Zesty Mumma's Words

A life lived without passion is a life half lived

Archive for the tag “travel”

“Puedo Usar El Servicios Por Favor” – Ladies You Need to Remember this in Spain!

The yellow sun baked country of Huelva stretches before you on the motorway trip from Seville. It is a scene unchanged in many ways from the time of Don Quijote; rolling hills dotted with whitewashed villages, olive and citrus groves and abandoned haciendas.

The soil is old soil, washed and drained by rains and droughts through the milleniums to become  a sandy loam that cracks and crumbles with your touch, not unlike Australia.  The summer grass, quickly drying in the ever present, baking sun, shows no variance in colour from dirt in which it grows.  Native trees ( that’s if you don’t count the olive) seems to be limited, with the main example a type of conifer that takes the shape of a slightly flattened lollipop. This natural topiary I am told can also be quite tall but the ones I am seeing aren’t.

I will be based in Huelva province for the next couple of months and the main city only  10km’s away. From a distance Huelva city resembles an industrial boil on the delicate ecological skin of the earth. Huge silos and smoking chimneys dominate your sight. Set at the delta of the Rio Tinto river it is also a major port and the closest to the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean. The vast river flats a haven in days gone by for multitudes of wading birds.

Multi storey apartment blocks which are the other dominant feature of the urban landscape, show signs of aging in the relentless Spanish sun without the benefit of the cosmetic surgery ever present in more affluent tourist areas. Did I mention that Huelva is the most untouristy place in the whole of Spain ( and there isn’t many of them). They even demolished their only surviving Roman dwelling some years ago to build a carpark!

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Huelva has one welcoming and totally unexpected surprise for this Australian traveller, Gum or Eucalyptus trees ( to everyone else in the world). I’m not talking about one or two, I’m mean forests of them. They are everywhere, beside river banks, around paddocks. Up in the hills there are huge plantations, which have resulted in self seeding populations almost rivalling the farmed variety. Originally  grown for wood pulp to feed the voracious appetite of the paper mills, they have spread to such an extend that they are a real threat to native flora. I reckon let a few koalas loose and you have an instant tourist industry, food for thought for those in power in Huelva, don’t you think?

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I read that around the world there is a love hate relationship with gums. They are on one hand lauded for there quick growing, usefulness and on the other hand despised as water guzzling ( they can drain a swamp as quick as look at it) , native vegetation stranglers (the Eucalyptus oil gets into the soil and inhibits all other plants). All I can say is Huelva Provence is little Australia!

I know that I have just spoken disparagingly about Huelva City and now I will make amends. The proverbial ugly duckling comes close to becoming a swan when you actually enter into its heart, nothing as spactacular as the old Jewish Quarter of Seville but nice enough. Narrow cobble stone lanes, black wrought iron and the occasional geranium lined balcony.

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Two friends of mine

The predominantly Spanish population of Huelva coexists with a generous number of Africans, some from Spanish speaking Equatorial Guinea, others speaking French from Malle, Senegal and Cameroon; still others speaking English from Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana all in the elusive search for better economic conditions. Unfortunating because they are here illegally they have no papers and the only work they can get is fruit picking. Hot, hard and long, most are forced to live in Charbolas ( make shift huts in camps that line the bush between farms made of cardboard, old wooden pallets and plastic sheeting) without proper sanitation or garbage disposal and yet they provide a work force that has allowed the huge berry industry in Huelva to flourish.

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There are also European escaping, not from poor economies but rather poor weather. They inhabit mostly the coastal areas and the large urbanisations that exist in Spain. Then there is the English; I noticed at the beach the other day a crumbled watchtower from approximately 1500. I could imagine some lonely, Spanish sailor watching night after night for the menacing English frigates that might appear. Five hundred or so years later all I can say is they shouldn’t have bothered cause they came anyway!

At Mazagon the  river flows into the Atlantic. A small coastal town where in winter you could literally let off a shot gun off in the Main Street without a chance of hitting anyone. In summer the story is completely different. The population explodes for a relatively brief period before reverting to its ghost town existance.

