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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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We were in New Zealand for 01-01-01, and here we are again nine years on for 01-01-10. We had a suitably leisurely New Year start before taking advantage of the better-than-expected weather to go for a river walk along the Pororari Track (first of all stopping in the centre of Punakaiki to let Kirsten phone her parents and sister, still trapped in the previous decade).

A well-maintained gravel track took us along the south bank of the river through luxuriant vegetation that only occasionally allowed us a glimpse of the Pororari – and the group of kayaks paddling upstream. We kept pace with them up to the start of a section of rapids, at which point we paused and they took it in turns to fight the current and nose upstream before turning through 180 and looping back down again to let the next person have a go. It’s the curse of having an audience because the second man to try had an embarrassing collision with an obvious rock and capsized. We refrained from videoing him and putting it on YouTube…
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Kayak on river.
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Curly fern.
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Pancake rock in the river.
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After 40 minutes’ walk we returned the way we came; the alternative of doing a loop would have taken us up to four hours. A perfect day for our excursion; a pleasant 20C temperature with just the right mix of sun and shade. We spotted a small caterpillar on my fleece (similar to the one that Hannah found in her raspberry) and a stack of pancakes (rocks, that is) that had recently collapsed into the river near our bank.

We returned to our treehouse via a bead shop, Te Miko, which is just north of our road. As we arrived we met the owner seeing off another car. She was not exactly welcoming, suggesting we came back another day (she was just about to have lunch), but no ‘closed’ sign was evident. In the end she grudgingly agreed to let us in, but we had the strong impression it was on condition that we spent some money. A small room with a limited selection of expensive bead jewellery items; what could we buy? The mini glass ‘rock pools’ were $40 each; many koru (curly fern) necklaces, ear-rings – but all for more than we were prepared to pay. We settled on a couple of little glass beads with a metal ring inside, but as we paid she informed us that they were from India – ‘I couldn’t afford to make anything for $5’. So hardly a local souvenir, but there we are.

Back for lunch – a feast of cheese and biscuits – and then some quiet time for all of us. The grandparents had a siesta, Kirsten read her Amish book and I filled in the rest of yesterday’s blog while the girls carried on writing and drawing. Ellen finished her lovely story about Muffin and Banoffee (cuddly toys) meeting and getting married, and Hannah continued writing and illustrating her larger-scale work entitled ‘The Fashion Show’.

Tea, baths for the girls, some packing, then baked potatoes with a host of extras for supper, using up as much of the larder contents as we could before our departure tomorrow. The worrying thing is that any extra room in the boot of the car is a result of what has gone in through our mouths over the last few days…

Still a beautiful day so we returned to the beach at the bottom of the Truman Track (the one we visited yesterday). Low tide and more to see today – several drab little cushion starfish (most with five arms but one neat Star of David), bigger flamboyant 10- or 12-armed starfish drilling into hapless mussels around the edge of pools. Another couple showed us a sea urchin and a camouflaged crab as well.
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A ‘hidden gem’ of a beach; so many photographically tempting views both out to the breakers and behind to the surreal eroded rocks.

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Low tide.
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Close-up of base of waterfall.
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We didn’t stay long enough to see the setting sun – or the blue penguins coming ashore (the box traps we have seen are intended for their main enemy, stoats). Instead we brought the girls back around 8pm for an earlier night. We’ll need to clear out by 10am tomorrow, but the forecast looks grim for our journey down to Fox Glacier; four inches of rain (although that may be mainly up in the mountains).

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Two overexcited, overtired girls attempting to stay up and see in the New Year, fuelled by dishes of marshmallows and M&Ms; what happens next?

Well, we predicted some hyperactivity followed by a sudden early crash-out, curling up on the sofa and succumbing to sleep. (And for the girls, too…)

So even we, the parents, were taken back by the turn of events. Yes, the girls bedecked themselves with glow-stick ear-rings and necklaces and there was some giggly silliness about Ellen’s invention of a pigeon-god called Bilson, but after a late evening walk round the neighbourhood it all went quiet and the two of them sat down to write – speeches. No idea where this came from; we hadn’t suggested it and we didn’t know quite what to expect. Anyway, each of the girls wrote out her own text (without adult assistance) and then stood up and delivered it to the assembled parents and grandparents.

Ellen: It’s a New Year! And I would like to thank you for letting us stay up late and for having a midnit fest and for the walk we had tonit with uwu [our] glow stiks and the steping stons and a happy New Year.

Hannah: I would like to say happy new year to all of you first of all. I would like to say thank you my family Nana grandad mummy and Daddy for looking after me. I would like it if you said Happy new year to me! This year will be the best and the year tomorrow will be 2010.

They then went away to write a second speech each, as well as writing two more for us to read out in return. By this time it was probably 10.30pm or so, and caught in the full flow of creativity they now sat down to begin writing a story, working without interruption until just before midnight. I have never seen them so desperate to put pencil to paper, and certainly not at such a late hour; barring some of our overnight flights, they have never been awake this long.

Bizarre – when our kids stay up too late, they turn into manic writers…

Meanwhile the grown-ups rested (or “while the four grown-ups sit down lazily drinking cups of tea all day”, as Hannah put it recently), with a moment of astonishment when we caught the glint of the eyes of a large possum peering in at us through the balcony window a little before midnight. It then ambled around the decking, looking for a way out via the tree-holes or the trees themselves (we soon lost it in the darkness).

Here we have no internet, no phone signal, no TV; no way of keeping time with the outside world. So we relied on Grandad’s watch to usher in the New Year, meticulously following its digital countdown and celebrating its on-the-hour liminal ‘beep’ with New Zealand bubbly (water for the girls).

