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Puzzling World

We got up promptly, used up the rest of our perishables by eating them for breakfast or making sandwiches with them, finished our last little bits of packing, met up with my parents and managed to get away by 9am. I think the fact that we found our holiday park cabin to be such a squeeze indicates that we are not cut out to be camper-van people. Where would we put all our stuff? How would we survive a rainy day cooped up inside a space only one-tenth the size of our cramped cabin?

We dropped off our keys and then returned our mittens at the Fox Glacier walk place. Then we hit the SH6 south down the coast. Cloud gave way to sunshine and then back to cloud as we covered the 120km of coastal road down to Haast, passing through the rather precariously-named settlement of Ship Creek. (And no, we didn’t have a paddle there…)
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At Haast we stopped to fill up the car; the only cafe there didn’t open for another half hour so we got snacks and coffee from a machine in the garage shop. Next the winding climb up to Haast Pass, caught in a convoy of camper-vans; they did at least have the decency to pull in every now and then to let the trailing queues go past. Such a scenic route, and especially lovely on a fine day such as today. Many roadside stopping-places to see waterfalls or to start longer tramps. We paused at Thunder Falls
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and later at Cameron Flat (just beyond the pass) to have our picnic lunch with a gorgeous backdrop – forested hillsides with snow peaks in the distance, a placid river meandering down the wide valley floor.
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Soon after this we picked up Lake Wanaka on our right and then Lake Hawea on our left, bringing us round to Wanaka itself.
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Just as we did last time, we stopped at Puzzling World (just a couple of kilometres short of the town) and spent a diverting few hours there with the girls.
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Stuart Landsborough started it all in 1973 when he and his wife built a maze in six weeks, just in time for the holiday season.
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The maze still stands, augmented by a host of indoor attractions such as a superb trompe-l’oeil Roman toilet
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and several ‘illusion rooms’. Sets of concave faces that the eye perceives as convex and which then appear to rotate as you walk past. An Ames forced perspective room; it looks conventionally cuboidal from the viewing windows, but inside it is a weird distorted shape so that those who walk through it appear to grow or shrink (one back corner is actually a lot closer than the other back corner). Thus giant Hannah and Ellen appear to tower over tiny Daddy.
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Also the famous tilted room which is exactly what it says on the tin. But it plays havoc with your sense of balance and it’s most disturbing to walk around in it; too long and you start feeling slightly sick. I suppose your eyes are telling you one thing and your semicircular canals another. Nice tricks like the gravity ‘stairlift’ that seems to run uphill, water flowing from low to high, snooker balls rolling the ‘wrong’ way along a sloping table.
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One observation, though; we paid our entry fee and received a hand stamp, but there was no-one to check you as you entered the illusion rooms or the maze.

Just as we remembered from last time, the cafe tables are strewn with a selection of puzzles to entertain you as you sit – in the hope that you might go and buy some afterwards. And the tactic worked – we came away with a ‘Crazy Sheep’ puzzle to keep us occupied on rainy days (16 squares – match half-sheep of the correct colour to make a 4×4 array).
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The puzzle shop has ‘tester’ items – try before you buy – and I hereby apologise for removing the ring from a pair of chain-linked horse-shoes (as challenged) and then forgetting how to put it back on again. Later I noticed that this item had disappeared…

Can anyone solve this one?
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It was just a brief drive from here to our Wanaka Youth Hostel; this is the one place in our current trip that we also stayed in nine years ago, and we won’t be able to make it a hat-trick because they’re closing it after Easter. We half-remembered the hostel, making a good guess as to which room we stayed in last time, but it reinforces the value of keeping a detailed diary – so much evaporates over time, for instance we have no idea where we ate last time we were here.

We sat in the lounge area and worked on diaries/blog photos. I also flicked through a local newspaper; there was a debate about raising the minimum driving age in New Zealand. From 18 to 21, I wondered? No, up to 18. From 17, like in the UK?

No. The truth was scary, and clearly not widely publicised. Next time we go out for a drive, we should be prepared for the fact that the vehicle coming round the bend may have a 15-year-old at the wheel. Yes, they let fourth-formers (Year 10 students) loose on the roads here. Aaargh! I’m glad we didn’t know that when we arrived in Auckland.