Spain has one big problem and the numerous pieces of tissue I saw blown the around low dunes on the 100 mtr or so boardwalk to the beach shows how bad it is. They have almost NO public toilets. On my first dip in the Atlantic since I was a child there were a couple of hundred beach goers at Mazagon beach and the only public toilet that the council provided ( believe me when I say that the fact there were some to begin with is very unusual) were locked.  Apparently they are only opened for special occasions, like the school summer holidays and they weren’t scheduled for another two weeks!

Which brings me back to Huelva city and the Africans. When the seasonal picking work runs out they are forced to do one of two things, other than travel to another part of the country which is hard if you have a family with kids. The first is to out right beg in the city. This option is usually only taken up by women and the occasional Romanian. A nice thing about the Spanish is that most seem to understand that they without social security the women are reliant on their donations and are generally willing to drop a few cents into the tin. One great thing about Huelva is that you can live quite cheaply, not the Hilton by any means but safe and dry. €100 a week will give you a room in a shared apartment and enough money to feed yourself and a child.

The African men however have actually developed a whole industry for the time of the year when there is no picking to be done. They sell tissues at the traffic lights. Why you ask, because as I said before there are few public toilets so you are forced to ask at a bar to use their toilet. Thankfully they are usually kind enough to let you, but often fail to provide toilet roll!

Tips

  • Always carry a packet of tissues – you know why
  • memorise this phrase ladies – “puedo usar el sevicios por favor ” – you know what it means!

 

 

 

How To Make It To SevilleWithout A Complete Meltdown – A Sangria or Two Helps

 

The air is surprising when I wheel my bags out into the street on my first day in Spain, clear and cool but with the hint of what is to come. Like a tap you turn on that first runs cold but slowly you feel warm water mixing with the cool, till finally all you have is hot.

My 500mtr walk to the metro is not uncomfortable, with the help of a couple of passerby’s, a little English and a bit of sign language, what I already knew was confirmed (the metro was straight down the street). I really didn’t need to ask I think it was more just for reassurance.

Once I had taken the escalator to the first level of the Metro it was another thing, no ticket office, no one to try and speak to, only machines, but thankfully a large map and three really lovely Canadian boys. You really don’t want me to bore you with the details of how I manage to hold on to all my bags, get my money out and pay for my ticket, lets just say it was hard. Getting through the turnstiles was just as difficult but thankfully Spanish men are really helpful as well.

Intercity trains are run by Renfe, which is situated at  Atoche, the largest of Madrid’s stations, the old terminal having been transformed into a tropical covered garden.  It was easy to find the customer service to enquire about tickets, but as it turned out, not quite so to buy one. After being directed to an office and a machine that spat out tickets notifying you of your place in the queue,  I realise in horror that my ticket said A244 when the LED display notifying the next customer to be served was only saying A103. With a single customer service representative working I quickly realised my dream of getting to Seville by lunch time was out the window.

During the next hour and a half I noted with perverse glee the many travellers that walked into the office and looked around in confusion, only to be told by another customer about the machine. Once they’d taken their ticket I waited for the inevitable series of reactions. Firstly a quick glance down at their number, then a corresponding glance at the flashing display for the current ticket to be called, followed by one of two actions when they realised how long the wait would be. The first was horrified disbelief, really entertaining. The best however, were the people that nervously scanned the seated customers with a half smile on their lips, certain that someone was playing a huge joke on them and they were about to “get punked”.

To be honest I’m really not that sure there wasn’t some comedy show being secretly filmed for Spanish television cause here is the rub, when I finally arrived at the glorious moment of my ticket being called, feeling like I had won the lottery, I was told ” sorry but this office is for pre booked tickets, you have to go to another ticket office to purchase tickets for travel today!”

All I want to say is I arrived in Seville at 4.30, took me longer than it should have, cost more than it would if I had booked and paid before I left Australia and it is my own fault. Train travel in Spain is actually brilliant, fast and clean and once you get the hang of it, very easy.

