Monday, 15 August 2011

Te Anau 15th August

Mel and I are in Te Anau staying at the YHA. The weather forecast for severe snow storms coming straight from the Antarctic has proved correct and has lead to masses of snow down to ground level, so we will sit it out here until the predicted onslaught is over. I can’t believe that we have been on our travels for over a year now, but so much has happened in that time that I suppose it has to have been that long. We are looking forward to our tour of Milford Sound in a couple of days time, we expect to spend 1 night in Milford after taking a trip on a ferry to visit the timeless beauty that surrounds the area. Figures crossed we don’t get stuck there for too long.

It has been a massive shame to see and read so much about the riots back in England. It is all many people can talk about with us and everybody has an opinion about how and why the individuals involved have done what they have done. I must admit my first reaction to the national mess was that of anger. How can so many people of all ages have so few values to the extent that they want to kill, burn and loot from their own communities? Here in New Zealand, where 50,000 people have been displaced by the consistent earthquakes in Christchurch, with so many loosing everything they care about, the sense of community and togetherness has been very powerful. My point being that it always seems to take an absolute disaster to actually make people from every background realise that we are all in this together and that we must value each other and respect each other to stand a chance of rebuilding the values which made England a decent place to live for the majority, for a long time. I think our friend Claire Howard summed up the true feeling of the good people out there when she posted ‘Make tea, not war!’ on her Facebook page. Let’s hope more people take notice of that message in the months to come.

Since we left Dunedin it has become tougher to cycle from place to place and we have reluctantly given in to the weather and booked buses from place to place. We did manage to clock up 180 Km in just 2 days from Invercargill to Curio Bay, via Slope Point and back to Invercargill last week. It was such a feeling of achievement to make it to Slope Point as it is the most southern point of New Zealand’s mainland and means that we have now set foot at each point of the axis of both islands and we have done it mostly by bike, clocking up thousands of kms in the process.

The journey down to Slope Point proved to be far easier than the return trip to Invercargill. We were blown down the road by a healthy tail wind which grew into a monster overnight and hit us straight on the following day, throwing us off our bikes at least a dozen times. I’m just grateful that we weren’t injured or run over to be perfectly honest. We just have to be grateful that the roads are almost empty down here.

Invercargill proved to be an interesting experience. We stayed at a BBH in Invercargill called ‘Southern Comfort’. It was exceptional. Our double room was $64 per night; it was warm, brilliantly clean and extremely tastefully decorated. What made it even better was that the lady running the place was one of the friendliest and welcoming hosts you could ever wish to meet. For comfort and style, my favourite hostel since ‘Kahoe Farms’ in Northland. We stayed at the hostel for 2 nights overall, 1 on either side of our cycle south to Curio Bay.

Slope Point and Curio Bay are definitely well worth a visit. It is a bit of a struggle to cycle the unsealed road down there, but it wasn’t as hard on the gravel of the South Island, as it was on the metal in the North. There is a yellow sign on the cliff-top there letting the traveller know that they are pretty much equidistant from the equator and the South Pole at that point. It did feel rather closer to the South Pole than the equator when we were being blown all over the shop by bitter Antarctic winds, grimacing into the camera to make sure that we marked the moment with photographic evidence. Later that same day we arrived at Curio Bay and checked into another lovely hostel, run by another nice lady, Glenda, and her great kids. It’s called the ‘Lazy Dolphin’ and as the only guests, we enjoyed sea views from our dorm. We went down to visit another colony of yellow eyed penguins, the same highly rare breed as those we saw whilst staying with Peter in Oamaru.  We also saw a 170 million year old petrified forest before dinner that evening. We were lucky to have timed our visit perfectly as the tide was out and we saw a pair of penguins making their way up over the prehistoric rock formations to their overnight shelter amongst the shrubs and flax.

