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Friday, 14 April 2017

After contemplating our future for a while it quickly became apparent that we did need to have some kind of a roof over our head. We didn't want to settle in one place. Another boat would have been ideal, but, nothing was catching our fancy. We decided we needed a campervan that we could live on and tour in while we waited for 'the one' to arrive on the boat market. Rentals were out of the question as it would be way too expensive for the long-term. We started searching to buy a campervan. Everything reasonably priced had 3-400,000 km on it! We looked at a few locally and frankly, they were awful. Newer ones were priced sky-high and often had features that wouldn't work for us (like our pet peeve, beds built side-to-side instead of fore/aft and therefore are too short for taller people like us). So, there was nothing for it, a van conversion seemed the only way to go. We found a reasonably priced, ex-delivery van for sale and had to return to Brisbane to get it. We had some hotel points accumulated (I've written about our Starwood Amex card before, it's great) and Brisbane had a Four Points Sheraton, so, we were able to spend three luxurious nights there while getting the van.

Brisbane is the capital of the state of Queensland and is the third most populous city in Australia. It's a river city, situated on the Brisbane River and is a long 15 km from where the river enters the ocean at Moreton Bay. Maybe you've heard of the 'Sunshine Coast' which is just north of Brisbane and the 'Gold Coast' which is just south of Brisbane. Both are very popular tourist areas. By contrast, Brisbane has just a few low-key tourist attractions and functions more as a business and government centre. The city itself is one of the oldest cities in Australia and is known for its distinctive Queenslander architecture which is charming and very unique. The vibe in the city, however, is young, new, modern and bustling.

Unfortunately, it is built on a flood plain, as evident in this picture and regularly experiences flooding, most recently in 2011.

We were able to beat the heat of the day by going on a delightful river trip. Small river ferries regularly ply the waters (love the kangaroo painted on these).

There are some tranquil sections of riverfront.

Then, there are sections like this, that looked like an ant-hill built for people!

 In a nod to London, there is also a South Bank, replete with ferris wheel.

Many lovely garden areas helped to keep the heat at bay. This one had many herbs you were encouraged to pick and taste.

The man-made beach, swimming area and wading fountains are very popular. Built above the river bank, they are right in the centre of town.

Stumbling across these Australian water dragons in the bushes was an 'interesting' experience.

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Saturday, 8 April 2017

I know some of you have been waiting patiently for a new post. Sometimes our life moves so fast and in so many different directions, we can barely keep up with it! So, occasionally, the writing suffers.

We actually arrived in Australia almost two months ago now. So much has happened since then there will be a few interesting posts coming up soon. First, let's back up to the beginning. We flew into Brisbane, about midway up the east coast of Australia.

From there, we immediately made our way up to Hervey (pronounced Harvey) Bay, about four hours north from Brisbane, where we had business with a boat, an aluminium catamaran we'd had our eye on for a while. We spent two weeks running the numbers (it needed a lot of work), dealing with the should we/shouldn't we conundrum and finally decided to put an offer in. Unfortunately, after a long wait, the owner rejected our offer and we were not  willing to increase it. This left us in a bit of a quandary: what to do now? There were no other boats of interest available at the moment.

We decided to hunker down at the Shelly Beach motel in Hervey Bay to decide. We found the motel on and with a rating of 9.2 (superb) we figured they had to be doing something right. We weren't disappointed.

It's a modest establishment that is owned by two sisters. The units are self-contained, clean, very homey, comfortable and reasonably priced for a longer-term stay. It was also off season which helped with the price. The beautiful, empty beach was just across the street, restaurants and shops a short walk away.

Best of all, we were on the second floor and had a continual sea breeze across our balcony. We needed it. For the first three weeks in Australia daytime temperatures never went below 35C (95F)!(they are still hovering between 30-34C). Every day the white hot sun rose at five, blazed all day until finally setting around six. There was no rain at all and over 90% of the state of Queensland was in official drought status. The ground was scorched, everything crispy dry and desiccated. After the cool, wet weather we left in NZ, we couldn't handle it and were thoroughly wilted at the end of each day. Even local residents only ventured out for exercise starting at five a.m. and the streets were busy then. We had groups of cyclists passing along the road below and people chatting while jogging and walking on the eighteen km path that runs along the oceanfront. In the middle of the day, only tourists were seen.