Seville is a seriously beautiful city, particularly the old Jewish quarter, which really is the only place to stay. There are far too many awesome sites to visit that I won’t mention them here, just google images and research them, totally worth it. The train station was relatively close to my hotel according to the map, so once again McDonalds, their black tea and free wi fi was greatly appreciated. I sat down drank my tea, had a wrap and sent a few messages to assure friends and family that I was still alive.  Unfortunately the last message to my son finally depleted my iPad battery and I realised with horror that my phone had died as well. Aargh!

I almost crumbled into pure panic at that moment because I hadn’t written the address of my pension down on paper and had no  idea of the name. However, just before I opened my mouth to scream I realised I had actually printed out the booking form, handing it to a taxi driver I sank with relief into the seat. Again as much as it pains my to say it, without a charged phone to follow google maps, there was no way I would have found the hotel if I had taken the bus. The taxi took me straight there and only cost €8. The narrow rabbit warren of streets and lanes in the old city was too hard to navigate on your own.

I had chosen La Montorena because of the position and price of course but also because of the mosaic lined foyer and roof top terrace and it turned out to be a good one. My single room was a shoe box but the bed was fine and the small bathroom opposite was mainly used by me alone. Again it may only have been €26 a night but the cleanliness was remarkable.

As I mentioned before but my trip to Spain is an extended one, nearly three three months in total then a month in England, so my bags are heavy. The narrow marble staircase up to the first and second floors made it impossible to drag up my huge rolling backpack. I had actually anticipated this and packed everything I thought I might need for the weekend into my  overnight bag, so I store the big one downstairs.

Seville was my first taste of the heat of summer in southern Spain and it is strong, but being dry it is bearable at the same time, not the sticky ever present humidity of the tropics. Walking around the scenic sites is therefore a mostly comfortable experience. Bars are abundant, food is cheap and beverages (alcohol included) is even cheaper so once the heat drains you a little it is easy to recover your strength. Sangria in particular is an effective medicine.

Low cost accommodation can have a bad reputation for many reason, noisy young travellers for one thing. Not that they weren’t present at La Montorena but they weren’t that noisy. These days however, you are just as likely to find older travellers, just like yourself, they love to talk and the roof top terrace was the perfect place meet the other guests.  I met a lovely Danish couple who had just arrived and were making a return visit. There is a definite comoraderie that you don’t get in resorts and upmarket hotels,  maybe a sense of shared experience!

Tips

  • Work out your metro train trip prior to taking it – mine involve taking 3 different train lines to the main station which I do think is weird when I was actually on the airport line to begin with but hey it’s Spain. And write it down – you will not remember!
  • Book and pay for your intercity train ticket before you leave home – you do not want to star in Spanish Candid Camera!
  • Buy a power  converter also before you leave home – we rely so much on technology today you CANNOT be stuck without your device, that is unless you want to have a nervous breakdown!
  • cafe/bars are cheap but even cheaper is grocery stores, the small corner store variety no exception. So if you are really trying to live cheaply  a knife, rice wafers, avocado, tomato and some smoked salmon under a roof top cabana, with a €2.99 2011 bottle of red is fabulous ( just make sure the wafers you buy don’t have some sickly sweet creamy substance inside because you couldn’t read the label otherwise your eating with your fingers)

 

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From Lunar Landscapes to Patchwork Quilt Cultivation

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Never, never, never book a long haul flight from Australia to Europe without at least one night stopover somewhere, that is unless you have the luck of travelling first class and that probably isn’t likely for most of us. This is my first piece of advice, it just isn’t worth the stress on your body.

Flying out of Brisbane at 5.00 am having not slept for twenty four hours seemed Like a good idea. My reasoning being that I would be able to sleep longer  and better on the flight if I was tired, but no this didn’t happen! I did manage an hour or so as we flew over Australia, then woke up only to find we were still hadn’t  even left the Northern Territory. It was then another hour till we exited via the coast of Western Australia.

You cannot help but be impressed by the enormous oasis in the middle of the desert that is Dubai and the airport a fitting match. Dubai Airport is enormous, so big that it takes a train to move you speedily for some distance to your departure gate. Like many of the other man made structures that appear in that part of the world it is a vast spiralling monument to those in power at the time of construction.