We stayed at a Couch Surf for our final 2 nights in Invercargill. We really enjoyed getting to know Carla, from Argentina. She is very excited at the moment as the national rugby team will be playing in Invercargill next month in the World Cup and she has tickets to see them against Romania. We spent a lovely evening with her on our first night there; she cooked some seriously nice soup, roast veggies and apple pie. On the second night there, her husband Marc turned up to join us for the evening, having been away in Queenstown the night before and we cooked for them. Carla whipped up a fantastic chocolate custard pudding for us for afters that evening as well – she is a seriously good cook that one!

Invercargill was also memorable for its great public gardens, which includes a really impressive winter garden. We sat and ate our sandwiches in a little pagoda in there. It was lovely, warm and peaceful, surrounded by a great collection of flowering plants and a crystal clear pond full of goldfish. The gardens are also home to an interesting collection of farm animals and an ostrich. There is a museum built in the shape of a pyramid that adjoins the gardens. We went in there a couple of times and visited Henry the Tuatara. All of his wives and children live with him. He is over 110 years old and still going strong. Perhaps if we all ate bugs and lived in a hole in the ground…

When we left Invercargill by Intercity, we were the only passengers to begin with, later being joined by 4 more brave souls, all heading to Te Anau. The YHA here is clean and slightly more populated than it perhaps might otherwise be at this time of year. Most of the guests here seem to be stuck here due to the weather – we are now stranded as all the roads are closed due to heavy snow falls. It’s early evening and Mel is busy making some dinner for us in the kitchen as I write – and in fact she has just called me to ask for some assistance so I better go.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Dunedin Highlights 7th August

Dunedin has lots of affordable activities for the interested visitor, we have managed to cram all sorts into our 8 days here and we haven’t been left bored at any point. One of the best highlights for foodies like us is the sheer variety of cheap, good quality cafes and restaurants littered about the centre of the city. This week we have frequented a fair number of them, on occasion eating a 2 course meal for as little as $11 and enjoying triple portions at an all-you-can-eat vegan buffet.

Not much has gone wrong this week, so it’s probably best if we get that sort of stuff out of the way before ploughing on with all the good news. We suffered a bit of a blow 2 days ago on our way back from an amazing trip out to see the Royal Albatross colony at the end of the Otago Peninsula. As we were crossing a road on our bikes my back wheel collapsed as I attempted to ride onto the cycle path from the main road. It has always been a bit of a dodgy back wheel and one which countless bike shop engineers have chuckled to themselves about on seeing it, suggesting that it was a terrible wheel; “…completely inadequate for the type of cycling you are doing, whoever built it is having a bit of a joke, mate.” It seems they were correct. The spokes shattered and I had to carry the 20 kilo frame all the way to the brilliant people at R & R in the town centre, where they built me a brand new back wheel and sorted out my gears for $170 – more than half that which I paid for the bike. The moral of that story being; don’t buy second hand cycle touring gear again. This has slowed our departure down somewhat, so instead of leaving on Friday the 6th of August to head towards the Catlins, we are now leaving tomorrow, which is the 8th, choosing to spend a couple of nights at the YHA for old times sake.

Aside from that bike issue, we have been so happy here. Our hosts, Naomi and Manna, Dave, Rachel and Scott have all made us feel so brilliantly welcome in their homes and we have enjoyed spending time with them. One of the great things about couch surfing with people is the opportunity to enjoy each others music, movies, conversation and food, as well as picking up all the local tips on what to do and where to eat. The slight irony on this occasion is that Mel and I have been in New Zealand longer than our hosts had, as we arrived in September and our friends from the USA & Canada have only been in town for since this year sometime. The view from the two properties we stayed at are million dollar views of the sea and the city respectively, I just hope that their respective landlords learn about this new fangled thing called ‘insulation’ before next winter.