As the sun came up birds started arriving. Every morning a large flock of incredibly noisy, fast-flying, colourful parakeets massed in the trees. What a sight. We also had flocks of white cockatoos. They are very pretty birds, but, have an awful squawk.

The birds on the lawn at the back of the motel were also gorgeous.

The long esplanade includes a nice pier at Urangan and a boat harbour. They made a good walking destination in the evening.

The long commercial strip has many restaurants and hotels. The main attractions in the area are Fraser  Island, a large island just offshore which has a tropical rain forest growing on sand, freshwater lakes and many native dingoes (wild, dog-like creatures). The thought of walking through a hot rainforest and on scorching hot sand in 35C degree heat didn't appeal to us, so, we left a visit for another time.

The other attraction is humpback whales which congregate in the bay with their young. They don't just migrate by, they hang around for a while and apparently the viewing opportunities are spectacular. Unfortunately, the whale season doesn't start until August, so, we were too early for that as well. We've made a point of coming back later in the year to see them.

All in all, it was a good spot to sit for a while and contemplate next steps. Viewing interesting new wildlife, like this spectacular pelican cruising around the boat harbour, was an added bonus.

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Saturday, 18 March 2017

We can't believe it. Our three month road trip in NZ has come to an end. Why have I put a picture of the exotic-looking Royal Spoonbill on my last NZ post? Well, NZ, for us, turned out to be all about the birds, followed by: the spectacular scenery, the many beautiful, deserted beaches, the geothermal and volcanic wonders and the tramping opportunities.

In short, it was a marvellous visit. We're glad we took the time to have a more in-depth look at the country than that offered by a cruise ship. We visited almost every corner of it in the three months we had. For potential return visits, we've found a few spots that appealed to us as well as many enticing tramps just waiting to be explored.

We spent the last couple of days in the Christchurch area, first camped at Lake Ellesmere.

We enjoyed a long, last NZ walk on this amazing beach at New Brighton, Christchurch.

Next stop? Australia! Hope you'll come along and join us for the ride.

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Finally, we got a break in the miserable weather, just for one day, but, it allowed us a good day to have a look at the Franz Josef Glacier area. We drove the Haast Pass Highway, another spectacular mountain pass route which offered up beautiful vistas along with many waterfalls and other features like these lovely Blue Pools in which you could see brown trout suspended as if in midair.

The glacier itself, although much receded, was a pretty sight on a sunny day. It actually was quite puny-looking compared to many others we've seen in places like Greenland, Svalbard,  Alaska. and British Columbia.  So, when we arrived at the car park to find it was totally full to overflowing, no parking spot available and with hordes of people all milling about, we didn't feel bad about deciding to skip the hike to the terminus of the glacier that we had planned on.

Instead, we continued on to Franz Josef Glacier village and to the West Coast Wildlife Centre. We had hoped to see kiwis in the wild, especially on our visit to Stewart Island, but, after our unfortunate experience with the weather there, we'd given up until we got here. There are a few commercial places in NZ where kiwis can be seen. We try and avoid those so as not to encourage keeping captive animals for display purposes and profit. The West Coast Wildlife Centre is actually a joint venture between private enterprise and the Department of Conservation to run a breeding program to build up the numbers of a very endangered bird. There were just three juveniles and a chick on display and they will all be placed in the wild at the appropriate time in their development. We watched the three juveniles snuffle about in their "darkhouse" where a nocturnal forest environment is simulated.

Kiwis are a curious bird, but, we didn't realize just how fascinating they were until we took the "backstage tour" and met a ranger who described the birds and the successful breeding program that is in operation here. It's very intensive. Eggs are removed from the wild, incubated and hatched. The young birds then go to outdoor pens in Christchurch for a while. From there they are taken to offshore islands (predator-free) where they are left to grow until they are better able to fend for themselves at around ten months and 1kg in weight. The birds are recaptured and then released to the wild, with a radio transmitter so they can be tracked and monitored. There are five different species of kiwi and the Rowi is the species that is being so actively managed at this Centre. They only exist in the wild in a small pocket of forest in the Okarito sanctuary, close to Franz Josef Glacier. Their numbers were down to only about 150 birds and declining before this rescue effort was started. There are now about 400 birds.