Later we (cautiously) set out to find an Italian restaurant, The Cow, at the other end of town (Post Office Lane). This was recommended to us by the YHA receptionist (she’s only been here five days, mind you) and it seems to be a popular spot for young families. We sat inside to avoid the chill of the wind and ordered garlic bread along with a small prosciutto/plain pizza (half and half). The bread arrived as a starter, and not the GB we are used to, but a small unsliced loaf smeared with garlic and herbs on top. Only when we had finished this did the pizza arrive; a little crispier than I would choose, better than a frozen supermarket one but not up to Uyuni Minuteman standards. On the menu the name of the establishment was placed over a picture of Queen Victoria in her later years, which is a bit harsh on the poor old monarch.

After supper we parked down by the lakefront and explored a bit. The Dough Bin bakery might be a breakfast option, the outdoor clothing outlets were way beyond our budget (Kirsten is looking for a replacement rain jacket) and Hannah soaked up inspiration from the range of dresses on display in shop windows. In the end we whizzed round New World supermarket to buy a replacement hairbrush and a bag of pains au chocolat to warm up tomorrow morning.

We put the girls to bed (the two top bunks) and I made the most of the WiFi link to get our blog photos right up to date for the first time since we arrived in New Zealand. Sadly, things will start to slip behind again as we now have no internet in our accommodation until our final night in Wellington.

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Fern to firn

(But the wrong side of the mountains for föhn.) Or: more rain to moraine. As you might guess, today we got close to Fox Glacier – and we’re disappointed to report that it doesn’t have the slightest hint of mint about it.

Anyway, back to this morning; we woke to yet more rain, rather more than we were expecting from the forecast. The sky showed no sign of clearing, but some of the flooded fields around us had subsided a little. We stayed inside until lunchtime, confirming details for some of our remaining stays in New Zealand and looking into where we might stay in Sydney when we arrive there at the end of this month. [Any affordable suggestions would be most welcome!]

My parents dropped by to say that they had booked a glacier walk for 5pm today. I then phoned up to book us in for it too – “That’s funny; we’ve got another Price on the list here” I was informed. If access to the foot of the glacier was currently closed to the general unguided public, this would be our only way of getting there. In the meantime we crossed our fingers that the weather would brighten up before the late afternoon.

Kirsten and Hannah popped out briefly to see Our Lady of the Snows church just opposite our turning.
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We had a hot meal for lunch to warm us up; a tuna pasta bake. Some hints of sunshine then drew us out from our cabin to follow the little Minnehaha walk, just off the SH6 on the way to the glacier. The complete opposite of those barren Atacama plains; here vegetation is piled on vegetation, every available surface coated with lush dripping rainforest greenery. At least 200 days a year are wet, and it shows… We also later learned that 350mm of rain has fallen here just over the past few days; that’s over a foot!
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On the way back to the Holiday Park we stopped to look round the centre of town – a collection of helicopter flight booking agencies, hotels, cafes and a pricy petrol station (‘last fuel for 120km’). While eating something not entirely healthy on the steps of the convenience store in the sunshine (hooray!) we saw Nana and Grandad across the street and broke the news that we’d be on the walk as well.

There was just time to dash back to have a slightly healthier banana to see us through our forthcoming ice adventure and to collect cameras and fleeces, then we drove to the carpark of Fox Glacier Guiding to report for our tour. The whiteboard there had the slightly ominous message ‘Terminal Walk – 19’ (okay then, we account for virtually one third of the group).

We paid for our tickets and waited to be called through to collect our kit. Guide Geoff introduced himself and also his long-haired associate, Lou-Ellen. No, wait a minute, once I got a clearer view I realised that should be Llewellyn. Lots of rain recently so the walk should be ‘interesting’. Hand in your shoes and socks in exchange for heavy hiking boots and colour-coded small/medium/large woolly socks. Optional extras: hat, mittens, rain jacket, walking pole. They had footwear to fit the girls (to our relief and surprise) and soon we were piling into the bus with an extra three latecomers.

Up to the carpark we visited on our first evening here, and up to the barrier where we stopped before.
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But this time we were permitted to climb through the ropes (like entering a boxing ring, as another walker commented) and follow the forbidden track to the terminal face. ‘Keep moving’, we were warned; unstable cliff faces and possible rock falls.
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Family with Lou-Ellen on the right…
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The melt-water river raged to our right, hefty chunks of ice stranded on gravel banks after yesterday’s floods.
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Ahead, the end of the glacier rose scalelessly; it’s big, but we had no measure of how big. Only later did we glimpse a line of glacier walkers far away on the ice, making their way towards us – barely-discernible microbes on a wrinkled white elephant hide.