Peering down on the gulf states from thirty two thousand feet as we headed out of Dubai exposes the true expanse of the lunar landscape. No trees, water or seemingly vegetation of any sort (I know there really is some I just can’t see it ). I can’t help thinking in wonder at the resilience of the people that have called the region home for much of human history. Tankers, too numerous to even mention, steam back and forward, filling man’s insatiable appetite for petroleum products.

I handled the long, long trip from Australia to Dubai quite well really but the next leg of my trip however, was a different story. About half way over the Mediterranean I was ready to jump out of the plane. Again, not that it was a bad trip, it was just doing my head in being cooped up, too, too long! Even the magnificence of eastern Spain from the air wasn’t enough to totally dispel this feeling, and magnificent it is! A patchwork of gigantic proportions, laid out as intricately as any of their famous mosaic murals; fields under cultivation producing varying colours and textures, with small nutmeg kernel hills popping up here and there dotty the tableau.

Madrid Barajas Airport is a giant mausoleum on this Friday evening at 8.00 pm but later discovered that we had actually arrived at the newest and as yet under utilised runway. This also turned out to be another very fast, few kilometre train trip away from the main airport, it being much busier and just a little scarier.

There is a smell in the air that I can’t explain, I won’t call it a scent because that would elude to something pleasant. Not that it was offensive either, although I think it could be, if a little stronger. My nostrils tingled but realised that I better get used to it since it wasn’t  going away anytime soon!

My hotel booking was supposed to be very close to the airport, walking distance even, but I quickly felt like someone standing on one side of a raging river needing to get to the other side without a bridge.  After twenty three and a half hours travelling and a couple of failed attempts to find a shuttle bus I opted for a taxi. What I would have found if I had researched the transportation options better was that the train from the airport would take me one stop and  cost under €2.00. I then had to only walk 500 mtrs in a straight line to my hotel instead of costing €20.00 by taxi. Then again, as I said I’d had it and all I wanted to do was arrive at my hotel.

There have only been two times in my life where I have been genuinely happy to find a McDonalds (I haven’t and never will be a regular consumer of fast food) and both occasions involved an overwhelming desire for a cup of tea. The first after a long and uncomfortable bus trip from the middle of Laos to Bangkok, a city that never seems to close, except for a two hour window between about 4.00 and 6.00 in the morning, unhappily coinciding with our bus arrival. The only thing open in the whole of Khao San Rd was Uncle Ronald’s restaurant and those Giant  arches gleamed like the gold of El Dorado and made my heart happy as I sipped my “Lipton”.

The second was my exhausted 9.00pm Friday night arrival at the Hostel Aeropuerto, made even more euphoric by the unexpected discovering of the same gleaming arches directly across the road, calling me to my pot of gold (a cup of black tea and a garden salad), bliss!

My Tips

  •  Never book a long haul flight from Australia without an over night stop over.
  • Always research transportation option – including key words if not in English speaking countries e.g tickets – billetes (Spanish)
  • Sometimes it’s just worth it to pay a little extra to get where you are going
  • As much as it pains my to say it but MacDonalds can be a saviour.
  • Hostel Aeropuerto – immaculately clean, great staff,  comfortable, only €30 single room or €35 double

Giant Wood Fungus and Earthquakes, There Is A Link !

Do you like maps? I love to pore over them, firing my imagination to a journey of discovery. I’m sure that’s how Dr Livingstone felt when he peered at early maps of darkest Africa dreaming of what he would find. The first time I saw the Banks Peninsular on a map I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, for all intents and purposes you would swear you were looking at a giant wood fungus. So mesmerised by its appearance was that I couldn’t get the image out of my mind for weeks.

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Where is the Banks Peninsular you might ask and directly east of Christchurch would be the answer? The northern face is easily accessible to the city but that wasn’t always the case. A tunnel dug by the sweat and tears of hardworking men, with out the benefit of modern engineering equipment changed that, bringing you out to the harbour and the town of Lyttleton. It was built by the English in their very English brick and mortar style that was exported to so many lands whether suitable or not. This fact almost lead to Lyttleton’s down fall in the earthquake of 2011, sitting precariously on the hills that tower over the aqua blue water of the harbour the whole town nearly tumbled into the water. In spite of this, however, Lyttleton is well worth a visit with the imaginative use of containers, as in other parts of Christchurch, helping to open the town to locals and visitors very soon after the quake.