Here are a few fascinating facts about kiwis taken from the brochure we were given on the backstage tour:

  • Kiwis have many strange characteristics and are often referred to as an 'honorary mammal'.
  • Flightless and nocturnal.
  • Ground dwelling.
  • Marrow filled bones (birds that fly have air filled bones to make them lighter). [This was demonstrated when the ranger handed around anatomically-correct models of the birds. The adult bird had a large, rounded body about the size of a bowling ball and was surprisingly very heavy.]
  • Body temperature the same as humans.
  • Strong sense of smell which they use to find food underground and in leaf litter. They also have sensory pits at the tip of their bill which can feel movement of bugs in the soil.
  • Kiwi are the only bird in the world to have their nostrils at the tip of the bill, all other birds have them up at the base.
  • Kiwis live 50-70 years.
  • They are monogamous (one partner for life) and won't start breeding until 4 or 5 years old.
  • Kiwi will naturally lay 1-4 eggs in a year and the male does most, if not all, of the incubation (depends on species). A kiwi egg can weigh 250-500g.
  • Kiwi lay huge eggs - about 20% of the female's bodyweight! This is the equivalent of a human female giving birth to a six year old child. 

[Here's a kiwi egg next to a chicken egg.]

[This is an x-ray of a kiwi four days before laying the enormous egg.]

  • Kiwi eggs are incubated for about 80 days, the longest for any bird in the world.
  • Chicks hatch fully feathered and can be independent as young as 2 weeks old.
  • Kiwis defend themselves with sharp claws and strong legs. Their legs comprise almost a third of their body weight. They can outrun a human.

We couldn't take pictures of the live birds, but, here are two stuffed examples.

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Monday, 6 March 2017

Aoraki/Mount Cook, the tallest peak (3724m) in Australasia was another must-see. However, the weather wasn't cooperating. Day after day of low cloud and rain were the norm. We'd been skirting around the area hoping for a sunny day. Suddenly, one came up and we made a beeline for it. Us and what seemed like every other tourist for hundreds of miles around arrived en masse. It was a glorious day, perfect for being in the mountains.

We quickly set up camp in the National Park campground at the base of the mountain and headed off on the three hour Hooker Valley Track which would take us to Hooker Lake at the base of the mountain. On the way there, we had to cross three suspension bridges.

Once we reached the lake, there was an ice face and even an iceberg. Old and worn, but, a surprising sight nonetheless.

Lots of snow on top as well. The cracks along the top of the outcroppings look rather ominous.

There were flowers along the path.

It was a nice day out and we're glad we went, but, it was definitely marred by the crowds of people. It was single-file only along the track both ways and we often found ourselves having to dodge very loud groups of people, or, those with their heads-down looking at phone screens. Really, why bother?

Back at the village, there is a hotel, "the Hermitage" and the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, outside of which stands this statue of Hillary.

There were also birds! These pretty little creatures were flitting about the bushes.

Leaving the next day, the weather was back to its miserable self, but, it didn't completely obscure views of the "Southern Alps" which we continued to enjoy for a long way.

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Thursday, 2 March 2017

From the deep South, Stewart Island, we headed up to Queenstown, a tourist town on steroids. We usually avoid such places, but, when we learned there was a coal-fired steamship there, the TSS Earnslaw, well, there was no question, we just had to visit! We booked on a tour which took us on a forty-five minute jaunt across Lake Wakatipu to the historic Walter Peak High Country Farm. The farm tour included a sheep-shearing and sheepdog demonstration. An afternoon cream tea in the Colonel's Homestead restaurant, located in part of the original farmhouse, topped the day off perfectly. We enjoyed the whole thing very much, despite the still-pouring rain. Luckily, they provided umbrellas.

It was toasty warm on board the ship, thanks to the five coal fires that were burning. Two young, strapping, stokers kept the fires going.

TSS stands for "twin-screwed steamship". Two engines require a lot of maintenance and specialized tools to keep them going.

The sheepdogs, Bella and Ace, were a sight to watch. They are "eye dogs" which means they don't make noise at the sheep, but, rather, control them through constant sight monitoring and swift movements, following voice commands from their handler.

