Tuesday, 31 March 2009

New Zealand - Catlins Coast - Top Track

We're now travelling along the south coast of the South Island, so we're really far south! It's pretty remote; a couple of hours drive to a supermarket, no mobile phone reception, very few places to buy petrol. Farming and tourism seem to be the only industries. We've hardly seen another soul.

Most of the hiking that we've been doing has been on tracks managed by the Department of Conservation, so they're really well looked after, sign-posted and kind of difficult to lose. So we decided to do something a little bit different. We did a two day walk called the Top Track, it was over private land on much rougher terrain and was a bit of an adventure :0) We had a booklet with instructions to follow and the way was marked with all sorts of brightly coloured way-markers, including old wellies on sticks, I felt like we were on a treasure hunt! The walk took us along deserted beaches, through forest, along cliff tops and over farm-land (I got a bit scared by the cows), then to our treasure... the Top Bus! An old bus that had been dragged to the top of a hill, that we spent the night in, before walking back a different route the next day.

There are more photos of the Catlins coast here

Sunday, 29 March 2009

New Zealand - Dunedin

The European New Zealand settlers demonstrate their lack of imagination, yet again, in the development of a city which is, this time, supposed to be Scottish. Well, there are lots of old buildings (which is pretty rare for New Zealand) and the weather's crap, so I guess it is a bit similar to Scotland! There's really very little I can say about the place, it seemed nice enough but it was Sunday so it was completely deserted.

We ended up spending most of the afternoon in an Internet place, because it was cheap! But the experience has slightly damaged me. It was like being in a teenage boy's bedroom! It was full of boys with poor personal hygiene, lacking social skills, who clearly don't get out much, playing computer games. I felt like I'd been transported to 'Teenager World' and was completely invisible because as Ben put it "geeks don't notice girls"! Using the toilet was quite a traumatic experience too but I think that's enough about that.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

New Zealand - Otago Peninsula

Yellow-eyed penguins are one of the rarest types of penguin in the world and... we saw them! We went into these hides which looked like something from World War I and got really close to these penguins who were just standing under trees looking scruffy! They moult at this time of year and so can't go in the water for a few weeks until all their old feathers have fallen out and the new ones have been coated in some sort of oil that they produce to make them properly waterproof. Hence the standing around under trees looking scruffy! Bless them :0)

We saw little blue penguins too, but to be honest the sight wasn't quite as impressive as they don't come ashore until dusk, by which time all we actually saw were little dark shapes waddling up the beach! We did see a huge sea lion though, which is different to a seal because they're bigger, the males dark and the females light in colour. They have flatter noses and walk differently plus they have external ears (see I do learn some things, just not about boring old rocks!) Unfortunately by the time Ben got his camera out the sea-lion had decided he'd had enough and hauled his ass back into the water and swam off. He did get some shots of the huge endangered albatrosses that flew overhead though :0)

Obviously there's been more hiking too and it all seems to finally be paying off as both Ben and I have had to make new holes in our belts to keep our tatty old trousers up - whoop whoop!!

There are more photos here.

Friday, 27 March 2009

New Zealand - Moeraki Boulders

Back to the coast again and on to Moeraki Village. We passed through the strange town of Oamaru on route, which had one street which seemed to be a bit of a time-warp with old buildings, traditional crafts and people in Victorian clothing whilst the rest of the town was tatty and smelt of sheep poo!

Moeraki Village, for some reason, has loads of Welsh street names. It's a bit weird walking down Cardiff Road and seeing signs for Tenby and Glamorgan Street. But that's not why we're here. It's all about the boulders! There are these big round boulders on the beach here. I think this is going to be another one of those occasions where Ben's photos are going to do a better job at painting the picture than me. Basically there are these big spherical rocks caused by some boring geological process that I can't remember (I just asked Ben and his description of "some sort of stuff crystallizes and forms them in certain conditions" probably isn't much more help!). Anyway they were fun to play on and make for some pretty interesting photos :0)

For the last few days we've been "freedom camping", which basically means that we've parked up over night in spots without any facilities (it's allowed believe it or not). It saves money but means we haven't had a shower for days! It's a bit like when we were working at the festivals, except then everyone else smelt too! I've started to fantasize about being clean. We bought some cheap DVDs from the supermarket and are planning to watch them on the laptop. I love how all this makes me appreciate the things I usually take for granted :0) It's funny how in the course of a few days my perspective on what constitutes luxury can change from spa pools to running water and electricity!