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Having seen the Northern side of the peninsular on my first visit, I was drawn to explore the southern side, purely because of the intriguing shape on the map. The Road to Akaroa follows the circumference of the southern edge of my giant fungus. This beautiful little town started life as a French colony, notable established as far away from the English on the other side as possible.

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What you see when you drive around the base of the peninsula heading for matches exactly to the topography displayed on that map that I had been so obsessed with. You might think “isn’t that always the case”? Well know not really, sometimes the urban environment obscures the natural or sometimes the feature just doesn’t stand out. This absolutely not the case with the banks peninsular. Remembering that this is earthquake territory may help when I say that the sides of the peninsular look as if a giant has picked it up with two hands and flicked it, the way an ordinary human might pick up a floor rug, with the resulting waves of Fabric settling back down in a series of folds. This is seriously amazing countryside and the fact that under the peninsular actually lay two volcanoes made it even more so.

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Driving over the last hill, which I will warn you is actually more of a mountain, the decent into Akaroa is mind blowing. Words do not adequately describe the vista and the town itself no less so. Tourists have definitely discovered Akaroa and now due to problems in the Lyttleton Harbour it is also the destination for cruise ships. However an afternoon of wandering around the town, not just the shops is great. I will go back to Akaroa, but stay longer and take the opportunity to go kayaking around the bay.

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Our accommodation at Halfmoon Cottage sits snuggly at the Head of Barry’s Bay, one of the many little bays formed by the unusual geology. The old house draws you with its warmth and nestles into a rambling, verdant garden seemly producing every vegetable or fruit that grows in New Zealand. We enjoyed the late afternoon sun in the secluded garden and early evening in conversation with other like minded travellers who also appreciated the peace of our location.

Tips and Extras

*  Make sure you stay more than 1 night, so much to explore

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The Great Ocean Road – A Road Well Visited But Always Surprising

Thirty years ago I drove a quiet back road from Port McDonald in South Australia over the Victorian Border to Port Campbell and on through to Torquay so we could be on hand to watch the Bells 25th Anniversary surf comp. By the way when I say I drove that wasn’t exactly the case, Craig my ex did all the driving, I didn’t get my license for another decade, but I’ll leave that  story till later.

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So back to the story, I called it a back road but it was in fact the Princess Highway and  the Great Ocean Road, which most people have heard of even if you don’t live in Australia. In those days it was little more than a country road but the scenery was no less amazing.

On that occasion we got to the Twelve Apostles (now it is 8 ½ Apostles) late in the day then drove on through the night, only stopping somewhere near Lorne because we sadly hit a Tawney Frogmouth Owl. Sleeping in the back of our 1968 Holden Kingswood Station wagon with stainless steel mud flaps and white metal venetian blinds was very squishy. We had a cat, my brother, surfboards and luggage but when you’re young you just handled it.

What I didn’t I didn’t realise until I recently travelled the same road with two friends (but from the opposite direction) was that because it was night on my previous trip I had missed out on so much.

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The Torquay stretch is actually a well worn path for me. When we arrived thirty years ago our stay extended to about three months so I got to know the area quite well. Since then I have travelled back on a few occasions, my son was a pro junior surfer so surfing comps at Bells were a part of my life. It hasn’t changed a lot in all those years. A few more shops, but not as many as you would think, more houses but not much else.

Bells Beach however was as mesmerising as ever, the pure power of the waves demands respect. On the day we were there a rescue helicopter had landed on the beach just before we pulled up in the carpark, I never found out why but I can only imagine. Standing at the lookout staring out to the horizon you can’t help thinking about the massive waves that are generated in the Southern Ocean and propelled at the Australian coastline. Dark and ominous it is easy to feel the icy embrace of water that originates in the Antarctic.