So this is 2010; now is it ‘two thousand and ten’ or ‘twenty ten’? Surely 2020 will be ‘twenty-twenty’, but how rapidly will we achieve the transition from ‘two thousand and nine’? Time will tell – literally.

Resolutions? No – but we’ve started putting together our half-time thoughts as we approach the mid-point of our trip on January 2nd. Watch this space…

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Our first night in the rooftop glass conservatory bedroom went pretty well. Although I ended up having a slightly broken night, I did sleep fairly well, and so did Tim. No star gazing as there were too many clouds, but the full moon was quite big and bright.

Shortly after our showers, John, Angela, Hannah and Ellen all joined us downstairs for our first breakfast together. At about 9.30am we made our way towards Pancake Rocks and blowholes. The weather was dry and sunny, but also pretty windy which made for a rough sea and spectacular sights.

Pancake Rocks is another place we went to nine years ago and it was just as stunning now as it was then. We followed a circular path and stopped at several viewpoints from where we admired the crashing waves and water spouting out of the blowholes. Needless to say we got sprayed several times.

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Can you see the faces in the rocks?
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Group photo.
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Despite getting slightly wet, we were pleased we had turned up early as the site wasn’t too crowded yet and the sun was still out. As we relaxed later with a cup of tea, capuccinos, cake, muffin and crisps we noticed several campervans and coaches turning up and the sky turning a darker shade of grey.

Time to head back to our tree house and after the cleaners had moved their car we managed to park in the same spaces as yesterday, none of us feeling brave enough to park in the narrow car ports.

Weka in the parking area.
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After lunch all three generations settled down to a game of New Zealand Monopoly with Hannah, John & Tim buying up most of the properties, John and Ellen raking in most of the money and Angela spending a lot of her time in jail! We all had great fun but after nearly 1.5 hours we all felt ready for a tea break.

When we had finished off the biscuits we put on our walking shoes and fleeces and headed down to the Truman track and the beach. After a short walk through the damp forest and crossing a stream by jumping onto rocks we reached the Truman track which led down to a blustery beach and rough sea. Hannah found a long piece of “rubbery” seaweed which she chose to use as a skipping rope and both girls enjoyed grandad’s explanations about fossils etc.

Grandad, are these fossils even older than you?
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Skipping with seaweed.
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Hokey Pokey rock.
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Undercut cliff with waterfall.
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We decided to return to Rata (our treehouse) before the rain set in and prepared our carbonara for supper.
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As I am typing this blog our girls are already slightly overexcited and the night is still young – we had planned to let them stay up either until midnight or until they fall asleep, but I’m not so sure now. Grandad has offered to take them out for a walk, hopefully that might calm them down a little…

An excited Ellen.
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Time to move on. We got up around 8am, had bananas on toast for breakfast and then packed the food and remaining items such as Christmas cards. The car boot is getting fuller and fuller, and there will be a lot of slimming down to do before we fly out of Wellington. We took our leave of Alex, the owner, and set off just before 10 o’clock. First stop Motueka to buy our sandwich lunch from Subway (we promised the girls we’d go there), then down the Motueka Valley before joining Highway 6 to take us across to the West Coast.

Beetles on Beetle, Motueka High Street.
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We stopped at a picnic site a little before Murchison to have our lunch, along with a couple who were travelling by bike with their young daughter in a cart at the back. A cycling tour of New Zealand sounds delightful on paper, but the reality must be rather different, contending with steep and twisty roads, biting flies and random downpours (or as Ellen put it, ‘what happens if it starts chucking it down?’).

We then paused in Murchison itself to stock up at a Four Square supermarket, perhaps our last opportunity to get provisions before Punakaiki (unless we made a 14km detour to Westport). Down along beside the Buller Gorge and then onto the coastal road that’ll eventually take us all the way south to Haast. So much stunning scenery that you reach saturation point and can’t properly take it all in; mountains, rivers, forests, all so clean and green. Pragmatically-named streams such as Eight-Mile Creek, Nine-Mile Creek (although by Lady Tom-Tom’s reckoning the first of these was only 7.9-Mile Creek).

A little before 3pm we were approaching Punakaiki when I spotted the road leading to our ‘Havenz’ accommodation (the ‘z’ plural is quite common over here, even when the preceding letter is not an ‘n’). We eventually found Reception and were greeted enthusiastically by young Zane, who talked us through the local walks and waxed lyrical about our tree-house apartment.

We drove down the gravel track and located the building, but there was some hesitation when we found not one but four apartments in the one tree-house. We had somehow expected to have the whole place to ourselves, but at least we have the largest share of the space. And it’s not so much a tree-house, more of a conventional timber three-storey construction in a woodland setting with two token trees growing through holes cut in the balcony.

All four units are occupied over New Year, so parking is a bit tight (only four spaces, but we have two cars for our party). You also have to dodge the wekas (native NZ birds) roaming the driveway; Motueka derives from ‘motu weka’ or weka island, but any resemblance between ‘Punakaiki’ and ‘pancake’ is purely coincidental (Punakaiki means ‘spring on the pile of rocks’ – a reference to the blow-holes).

My parents turned up about an hour after we arrived and we discussed who would sleep where. There’s one conventional bedroom and then another in a sort of rooftop conservatory with glass all around and very few blinds; privacy isn’t a concern as we’re surrounded by trees, but there’s not much escape from sunlight/moonlight/starlight.

We hope we have brought enough food to see us through our stay – it’s a one-and-a-half-hour round trip to the nearest food shop. We began with schnitzels and vegetables for supper tonight (which the girls conveniently omitted from today’s diary account) and we’re well stocked up with drinks and sweet and savoury nibbles for New Year’s Eve. The girls went to bed a little earlier than usual – we’ll see how late they can manage tomorrow evening.

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