego hair that you should just be able to pick up and take off in one solid piece! I did get a bit scared when I was having my haircut on the other side of the salon and I couldn't see Ben but heard the clippers come buzzing on, I was convinced I'd find him with a shaved head (fortunately it looks pretty good).

We spent an evening with John and Christine at the races. It's not like horse-racing at home though (not that I know anything about horse-racing at home). Instead of jockeys riding the horses they sit in little carts behind them and the races are called the trots (I think that's right!). It's a big family event and you all sit on the grass with a picnic and occasionally bet a dollar or two on the races. Needless to say we didn't win any money! But it was certainly a fairly different way to spend the evening.

Our plan for a while has been to buy a campervan to travel around New Zealand in, but it looked at one point that it just wasn't going to happen. We even got laughed out of one place when we said how much money we wanted to spend! But just when all hope was lost... We found Margery (that's what we've named her. To be honest Ben's not totally committed to the whole naming thing but I think he'll be won over!). She's a little two birth campervan with a fridge and sink and stuff and a table and chairs that folds down Into a double bed (we're not actually sure yet if Ben fits on it though!). She's not exactly a spring chicken though, in fact she'll be celebrating her 21st birthday this year! Plus she's done almost 350 000 kms and there's a bit of a knack to closing the door, but she goes, and at the bargain price of less then two thousand pounds it would have been rude not to! So we've spent a lot of time cleaning her, kitting her out, getting advice from campervan owning neighbours and preparing for life on the open road (this preparation includes us singing a song with the line "Long distance Benji" repeated over and over!).

More photos are here

Monday, 2 February 2009

New Zealand - Auckland

So a thirteen hour flight brought us to a new country, a new continent and a new day (I still can't get my head around the whole date line suddenly-it's-another-day thing. Some how it went from being January 28th to being January 30th. But my Mum's birthday is on the 29th, so it didn't exist for us!). The jet lag has been the hardest thing to adjust to. I keep waking up really early, but in the spirit of the healthy, sport-crazy Kiwis I've been getting up and going for a run.

Our first stop in New Zealand is Auckland. It's the country's biggest city (although not the capital), but it's not huge in population terms compared to a British city (1.4 million I think). It's really spread out though, mostly miles and miles of incredibly clean, very green suburbia. The city centre isn't really up to much but there's some pretty nice bits to it, especially the coastline. We've done a bit of a mix of boring admin-type things like open bank accounts and touristy things, like visit Underwater World and laugh at the fish and huge penguins. We've sat on the beach and met a friend of mine that I stayed with last time I was in New Zealand - ten years ago. We've got excited about the fantastic food and lovely, cheap wine. I've attempted to do some shopping, but Ben's minuscule capacity for shopping tolerance has meant it hasn't been particularly successful! We've wandered around the city, and it's parks, and I've even been persuaded to visit the city's museum. The highlight of our time in Auckland is definitely when we had lunch in a restaurant over-looking the harbour. There was a telescope and binoculars to watch all the sailing boats zipping around. After talking to some of the locals we discovered we were watching the Louis Vuitton Sailing Championships (actually it's probably not called that but it's something like that). We saw the China versus America leg and one of the sails of China's yacht completely riped in half (unfortunately Ben missed it because as-per-usual he was in the toilet!)