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The trip from Torquay to Lorne along a road that hugs impossible cliffs and runs beside exquisite sandy beaches  is only about an hour drive in distance. However, there are numerous places you will want to stop so it should take you  quite a bit longer. We stopped for a late lunch in Lorne, very pretty  but I found it a bit too commercial.

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Our next two nights were spent in Apollo Bay and gladly a lot different to Lorne. It is a lovely little town, with beautiful beaches, a great boat harbour and amazing pub meals, really huge. Most importantly it is a perfect distance from the Apostles. Stay the night, then make your way to the apostles the next day. On the way back visit The Otway Lightstation and get more that you bargain for. The road to the lightstation is about 12 kilometres and the only place in Australia I have found that seems to be riddled with Koalas, no joking. They were hanging out of the trees everywhere along the road. The koala in the picture is literally only two metres above the ground.

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The light station itself is fantastic and full of history. The most famous of the light house keepers had an amazing wife that cared for shipwrecked people and others in wretched situations. Commended for her spirit, she was described as being the “nicest of all women having only nine children” beat that all you earth mothers, lol. Who would ever describe someone as ONLY having nine children. Times were definitely different one hundred and thirty years ago.

 

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Dunedin is Not a Sunny Place – But Who Needs Sunshine for an Interesting Holiday

Dunedin is not a sunny place, but having said that, it is quite possible that the Scottish Farmers that were the founding fathers of the city probably thought it was in comparison to what they left behind in Britain. To put this in perspective when you are planning your trip, the average maximum temperature in January is 18.9 degrees Celsius where as Sydney (also in the Southern Hemisphere) has an average maximum of 25.9 for January. Trust me, this is not a place you plan on visiting for a beach holiday

But here in lies a certain amount of contradiction. The photo below is taken at a beach on the eastern side of the Otago Peninsular. During my first visit I sat on a log eating my lunch, the warm sunshine super heating me through my jeans (it was November and the only sunny day during my three days in Dunedin (the other two being drizzly and cool) and I was overwhelmed, as I often am, by the desire to swim. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t been in the ocean for a few weeks or the beach looked so much like home that I just had to try it.

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After changing in to my swimmers I made my way down to the shore, the squeaky alabaster sand ran through my toes as I walked. The same clear blue Pacific Ocean water that I had known for most of my life rolled in lovely shore breakers towards me, I was feeling very positive.

When the first wave touched my toes it was a bit of a shock. Like little needles really and very, very, sharp ones at that. By the time the water had reached my calves I think my legs were about to change from fire red to vivid purple and I ran from the water just like all the “cold-a-phobes” I’d always bemoaned. I did eventually manage to get to the point of lying in the water, but the moment the wave rolled over my back I was out of there, never to return.

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But the Otago Peninsular is a visually splendid place. The road hugs high cliffs most of the way around and presents amazing, “to die for”views, which doesn’t take too much imagination to believe to be quite possible. Such is the height of the hills on the peninsular, one minute you can be driving along admiring the view and the next thing you are driving through low-lying cloud as thick as any London pea soup fog.

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Things were no different on my second visit to Dunedin. The gothic nature of many of the churches and other buildings seems extremely fitting in respect to the weather. Otago stone is a renowned building material in New Zealand and has been used extensively in and around Dunedin giving the entire city a solid, stoic feeling. One of the best things to do really is looking at the architecture, built on incredibly steep hills this can be quite a physically demanding thing to do, but fantastic “old everything” is everywhere.

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If you like good food, make sure your visit includes a Saturday. The farmers market held at the world famous train station (also made out of Otago stone) is an awesome place for breakfast. You also have the chance to wander round the station, which really does deserve its notoriety. My second visit also coincided with the Thieves Alley Market, which sees the Octagon (centre of the Dunedin CBD) and surrounding streets closed for the day. On this particular day many of the Artisans from Christchurch were there and it made a fabulous market.

I stayed in the Manor House Backpackers on my first visit and it was fine, great old house close to the Octagon. Unlike the place I am too embarrassed to mention (Penny Backpackers) on my second trip and would advise you to avoid like the plague.  One of my fondest moments for the first trip was watching “500 Days of Summer” with an American Girl, two German Girls and a Chinese Student at The Manor House. The American and I may have been the only ones laughing but you knew the other girls got it they just weren’t as loud as us.