Fox Glacier panorama; there is a glacier-walk party at the lower extreme left-hand end of the ice.
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We forded a few chilly streams on the way, the girls getting a fireman’s lift where necessary and the rest of us getting slightly wet feet.
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Another ‘do not cross’ barrier, except for guided groups. So we edged forward as close as was safe to the glacier, perhaps still 50 metres away but close enough to appreciate the contorted strata of compressed snow, the blue hues in the ice cavities, the roar of the thawed water.
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The group was perhaps too large at this point; our time at this point of nearest approach was a jostle of photo opportunities (yes, us too) and not a chance to meditate on the grandeur of the location. Before we knew it, we were being hurried and chivvied to return to the bus, just catching a few drops of drizzle as we neared the end of the walk.

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Family shot (I look like a Bobinog who’s lost his bobble).
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During our hour’s hike, a vast section of fenced-off land just by the car-park viewpoint had cracked off and collapsed into the river which had been undercutting it for days, taking the warning sign with it; all this land is on top of ice and far from stable.

We returned to the township by bus along with the glacier-walking party (we did that last time we were here), returned our kit and received our souvenir certificates: ‘This is to certify that X did hike to the chilly face of the fantastic Fox Glacier, did subject the leg muscles to the wearing of colossal boots, did brave the inclemency of the South Westland weather and did endure the rambling discourses of the guides.’ We got ours signed by Lou-Ellen, no, I mean…

Back for cereal, toast and packing (and the discovery that we hadn’t returned our Fox gloves). Tomorrow we spend the night at Wanaka Youth Hostel on the way to our next longer stay, Te Anau.

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Wet Fox

It started raining at some indeterminate deep hour of the night; the odd drip on the tin roof developing into something more permanent. So permanent that it is still drizzling out there as it’s getting dark tonight. We saw it coming, courtesy of fairly accurate forecasts on the internet, and they reckon that a good 100mm of rain may have fallen today.

Most of the time it was a proper downpour, not the sort of thing you’d go out in unless there was a fire or an earthquake. Kirsten bravely donned her waterproof trousers and used Hannah’s raincoat as a cape to get our jackets from the car, then took a load of washing across to the communal machines (the third emergency situation is running out of underwear, of course).

(Kirsten) There are several items in my rucksack I haven’t had to use yet and my waterproof trousers were one of them. Never thought I would wear them to walk about 100m down the road to the laundry room! I only needed to wait about 10min before a washing machine became available. Enough time to strike up a conversation with an older American lady. She was very pleasant and travelling with two grown-up children (early 20s, I guess). I looked out of the window and commented that it can’t be much fun in a tent in this rain. Little did I know that that was exactly what she was doing. She complained that the tent was wet, their clothes were wet (hence her huge load of washing) and inside the car was wet as well. She had two surf boards strapped to the roof of the car, but the straps had to be attached inside the car with the windows very slightly open. It really can’t have been enjoyable at all! Anyway, they decided to drive on up north later today, and maybe walk one of the glaciers in the rain … not sure if either glacier was available in this weather.

It took me just under two hours to wash one load and tumble dry it, but at least that means most of our clothes are clean and will see us through to Te Anau (Wednesday).

The girls stayed inside our cramped quarters all day, drawing maps or designing outfits (Hannah woke up with two ideas for dresses in her head). I kept dry until the evening when I dashed out with a bag of rubbish for the wheelie bin, otherwise spending tedious hours slowly uploading photos and linking them to the blog.

Please do have a look at our dozens of new pictures from Bay of Islands, Coromandel, Rotorua, Waikaremoana, Wairoa and Napier – click on the place name here or in the right-hand column to select the relevant entries.

Kirsten Skyped home in the morning; it is a novelty to have a mobile phone signal and a WiFi connection (however tenuous) in our accommodation. At least we got out and about last night, and tomorrow should bring a mere 2mm of the wet stuff, so we’ll try to go for another walk somewhere. Although the glacier approach is closed (for safety reasons), at least we did the walk last time we were here – and I don’t think Ellen would be allowed to do it anyway (she’s officially too young, and yet I’m sure she would cope fine).

The sky-tap has just opened up again; who would have thought the old clouds to have had so much rain in them?