So, to the activities which we have enjoyed most since I last checked in. Well, you will remember the brief talk of the botanic gardens, the Turkish eateries and the art gallery. Well, since then, we have enjoyed lunchtime theatre at the university and that $11 two course meal on the same afternoon. The play was called ‘Norm & Ahmed’; a 45 minute story about racism involving 2 characters, one from Pakistan, the other form Australia. It is set at a bus stop in Sydney at around midnight. It was a good piece of lunchtime theatre with a sadly predictable ending in which Norm beats the crap out of Ahmed and leaves him lying in the gutter. After the show, we made our way to the student union on Albany to enjoy a Hari Krishna lunch. It was amazing; Daal, Samosa, Puree and a nice pudding of crumble with a sweet semolina - halva.

That same day we went for a little look around the shops and bought Mel a new dress. It was form a real treasure trove of a shop (Yaks & Yetis) where they sell anything and everything collectable from Nepal and South East Asia. We probably would have really blown the budget had it not have been for the luggage allowance regulations and to be honest we maybe shouldn’t have spent what we did, but it was worth it because she looks lovely in it!

That was Thursday. On Friday, before the bike died, we had managed to clock up 80 km cycling out onto the Otago Peninsula to see the Albatross and back. I was so excited to see them, but it was Mel who spotted the first adult in flight. We were settling down to a coffee as I waited to go on the guided tour of the nesting sight when Mel jumped up and ran outside, shouting to me that she had seen what she thought was a Royal Albatross. As it turned out, she was right and it was clearly one of the massive birds as it had a wing span much larger than that of the black backed gulls and shags sharing the same air space. Satisfied with that, Mel sat back down with her hot drink and I set off with the tour group to hopefully photograph the maturing chicks up at the nest site, which has been strategically cut off from the rest of the free area, so that people are forced to pay up to get a glimpse of them. The centre gets 130,000 visitors a year, each paying at least $30 to look at the nesting site. I found that it was well worth it though. I have always loved Albatross – their comedy way of taking off and landing, their 9’6’ wingspan and their amazing ability to live life on the wing – spending up to 6 years in the air at a time and flying at speeds in excess of 120 km/ph! There were 5 chicks visible on the nesting sight, big fat blobs, weighing up to 13.5 kilos. They are around 4-5 weeks away from flying for the first time and they consume 4 kilos of fish and squid everyday at the moment. Fatties!!

‘Circadian Rhythm’ is a name to remember for all those of you who enjoy good vegan food. It is on St. Andrews and has the best selection of pies, cakes and hot foods available. The service there is also great. The first time we went in there, we were frantically trying to find Mel’s phone in our bags. We quickly realised that we had dropped it somewhere in town, so they let us use their phone to ring it – turned out some nice guy had picked it up and we were able to get it back, they didn’t have to do that though – it’s the small touches that make a restaurant, you know? Their buffet is great, $9 – $12.50, depending on what day of the week you go in, you can enjoy daal, koftas, rice, spicy veg, purees and more. If that wasn’t enough for you, there is an impressive vegan café at the Saturday market, situated next to the beautiful train station. We had breakfast there yesterday which consisted of a ‘chilli dog’ and an ‘Elvis special’. The ‘chilli dog was’ a sausage wrapped in tortilla with delicious spicy sauce. The ‘Elvisl’ was veggie bacon, banana  and peanut butter in a toasted ciabatta, topped with a double choc-chip cookie – all vegan and all home-made.

Something else you can do when visiting this city, if you want to keep costs down, is to visit the very impressive graveyards. Mel and I went for a walk through a small area of the Northern Graveyard, which covers 8 hectares and has some beautiful tombs, as well as stunning trees and a quiet, relaxing atmosphere. We saw lots of parrots in the trees there! It is not far from the botanic garden, so you can wander from one to the other easily, which we did. 

We decided to go and visit the aviary again, as we had done earlier in the week. It is always sad to see the birds cooped up in cages. However, they are great fun to be around, especially the Kaka, as they seem to spend their time rolling around on their backs, drunk on something or other. There are some parrots who can talk there too, good for big and little kids alike – one of them kept saying ‘have a cuppa tea’ and ‘what’s up doc?’.