Last night I woke up in the night and I could hear the weirdest noise. It was a sort of whirring and sounded like it was coming from all around the van. I started to worry it might be a spaceship! I had visions of a flying saucer hovering over us. Rather surprisingly though my reaction was to refuse to look out of the window because I didn't want to be like one of those nutty Americans who claims to have been abducted by aliens! As it turns out it was a train, but I think I learned something about myself :0)

There are more photos here!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

New Zealand - The Southern Alps - Mount Cook

Mount Cook is New Zealand's tallest mountain (3754 m) and no we haven't climbed it! It's actually not as big as some of the mountains that we trekked through in South America but these mountains are really rugged. They're capped with snow, which doesn't seem much higher up than we are (but that's probably some sort of illusion of perspective) and don't forget that it's Autumn here now, so this snow has stayed put all though the hottest Summer in decades.

We headed off for a days hiking in Mount Cook National Park in our boots, hats, sunscreen etc and had our waterproofs, lunch and water in our packs . But I must admit that my conviction that we were well prepared was slightly shaken when the fist thing we saw was a memorial. It was covered in little plaques describing the tragic deaths of ALOT of people in the park we were jaunting off into! All over New Zealand there are these big road-signs with a kind of swing-o-meter indicating the level of risk of fire in the bush on that particular day, so we're pretty used to seeing those, but this is the fist time I've seen one to indicate the risk of avalanche!! Hmmmm bit of a worry, but the risk is low at this time of year, so completely by chance we're here at the right time - phew!

Our hike took us among glacier topped mountains, over swing bridges, through bush and over scrubland before leading us to the glacier at the base of Mount Cook, where a lake was filled with mini icebergs. Now that, you've got to admit, is cool :0) Now we're parked next to a lake with the reflection of Mount Cook in it and Ben swears he's going to get up early tomorrow and take some photos. He's also promised that afterwards he'll drive the van to the nearest loos a few kms away with me still in bed (naughty!).

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

New Zealand - The Southern Alps - Lake Takepo

We've taken a detour from the east coast road and come inland to do some hiking in the Southern Alps. Our first stop, Lake Takepo, is so nice we've stayed an extra day! It's a glacial lake and is really turquoise so it looks a much darker colour than the sky, which is kind of cool (something to do with dust particles in the water). We're camped over-looking the lake and surrounded by mountains and once again are blown away by our setting. (I apologise if it's getting a bit boring hearing "it was really beautiful" over and over again, but it IS all really beautiful! I feel like I'm running out of ways to say that though. I hope Ben's pictures will be a bit better at showing you what I mean).

There's a tiny, pretty church on the lakeside and instead of having stain glass it has a huge clear window overlooking the lake. But Ben had something of a strop when he was trying to get a photo of it because bus-loads of Japanese tourists kept pulling up in front of him! The final picture was worth the wait though :0)

I'm pretty taken with the sheepdog stature nearby, which is a thank you to all the generations of working dogs who have aided the local famers in managing their land. Ooh and all the rabbits (a.k.a. "fluffy bunnies") we've seen playing everywhere (no doubt hated by the locals for eating all the vegetation and disturbing their precious flightless birds. I'm thinking of starting up a we-love-introduced-mammals-as-well-as-kiwis-It's-not-their-fault-you-brought-them-over-here club, but I'm not convinced there'll be many members!)

We hiked up the nearest mountain today and found little observatories scattered all around. The skies are so clear and free from light pollution here that the nearby university does lots of astronomy studies. Looking up when running to the loo, in the cold, during the night showed me why. The sky looks massive! And there's tonnes of stars, way more than you ever see from home. Obviously I don't know what any of them are, and can't maintain my concentration for long enough to learn any, but none-the-less I am capable of being impressed!

We had a big treat after our walk this afternoon and went to a brand new hot spring spa pool complex. It had three pools all at different temperatures and loungers to lie in the sun. It was proper luxury and Ben loved it too, mostly because for some reason it only cost us about three quid each :0) I could definitely get used to this sort of lifestyle.