I have watched that movie many times since then and I always think of Dunedin. It helped me realise that a good chick flick can break down even the biggest language barrier.

Tips and Extras

• Port Chalmers, where the cruise boats dock has some interesting quirky shops and is a nice drive, well worth the trip, and good coffee.

• Also visit the entrance to Port Otago

• The Otago Gallery in the Octagon is great art gallery.

• Dunedin has the best op shops

The Catlins – Home of Elephant Seals, Waterfalls and Kind People who Know How To Dance

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Alex Mclean was an hard working, yet interesting man who loved music and dancing. Extremely generous to his family, donating a whole farm to a brother that had been badly injured during wartime.  He lived a quiet rural life tending for his animals and farm during the day. At night he read and created exquisite handmade violins. He never married but cared for his sister who lived alone on an adjoining property. It was noted at his death that he was ” a kind man who danced a mean jig.”

So said the plaque dedicated to Alex McLean at the entry to the waterfall named for him, Mclean Falls, in the hinterland of the Catlins. PI knew I’d like the  Catlins long before I went there or heard about Alex Mclean,  but I didn’t know why.  I knew the beaches were white sand, I knew it was south of Dunedin and North of  Invercargill but that was all I knew. What we found was an unspoiled, beautiful, wild and windswept land, way off most tourist maps but well worth the little bit of effort to get there.

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After leaving Queenstown we headed south to Invercargill, a large sprawling town at the bottom of the island. It reminded me of an old gold town, wide streets and impressive stone buildings, but it was obvious it’s heyday was long past. It took approximately two hours to make the trip to Invercargill but we chose to stop another half hour further further on at Bluff.  Many of you may not have heard of Bluff or the famed Bluff Oyster, I hadn’t until I went to NZ the first time. Unfortunately I can’t tell you if they are as good as legend has it cause their season only runs for a brief few months from about late March and as it was mid February I was a little early.

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We  only had an overnight stay in the area but if you had the time could easily stay a  longer stay. The beaches are great with some long stretches, perfect for walking and two lighthouses worth viewing. There are also lovely rainforest tracks leading to magical waterfalls and breath taking views.

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 At Papatowai  Beach we even found a great vegetable garden in  someones front yard with a sign offering free veggies to pick. Unfortunately we didn’t see any Elephant Seals on the beach, only this sign.

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I fell in love with the Catlins and I think Alex Mclean as well (unfortunately he died in the 1940’s).

Off to Dunedin

Tips

* go to the antique shop in Bluff – really good value

* Stay at the McLean Falls Holiday Park

Haast and Beyond, with Whitebait for Sustenance

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Heading south to Haast, the last outpost on the West Coast, you realise just how stoic the early European settlers must have been to eek out a farming existence in that verdant land. The bush closes in thickly around you at times and the ever present, misty rain implies a prehistoric past that is still very much present. This trip was my second on that road and no different the first time I travelled it.

Whitebait is a delicacy you may not have heard about but is so important to nearly every New Zealander that a love of them is almost a prerequisite for citizenship. What is it I hear you ask, actually Whitebait are tiny little fish, much smaller that sardines with a gigantic head (in comparison to their body). Every single kiwi I have met has at least one story about going “whitebaiting” when they were young, much increasing its legendary status. As you approach Haast a small hand written sign on the side of the road advertising whitebait fritters can be seen, make sure you stop. The fritters are a simple affair, prepared and cooked on a make shift bench in front of you and consist of beaten eggs, whitebait, salt and pepper, buttered bread and sauce if you want but well worth it.

South of Haast is the truly wild New Zealand, Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and onto Antarctica. The main road turns east at this point and heads up and over the Alps. If you don’t have a convoy of Motorhomes breathing down upon you make sure at some point you stop on the side of the road to marvel, slack jawed at the beauty you are heading toward. It is scenery that no amount of words I could ever say would do justice to.