A visit to the Robbie Burns pub is always worth a trip as well, on your way to the aptly named ‘Khmer Friendly Noodle & Satay’ restaurant. We were treated to a fine drop of single malt whiskey and a lovely pint of beer there by the friendly barman, before indulging in yet more brilliant food at the Khmer place.

In conclusion, our time in Dunedin has been much influenced by our love of good food, great company and plenty of free activities to indulge in. The perfect town really and the weather hasn’t been bad either.
Vegan cake - yum!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Oamaru and the Penguins

Peter is a single, gay guy, who lives just outside the main hub of the town of Oamaru. A most amiable chap who put us up in a separate cottage on his property. He had some great stories about his 20 year stay in the US where he lived in Florida and New York, before returning home to help look after his aging parents in the area he grew up in, which is where he remains to this day. We enjoyed fine conversation and a couple of great days with him. Peter is as big a fan of wildlife as Mel and he took great pleasure in taking us to visit 2 separate penguin colonies whilst we were in Oamaru. The nocturnal blue penguins which frequent the rocks and protected scrub by the sea right in the centre of Oamaru were a treat on our first night. We really enjoyed watching them waddle from place to place. It was quite strange to see them tucked up against the side of great big warehouses and the like, somehow one doesn’t think of penguins in this environment, but there they were, going about there business.

The following day we visited the more stereotypical yellow eyed penguin colony a little further down the coast at Moeraki. These are an endangered group with great characters. It amazed us how close we could get to them and just how good they are at climbing with many of their nesting boxes being quite a long distance from the sea shore. Incidentally, these penguins travel around 60 Km out to sea every day to go fishing and when they have chicks, they take it in turns to babysit them, alternating days out to sea. Out at Moeraki there is also another large colony of seals, sunning themselves on the hillside and the rocks. There was a brilliant sun set that evening. 

On our way back into Oamaru, as a way of saying thank you, we talked Peter into allowing us to buy him fish & chips at his favourite chippy in Hampden; “The best on south island!” he said, and they are!

Having fixed a puncture before being able to set off the following morning, we set off reluctantly towards Palmerston which would hopefully be the last stop before arriving into Dunedin. We had to spend quite a lot of this day on the hard shoulder of Highway 1. Not a great deal of fun and sadly something that turned out to be a real problem for my inner tubes. I actually had to repair 4 punctures that day and I even ran out of puncture patches. I had just enough to get us into Palmerston, but as it turned out not even having a spare inner tube to hand would get us as far as Dunedin. We woke up in our room the next morning and found that the tire had gone down again over night, so we decided to catch a bus into Dunedin with the bikes and get to a cycle shop as soon as we arrived. It was frustrating in the extreme, but it couldn’t be helped.

Our bikes were damaged by the poor handling of the bus driver, who meant well but was very aggressive in putting the bikes into the storage area of the bus and this put me in rather a bad mood as we were dropped off outside the very impressive Dunedin train station. As luck would have it though, we passed a bike shop on the way to the YHA we hoped to stay at and we were able to pick up more inner tubes before heading up to the hostel. I changed the tube again and we were back on our bikes and investigating the town before dinner. We did have to pop back to the bike shop to get some help with damaged rear wheel on my bike before we could completely relax though. The guy in R & R sports was brilliant though – fixing the wheel, sorting out the gears and advising us on a few things, all for the princely sum of $0. What a brilliant gesture – thank you R & R Sport!

That evening we dinned at a small Turkish place near to the YHA. It was the best Falafel kebab that either Mel or I had ever tasted. We celebrated this by enjoying a glass of red wine back at the YHA. It was at this point I decided that life wasn’t so bad after all.