I have a confession to make... the significant drop in temperature, especially in the evenings and mornings, coupled with my distinct lack of appropriate clothing (and the fact that we're in New Zealand and fashion is not a big thing over here!) has lead me, on several occasions, to be seen in public, sporting my favourite pink flip flops (or "jandals" as they call them here) teamed with big, brown, woolly, knee-high socks covered in llama patterns, from South America, which were a typically rubbish Christmas present from my brother (cheers Clump!).

There are more photos here

Sunday, 22 March 2009

New Zealand - Christchurch

I really liked Christchurch last time I was here, but maybe the fact it was summertime and Christmas might have had something to do with it, because this time it's wet and cold and just a bit average. The city is sort of English, there's punting on the River Avon, old fashioned trams, parks, and the cathedral of course. But mostly a place (like most) which is more enjoyable in the sunshine. It's definitely Autumn now, we've had to buy jumpers and big coats and are headed into our first Winter in quite some time. We've still got a way further south to go too so it's only going to get colder - bbbrrrrrrrr! I wonder at which temperature it stops being fun in a campervan?!

Anyway my Christchurch highlight was shopping (for the nano-second that Ben can tolerate) and watching a rat playing on the riverbank - not something most people would enjoy, but then I'm not most people and I miss having pet rats :0(

Ben's highlight, however, was being proven right after I was annoyed at his suggestion that I'm "not very good with art galleries" when after only twenty-five minutes of art gallery action I text him to say I was bored and went to wait in the foyer. Yeah, yeah, whatever!!

There's another photo here.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

New Zealand - Kaikoura

Ben finally got some photos of seals :0) They're all along the coast and you can just walk right up to them. If you get too close they soon give you a bit of a warning growl though, as Ben discovered. He reckons they're not too fast on the rocks but I don't think he's as fast as he thinks he is!

We saw dolphins too. Hundreds of them. They were really close to the shore and leaping out of the water putting on quite a show! They were jumping in formation, doing somersaults and back-flips and everything. They were totally showing off! It was fab :0)

They have the some of the best seafood in the world here and even I - the vegetarian fish-hater felt I should give it a go. It was beautiful, but the massive plate full of assorted battered seafood I was presented with seems to have caused the blood flowing through my veins to be replaced by liquid lard!

There are more photos here

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

New Zealand - Blenheim

We're in wine country again, nothing but vineyards for miles, so what's a girl to do?! Wine tasting of course :0) Seven wineries later Ben declared "I find as you go around they all start to taste good". I have now officially confirmed my suspicions that my favourite wines are Sauvignon Blancs from the Malborough region or "sav" as they rather classlessly refer to it here. Ben religiously made notes on every wine he tasted, which later didn't prove to be that useful as he had described one of his favourites as reminding him of ham!!

I found a lovely little gift shop, selling jewellery, Maori arts and so on. The reason I mention it is I just wanted to give you another example of the Kiwis' intense hatred of the possum... In this shop you can buy chocolates shaped like run-over possums! Now come on, is that really necessary?! (I feel now is the time I should make a little correction about my previous statement that the reason for their unpopularity is because they kill kiwis. Apparently they don't often kill kiwis after all but they do devastate their habitat. I'm sure most of you don't care but you know I like to get these things right.)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

New Zealand - Nelson Lakes National Park

Another national park and equally spectacular but totally different. This setting is a gorgeous lake surrounded by mountains. It's picture-postcard perfect and even inspired Ben for the first time on this whole trip (despite several declarations of intent) to haul his arse out of bed and photograph the sunrise :0)

So more hiking and healthy outdoor action had by all, but it hasn't all been fun and sunshine... Ben dropped his camera and damaged his filter (but not thelens fortunately which would have been much more of a disaster - do you see the dull, geeky things I'm forced to know about these days?!).

My mini disaster was to ruin the dinner, which in itself is not that much of a drama but it has resulted in Margery and her contents (a.k.a. everything we own!) smelling like the last burger that has been forgotten about and left on theBBQ! Fortunately we've discovered that fabreeze exists over here too, so now all our stuff smells like fabreeze with just an gentle undertone of charred burger!