A general observation that second time around and nine years on, New Zealand is not nearly as undiscovered and undeveloped. How much is the Lord of the Rings Effect, I don’t know. (We have no interest in LOTR, anyway.) But we miss the quiet spots we explored back then at the same time of year, especially the lakes (Ianthe and Matheson) which we had pretty much to ourselves. It’s still possible to escape the crowds, but just not quite as easy now.

No, we’re not complaining, and today the girls voted NZ their favourite country so far – even in the midst of a washout. We’re inclined to agree…

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So here we are, exactly half way through our trip. 22 weeks since we left, 22 weeks until we return. A wealth of experiences and memories – the hothouse Amazon rainforest to freezing Bolivian mornings, condors 16000 feet up in the Andes to dazzling Tahiti sea-life, the bustle of Boston to the remoteness of Easter Island, Maine lobster to Hokey Pokey ice cream. Not bad for one school term.

Have there been any days when we wished we’d stayed at home instead? No, not one. Even when we’d been burgled in Potosi or when we arrived travel-sick after a ten-hour stomach-jolting overnight bus journey.

Are we ‘driving each other up the wall’ as a result of being together every hour of every day, as was predicted beforehand in one of our ‘good luck’ cards? Disappointingly (for those seeking tales of family friction in foreign fields), no. The girls get on so well with each other the majority of the time, and while there are some ‘difficult’ days, these owe a lot to the boredom of long journeys or waiting around in airports. There have been plenty of culture-shock frustrations (late laundry, dangerous taxi drivers, etc.) along the way to frazzle the adults, but the girls’ ability to breeze through everything makes life so much easier for us. Kirsten and I generally have the same outlook on things, and this trip is very much a team effort – whether sharing long days of driving, alternating cooking and washing-up duties or taking turns with this blog.

Will the trip change our lives? No, probably not. Okay, so it’s a lengthy and expensive way of rewiring one’s neurons, remodelling one’s brain (as is the whole education system) and we will come away with myriad recollections to last a lifetime – diverse moments of being, seared in the mind. But to say we will return as different people is probably overstating the case.

What lessons have we learned so far? Firstly, it’s an extended version of those ‘confidence-building exercises’ (which usually involve doing something scary at a great height); if you can take your family around the world for the best part of a year, there shouldn’t be many subsequent situations where you think ‘no, we can’t manage that’.

Secondly, it gets you used to countering failure with perseverance. At home a few setbacks might tempt you to give up on doing something, but on the road you have to keep pursuing alternatives when trying to book your next stay, for instance. If the first four hotels are full, you try a fifth one. If they don’t reply to your emails, you phone them up (in Spanish). If the travel agent fails to sort out your flights as they’re meant to, you deal with the airline directly. You just have to get on with it – no-one else is going to help you.

Has it been what we expected? Yes, the trip has gone more or less as we planned, in terms of where we have travelled. But the highlights are often the totally unexpected, unplanned episodes – places and sights never mentioned in any tourist brochure. Union Fair in Maine, the (as far as we know) unnamed but photogenic beach at the bottom of our road in Punakaiki, the night sky over Lake Titicaca…

What about the second half of the trip? The rest of New Zealand is ‘known territory’ for us; we have stayed in the same towns before. But from the end of January onwards we have nothing booked whatsoever; we’ll make it up as we go along in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia – and possibly beyond. That should allow us to take things slowly once again, to have the luxury of feeling you’ve spent more than enough time somewhere before deciding to move on.

So – no mid-journey crisis; rather, today is the first day of the rest of our trip…

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How do I feel about being half way through our ten month trip?

From now on I will be counting down the weeks until we get back home (England and Belgium).  During the first half I counted down to New Zealand for numerous reasons; Christmas, 40th birthday and meeting up with the in-laws.

It will be nice to see friends and family again and to be able to catch up on each other’s news and have coffee with Esther or go for a walk up the hill with Libby.  But I know I will miss our “togetherness” and “being separate” from the rest of the world.  There is no peer pressure for the girls; i.e. no mention of gogo’s since we left over four months ago.

It is quite reassuring to know that we still have 22 weeks left (or about half a pregnancy).  Looking ahead it doesn’t seem that long at all, but thinking back in the past and realising where we have been, how many places we have visited and how many people we have met, it makes me realise there is still a long time ahead of us.  A long time to build lots more memories, seeing lots more places and having many more experiences to share with Tim and the girls.