We are into our third day here in Dunedin now and we have packed a fair bit in. I am loathe to say that we have tested with yet another puncture on my bike again today, but I’ll not dwell on that. We have been staying with Manna, Naomi and Dave, all from the USA, in a house which overlooks the city and a surf beach, just off a road known as Norfolk Street, so I feel right at home! We have been to two lectures, one at the impressive Art Gallery and another at the University of Otago, enjoyed another Turkish falafel delight and a tour round the gallery, as well as enjoying a pint with new acquaintances at a real ale pub last night and seeing lots of the town. It’s been good to be in a vibrant city again; lots of students, great food, a superb botanic garden and so far, clear, sunny days. I am writing this entry sitting at our warm shower hosts’ kitchen table, looking out at the glinting evening lights of the city stretching out to the hills that mark the boundary between the suburbs, the ocean to my right and the Otago Peninsula opposite.

Tomorrow we are going to stay with some couch surf hosts, Scott and Rachel, on the other side of town.

Lake Tekapo – Twizel – Kurow – Oamaru – Palmerston - Dunedin

The morning we left Lake Tekapo was cold. As we began our ride down to Twizel my fingers quickly became unbearably frozen. The wind chill had once again taken the temperature way down to -10 and my gloves just were not going to cut the mustard. I was lucky Mel had her extra wind-proof new gloves, a gift from Catherine in Nelson, to offer to me in exchange for my woolly ones. It appears her circulation is much better than mine these days, must be all the Yoga and ginger tea!

We arrived into Twizel sometime that afternoon and booked into the ‘High Country’ Motel and backpackers. We were the only people staying in the massive complex an after stocking up on some food and a few beers form the local bottle shop/pub, we settled in for the evening. I was pleased not to have to move too much to be honest. We had come down from 750 metres to 400 above sea level, but it was still so cold, it had turned my brain to mush and I was I just needed to veg out and watch some mindless NZ TV to recover for a while.

Twizel was not exactly a vibrant place but having the motel facilities to ourselves was pleasant. When we left at around 10am the next morning we felt ready to move on. We had suffered heavy head winds on the previous day, but we were fortunate enough not to be troubled at all during the stretch from Twizel to Kurow, indeed we were helped by an immense tail wind which blew us down the gently sloping road all the way. We flew past some stunning scenery, including an enormous dam at Waitaki, just a few km before we arrived at our destination for the night: Kurow.  We were both astonished at the colour of the water in all the lakes and waterways, an almost impossible blue. The sun was shining and the mountains around us were becoming less and less icy with each mile we covered. It was quite a long distance we travelled that day, at least 80 kms, but it felt like 20 with the wind behind us.

Kurow turned out to be a very pleasant small town. We put our ‘Kiwi Card’ to good use again as we booked into the holiday park, this saved us a few dollars on the accommodation that night and it made it one of the cheapest stays of the tour so far, just $34.50. The empty hostel come barn we stayed in had an enormous fire place, stocked with lots of great fire wood and we relaxed in real comfort in our 70’s style leather chairs, Mel knitting and me watching various different cooking shows on the TV.  Kurow had a nice selection of shops and even a small museum which we visited for a small donation. The museum was typical of such towns, a nice collection of the early settler’s everyday paraphernalia such as clothes and wash boards. There was even a pair of boots similar to those I wore as Captain Scott for ‘Terra Nova’ a few months ago.

From Kurow it was another 70-80 Km day down to the very attractive Oamaru. Mel and I chose to take the scenic route, riding inland at Duntroon. We had been told about some limestone caves which had some Maori paintings on the walls. We were able to see some of these, as you can see from the photos. The first ‘cave’ we visited had actually become too dangerous to get into, due to a rather large land slip, such a common feature of our travels round these islands. However, we saw some great rock drawings in another place, depicting animals and wakas, as well as a drawing of what appears to be one of the first fleet sailing ships.

During the ride down to Oamaru we were also able to stop and look at some interesting geological characteristics of the land known as the ‘Elephant Rocks’. You had to really use your imagination for these. I was in full agreement with an Irish traveller who passed us on the way into the attraction who said “I wouldn’t bother; it’s just a load of rocks in a field really!” We had a few steep hills to climb that day, eventually making into the town of Oamaru, featured in the movie ‘Bride Flight’, at around 2:30pm. We enjoyed a nice café lunch before checking in with our latest host on our tour; Peter.