The big news though is... Remember my new hobby - "puzzling for prizes"? Well it worked because WE WON A PRIZE! I told you we were bound to :0) Now admittedly the prize (which we have yet to see) is some kind of shitty magnetic thing you stick on the fridge and a key ring, so not the car or LCD TV we were hoping for. But it is a start. However, despite our success I'm afraid I need to let you know that Ben continues to "puzzle for pleasure", what is that about?! In fact I recently discovered that his new habit of buying daily newspapers is not so he can read about the latest non-event that has occurred on these fair isles, but to do the bloody crossword! So in a bid to save trees I got him to buy a crossword book, however it appears he was a little ambitious in his choice of "Times Cryptic Crosswords" as he can't answer any of them, so probably should have gone for the big print old lady one after all!

There are more photos here

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

New Zealand - Abel Tasman National Park

The spectular-ness (I don't think that there is such a word, but there should be) of the South Island scenery was apparent before we even arrived! The ferry took us through the Marlborough Sounds; rugged, unspoiled coastline, with the occasional house, accessible only by boat, being the only development for miles and miles. We then drove north up the coastline to Abel Tasman National Park, on possibly the windiest (as in zig zaggy not as in blowy) roads I have ever been on in my life (and bare in mind the South American adventures so I do not make that statement lightly) and Margery took it all in her stride. Against all the odds and despite the few extra thousand KMs we're put on her (so far) she is doing brilliantly (so far). Ben has now fully mastered the way that you have to sneak her into third gear by almost going into fifth, and she's even been treated to a bit of interior design make-over in the form of photos of you ugly lot on her walls :0) I can't believe how at home I feel in a space which is about five metres by one metre and more to the point that I have to share with someone else (yep, he is still alive)!

The national park runs along the north coast of the South Island and we've done a bit of kayaking, which has got to be the best way to explore the park's pretty little coves and see it's dramatic cliff faces. The rocks have been worn into strange, smooth shapes where they enter the sea, which changes colour from blue to green and back to blue again (something to do with the colour of the sand apparently). Our guide (who insisted on talking like a pirate?!) pointed out some of the local bird life and I'm not really a big fan of birds. Animals of the fluffy, cuddly variety I can get excited about - and do, all the time, but birds generally just don't do anything for me. Now there are a few exceptions to this rule, the kiwi for instance (possibly because it is a bird of the fluffy, cuddly variety) and in Abel Tasman I found another one - the pied shag. Now admittedly it's comedy name does help, but that is not the whole reason. They look kind of like flying penguins and apparently they have really dense, heavy bones and webbed feet. These physical characteristics make them ideally suited to diving in water, but not so ideally suited, to our delight, to landing in trees!! Oh how we laughed as they had to make several attempts before crash-landing in the tree tops :0)

We've been doing a lot of hiking along the coastal track too, which I love but doesn't make for very interesting reading. But we were involved in a bit of drama when a woman who was walking near us fell and (I suspect) broke her hip. I hadn't really thought about how remote it is until that point.There are plenty of people around and lots of facilities, but no mobile coverage and an hour and a half walk to the nearest phone. I used one of my best practised skills - shouting loudly and got the message to a kayak guide who radio-ed for help. Not much later a doctor happened to be walking past and stopped to help, giving Ben and I the excuse to slope off and leave them to wait to be rescued.

The highlight of our time in Abel Tasman though has to be our seal swim :0) I actually tried to do this when I was here ten years ago and it was freezing and the seals all sat on their rocks looking at us like we must be mental for being in the cold water! They were having none of it! But not this time... it was still freezing, even in wetsuits and the like, but we were taken out by this old sea-dog character, who looked like Uncle Albert and kept bursting into song! Well he might be a bit odd but I think he's great after he took us to a seal "nursery" and this time the seal pups were more than happy to come and play (one, two, three... aaaawwwwww!). It was amazing, swimming in the sea with these gorgeous, wild animals, with huge eyes, who were swimming round and round us and coming right up to our faces then darting away at the last minute. Even the mums were joining in the fun.