The only thing that worries me is : would the second half go faster like it always seems to do on a return walk?

The girls and grown-ups already remember so many things from our first half, would we have enough memory left to store all the new experiences, places and people still to come in the next five months? Would we have enough energy or feel more and more tired and therefore be unable to enjoy it?

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Our last morning in our tree house.  I did not sleep much at all last night due to heavy rain which carried on for most of the morning. 

We had finished most of the clothes packing last night, so after breakfast we quickly packed our left-over food, loaded the dishwasher and checked the house one last time for any stray items of clothing or books.

Shortly after 9.00am we headed down the SH6 towards Fox Glacier, via Greymouth and Hokitika.  The weather was still wet, grey and with the odd misty patch – so not much sightseeing today!

We popped into a Fresh Choice supermarket at Greymouth to stock up on enough food to last us for the next three days, two hot meals, fresh bread, nice things to put on sandwiches, fruit and biscuits.  After filling up the car with shopping and petrol we carried on in search of lunch.

We reached Hokitika around 11.30am, parked the car, put on warm trousers (H&E) and raincoats and wandered around the town.  We enjoyed visiting one of the many jade shops where Tim kindly bought me a silver necklace and pendant as a birthday present.  Hannah chose a plain chain for her bead we bought in Punakaiki and Ellen added to her selection of fridge magnets; this time choosing one of Fox Glacier and one of Lake Matheson. 

As the weather was still damp and chilly we settled for a good portion of fish & chips to be shared between the four of us.  We chose Rig and Hoki fish and both pieces were very tasty, the girls kept asking for more!

Hokitika clocky ticker.
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Hokitika Hoki.
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Back to the car, change drivers and off we went.  By now the weather had started to clear and we got glimpses of sunshine!  The rest of the drive was pretty straightforward and we all admired the beautiful scenery.  Empty roads, green mountains, sunshine … and two well behaved girls in the back = enjoyable driving!

We made one more stop at Lake Ianthe.  Tim remembered this as a big, calm and peaceful lake with hardly any other tourists … Not this time, as we pulled off the road down a little track to the car park we noticed several campervans and cars and although it wasn’t exactly crowded it wasn’t peaceful and quiet either.  Anyway, the girls loved being able to stretch their legs and had a little run around and were intrigued by a 5-year old boy paddling around in his little kayak, whilst the dog travelled on his daddy’s kayak.
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We carried on following a windier road and arrived at Fox Glacier Holiday Park at about 3.30pm.  We spent a good 15min in reception waiting to check in.  A lot of travellers had just turned up and only one person at the desk checking them all in!  We were given a free carton of milk and the key to bungalow nr 55.  We enquired about the senior Prices and were pleased that they had already arrived and were staying in a bungalow diagonally opposite us.  The girls had actually spotted Nana earlier on.

We found our bungalow and were slightly surprised at the small size of it, but it has everything we need, we just won’t be able to spread our things out and will have to tidy stuff away after we have used it.

We decided to have a cup of tea first before tracking down the grandparents, but Grandad beat us to it.  He popped in whilst Nana was busy catching up with their washing in the laundry room.  She had had to queue up for a while before being able to use one of the four washing machines!

After our supper of chicken and rice we joined John & Angela on a walk around Lake Matheson.  The girls were excited about exploring the path around the lake and kept running off to the next bend, which meant we ended up walking faster than we might have wanted to, but then again it was very good exercise and certainly kept the heart rate up.  The views from the jetty were breathtaking, even though Mount Cook with snow capped top wasn’t all that visible due to low clouds.

Lake Matheson panorama.
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Mountains above clouds.
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Lake view from far end.
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Sunlight through rimu.
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Just over an hour later we arrived back at the car park, and as it was still dry and sunny we decided to drive down to the bottom of Fox Glacier to show the girls a glimpse of the ice.  After 9 years it was still pretty impressive.  Due to the river having changed its flow the path was closed and we could only walk up about 50 metres from the car park.  The girls thought the glacier was really cool and awesome and felt the difference in temperature.

Fox Glacier.
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Cook River from Fox Glacier valley.
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It was 9.00pm by now, so time to head back to the bungalow and send the girls to bed.  They will have to catch up on diaries tomorrow.  The weather forecast mentioned a very wet day tomorrow …

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