The sheep-shearing was interesting. It was easier than I thought. When a sheep is lifted off its legs, it basically goes totally limp and doesn't fight the shearer. The fleece can then be taken off in one single piece.

There were a few other farm animals around, along with deer and even Highland Cattle.

The grounds and flowers were absolutely delightful, despite the day.

The rain never let up.

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Thursday, 23 February 2017

Sometimes, our timing is just impeccable. Not only does it seem that we've picked the year for a really bad (wet, cold, windy) summer here in NZ, but, we managed to book our three-day tramp on the Rakiura Track smack-dab in the middle of an "explosive cyclogenesis" otherwise known as a "weather bomb". As we'd already booked the ferry and campsites months in advance, there was nothing for it but to proceed with our plans.

The Rakiura Track is another NZ Great Walk. It's located on New Zealand's third island, Stewart Island, just a one hour ferry journey directly south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait. There's nothing between there and Antarctica. The attraction for us was the more isolated nature of this track as there are only three hundred people living on Stewart Island. It was also reputed to have lots of birdlife, including many kiwis. The island is located at latitude 47S which means it's in the middle of the "Roaring Forties", so, we didn't expect it to be tropical. However, we didn't expect it to be as miserable as it was. The incredibly heavy rain was being blown horizontally by very strong winds that just didn't let up. At least the worst of the winds hadn't arrived yet, so, the ferry crossing over was uneventful. We sat in the National Park Visitor Centre for a while hoping there might be a break. No such luck, so, we headed out into the weather to make our way to Maori Beach Campsite, about 9km distant, our first night's stop. We were somewhat sheltered from the rain and wind on the track. On arriving at the campsite, we had the full brunt of it again. Added to the mix was the beach sand now being fiercely whipped around as well. We made camp and spent an ok night despite being unable to use the "kitchen" shelter as it was directly open to the wind and our campstove wouldn't stay lit. A cold dinner and no hot drinks added to our fun.

The morning was no better with continual heavy rain, wind and low-lying cloud and mist that obscured any view. There didn't seem much point in continuing. We decided to abort the next two days of the tramp and just head back the way we had come. Maybe if we'd booked the hut instead of the campsite for that night we would have continued, but, we knew the hut was fully booked and there'd be no room for us. That meant we'd be relegated to a muddy, very wet campsite. It wasn't appealing. On the way back we at least managed to view and hear a colourful Kereru (native wood pigeon) and lots of Tui with their lovely song.

We arrived, back at our starting point, wet and cold. Luckily, we managed to change our ferry reservation. In hindsight, it may have been better to have stayed on the Island a while as the crossing was a horrific experience, not so much for us, but, all those around us. Is there such an affliction as "group seasickness"? I'd say yes! This crossing proved it.

The ferry was a smallish power cat and it was almost full. The winds were only about 35 knots but a 50+ knot storm had gone through the day before and the seas were definitely very ‘lumpy’ and confused. We were doing about 20 knots. It’s only a one hour crossing. Of the 100 passengers probably 80%!! were sick. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not just queasy, but, actually throwing up, a few were violently projectile. It was absolutely horrific to watch, children crying, a woman crawling on her knees trying to make it to the door, a man sitting by himself after everybody for two rows around him moved away to avoid the smell of his vomit dripping off the windowsills and seatbacks. Cabin crew, to their credit, were continually cleaning and handing out bags. The small bags weren't enough for the isolated man. Too late, they handed him a huge, black, bin liner to use.

Luckily we were in the minority and not afflicted, but, I really felt for those suffering. Early on in my sailing life I suffered from seasickness and know how completely debilitating it can be. On my first crossing of the English Channel, in a smallish sailboat, I threw up six times. Not fun. Now, many years later, I find I am only slightly queasy on the first day or two of a passage, thankfully. After feeling only a very slight queasiness on this trip, I'd say I'm cured of the worst effects, fingers crossed.

The helm was located right in the passenger area and the skipper, despite the utter chaos around and behind him, just concentrated and kept his eyes on the prize, masterfully steering around the waves. We only felt liftoff a couple of times. His was not a job I'd relish.

We were glad to reach the mainland (South Island) and get back into our van. The rain and wind continued for a couple of days and confirmed for us that we'd made the right choice to return early. It was a very disappointing end to a much-anticipated trip.

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