The absolutely best bit was when one of the pups was resting on his flippers with his head out of the water, on a little rock which was sticking up. I went over and really slowly joined him there. The next thing... another one popped up and then another and another! They obviously all wanted to see what they were missing. In the end I was surrounded by six baby seals. It took all of my will power not to shout "BEN... LOOK AT ME!!!!!" at the top of my voice (no, no there's no photos, Ben was splashing about in the water too and the camera was safely tucked away in the dry -boo!)

Heather's little rant...

Ben's photos are beautiful, I love seeing them on the blog and I know that they are the real reason that most of you (not you Dad - thanks) bother to look at it at all (of course I'm not bitter!), but it's not always all that much fun hanging around waiting for the right light (blah, blah!) for him to get the perfect shot - AND we're hardly ever in any of them! You should know that every photo of me has been battled for and the ones with Ben in as well are usually following a row about the fact that he won't be in any photos! So anyway the point of this little rant is that I had a bit of a rebellion and took some of my own "snaps" of us muppetting around, so have a look here.

Or you can look at my photos here

New Zealand - Going Down!

Finally we are on our way down south. In fact I'm writing this whilst on the ferry from Wellington to Picton in the South Island. It all worked out according to plan and I've accepted the job in Tauranga. I probably could have taken my pick of jobs in the end. It's the first time I've been really pleased that I did my OT training - it's so nice to be in demand! The paperwork for my work permit is working it's way through the bureaucracy mill ready for me to start on April 27th, and hopefully I'll have residency within a few months too :0)

We've been to see Molly again -yey! Who lives only about three quarters of an hours drive from Tauranga - yey! But is just about to move to a place three hours away - boo! But is going to be working in the ski fields - yey! So we'll have somewhere to stay when we want to go skiing for the weekend in the Winter - yey! Surfing, sailing and scuba diving in the Summer then skiing in the Winter - can't be bad :0) (Maybe I should point out at this point that neither Ben nor I has ever been skiing in our lives, but hey, it's be rude not to right?!)

Molly got us all dragged into the quiz at the pub she works at, and we all won booby prizes at half time for coming last! Given the distinct lack of Kiwis in our team though it's not too surprising that we only scored one out of ten on the New Zealand history round! We did make something of a comeback though and managed not to come last over all :0) It all turned into something of a session and we blame the Africans! (Molly's South African boyfriend and his sister are a terrible influence!)

It was with the news that I'd got the job, and hangovers, that we finally got on our way towards the South Island. We had a couple more days with Rich and Vicky in Wellington on route. Another carnival and more fun in the sun made us wonder if we'd made the right choice with Tauranga over Wellington. But then came the rain, the traffic and that bloody awful wind and we realised that "you'd never get that in Tauranga" and that we've made the right decision :0)

Ben continues to attempt to counter-act my healthy living regime with his slobby lorry-driver impression and non-stop fish and chip eating! But once again has upped his opinion of New Zealand, this time from "good" to "choice" (a Kiwi word which means just about anything positive!)

More photos here!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

New Zealand - Tauranga

Tauranga is New Zealand's fastest growing city. By our standards it's not really a city at all. It's not even that big a town really. But this is New Zealand and "things are different here" as our friend Molly put it :0) It's in the Bay of Plenty which is on the east coast of the North Island and another place with a potential job for me. This was top of my list of places to live (not an easy thing to write when you haven't actually seen the places!) and on paper it's great. It has one of the best climates in New Zealand, lovely coastline, geek job opportunities for Ben, as well as potential photography opportunities and a location making it ideal to visit some of the nicest parts of the country within a day or weekend.

However, I've got to be honest my initial impression of Tauranga city itself wasn't overwhelming. It's just over a third of the size of Wellington, doesn't have such an impressive harbour setting and is lacking it's cultural vibrancy. But we always knew that was going to be the case. It does have everything you need from a city centre though in terms of shopping, bars, restaurants etc. Armed with a property rental listings we checked out some of the areas that maybe we would live it, but again were not overly impressed.

Don't worry this is the bit where it gets positive!... But then we went over the water, a bridge separates Tauranga from Mount Maunganui ("The Mount") which is sort of a suburb of Tauranga but feels more like it's own lovely, little beach town. We discovered that we could afford to rent a property really close to the beach and the town feels like it's got it's own little community with shops, cafes etc. We're finding that a lot of New Zealands housing is among sprawling suburbs, which mean that the houses are spread out and surrounded by greenery, but to our minds, lacking in a local community feel. We don't want to have to get in a car and drive every time we want to go somewhere. By New Zealand standards The Mount is "over developed" but to us it's small, tasteful and tranquil, with a gorgeous unspoiled beach :0) I'm not sure what that says about us! I even saw a poster up advertising belly-dancing classes, so who needs Wellington?!

So we're now, feeling really positive about maybe living here. We're not dead set on living in The Mount even if we do end up here because there's the commute to think about and lots of other things, and of course if we found something that we loved in the city then maybe we'd take that. But we are feeling positive that we could find something we really like here for a lot less money than we could in Wellington. Plus we'll have the sunshine and the beach :0) And it's a great place for people to come visit us at (hint hint!). I feel like a life in a little town on a beautiful beach is something that is really different enough from what we left behind to have come all this way for. Does that make sense?

Having said all that... I've got to get offered the job first! I've got my interview on Monday, so wish me luck! I've also got some other interviews lined up so it's not as if all our eggs are in one basket or anything, but I have a feeling about this place. Unfortunately the excitement is starting to flip over into anxiety as it all gets a bit more real - but I'm trying to ignore it and Ben's keeping me calm :0)

Despite Tauranga having supposedly the best climate in the country we're currently holed up in the campervan with a tropical storm raging around us! It's Ben's birthday tomorrow and we're supposed to be going out to celebrate but so far running to the loos is as far as we've got and that's got us soaked! The wind is blowing the camper around so I'm really glad we're not in a tent. We've been cooped up all day and cabin fever is starting to set in now! I've promised myself some wine tonight so I'm determined to get some, I just haven't quite worked out how I'm going to make it happen yet!

A few days later...

Well the important thing is - I did get some wine :0) The storm finally died down enough for us to be able to drive to the supermarket and run inside. So wine was bought, as was birthday treat fish and chips. Fortunately the next day, Ben's actual birthday, the weather was beautiful again and it was hard to believe that the storm had happened at all. We spent the day on the beach and then went out for a thai meal in the evening, so it was all good in the end.

I had my first job interview yesterday and it went really well - I think. I waffled a bit too much and could have answered some of the questions a bit better but I think I got away with it! They're not allowed to offer me the job until they've spoken to my referees (which is a bit of a pain with the time difference and stuff - thanks Beth, it's much appreciated) but it seems apparent that they are going to offer it to me.

It's a Community Mental Health Team Occupational Therapist post - for those of you that that means anything to. Basically it means I'd be working as part of a multi-disciplinary team, with people with mental health problems, in the community, so in their own homes rather than in hospital. It's similar enough to what I've done before to not freak me out too much, but different enough to still be interesting. And funnily enough my "patch" would be The Mount! Which is pretty cool as I'd get to go for walks along the beach with my clients and stuff :0) It may be a reason not to live there though. We shall see. Tauranga town seems to be growing on us anyway so maybe we will want to live in the city after all.

I went back again today for a look around the facilities and to meet some of the team and stuff and it was all very plush! The OT who showed me 'round was lovely and actually apologised about the offices being "a bit shabby" but it was way nicer than most other places I've worked. The hospital itself is all brand new so the inpatient facilities look fantastic. The place had a really positive, friendly, relaxed but professional feel to it. I was impressed. As far as it's possible to tell in this sort of situation I feel like it would be a good place to work. So all we need to do now is wait for them to actually offer me the job!

We've just spent our last day in Tauranga (hopefully only for now) lounging on rocks and cooling off with dips in chilly river water pools, right next to a waterfall :0) We're parked up for the night now, next to a gorgeous lake. We'll be going to sleep to the sound of quacking ducks :0) It's back to Hamilton - yet again tomorrow for another interview (even though I think our minds are already made up to take the Tauranga one) to at least have something else to compare it with (and just in case Tauranga don't offer me the job after all!)

It'd be really good to have it all sorted out so we can put it on the back burner for a few weeks and have yet more holiday time! We're itching to get to the south island.