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This road will take you all the way to Wanaka and on to Queenstown, it is quite narrow in places but that is never a problem because there just isn’t that much traffic. Once you are over the top it follows a route around amazing blue lakes. This is sheep country and very high so the vegetation is sparse. This trip we chose to keep going through to Queenstown but Wanaka is a nice little town with lots of accommodation. Both towns are quite modern and generally busy in all seasons. Winter bringing the skiers and late spring, summer and early autumn the travelling tourists.

It takes about an hour to get to Queenstown from Wanaka along the highest public road in the country. Just before you begin your decent into Queenstown you come upon gravel clearing on the side of the road. Make sure you stop at that spot, the view looking down the valley and into Queenstown is a must see. Late snow was still clinging to the hills around the valley on my first trip but this time it was late summer so it had all melted, still beautiful but the snow made it spectacular.

 

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It is a 300 km bus trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown and I took it the first time I was there. Unfortunately, the only trouble with that is if you’re on a bus tour you have to take 300km trip home that day as well. Actually I am only joking when I say unfortunately because the trip there was nearly as good as seeing the Sound. After Te Arnau the road takes you through vast empty valleys that had once been farmland but are now part of the National Park. The drivers are well trained and have lots of interesting local knowledge to bring the trip to life. It makes it a long day but not one you would regret. To get down to Milford you have to pass through a long tunnel. If you are a nervous driver you would be best to take a bus trip like me. I’m not a nervous driver but I was very glad I went on the bus.

My favourite thing in Queenstown is the botanic garden. After you walk through the garden there is lovely little French café down on the lake that finishes off the visit nicely. The walk up Queenstown Hill is also great. It starts at the end of some extremely steep streets but becomes less so once you are up about a third of the way.

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Arrowtown is a quaint little town about 5 km from Queenstown, It is renowned for cute little stone cottages and other old buildings but it is heavily commercialised and really not my cup of tea. Having said that I had a venison pie at the local bakery was the best pie I have ever tasted.

 

Tips

  • Top up your petrol take at Haast.
  • Try Pine Lodge for budget accommodation. The room I had on my first visit was spotlessly clean. I booked it on a last minute booking website and managed to get a twin room for four nights for $200 NZ.
  • There are two supermarkets in Queenstown – a smaller one right at the end of Shotover Street in the CBD. The second, a large New World, is just a few blocks over, just out of the CBD.
  • Unless you know you have a bargain I wouldn’t really buy any souvenirs in Queenstown, very overpriced and all made in China.
  • The bus trip to Milford costs around $150 NZ

The Wild Wild West of NZ’s South Island

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When I was seven I used to wait for my mother to finish the weekly grocery shopping. Not in a park or a library but in a milkbar. Every Saturday morning, I would take my twenty cents pocket money, order twelve cents worth of hot chips and buy an eight cent strawberry milkshake. Sitting on the soft black vinyl swivel stools at the long bench I savoured every chip that crunched and melted in my mouth, feeling very grown up. To this day I love chips, in particularly Fish and Chips, and thankfully so do New Zealanders.

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Hokitika, a small town south of Punakaiki, abut half an hour from Greymouth. It is known as the home of Greenstone, but I would like to award it with another title. It has the best fish and chip shop on the west coast, with awesome chips. That’s lucky for me, right? Well it also has amazing homemade mussel fritters and of course local fish, so whatever you do plan to have lunch at Hokitika. There is lots to see and a good stop before you head south on the two hour trip to the glaciers.

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The strip of land between the pounding waves of the Tasman Sea and the foothills of the Southern Alps is very narrow. As the moist water laden clouds hit the land they travel up and over the mountains, dropping their cargo as they go. So make sure you have a raincoat while you are there as it is wet much of the time.

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The lush vegetation that results is wild and dense, with a definite prehistoric feeling. There is so much timber washed into the sea that the stony beaches are littered with tonnes of twisted grey driftwood. The glaciers are a must to see. We stayed at Franz Joseph but took the trip to Fox Glacier, which has a good viewing area after a nice walk. This was one place that I was grateful to have the thermos cause it was raining and cold by the time we got back to the car.   * Next week – on to Queenstown

Crocs Rule – Even When You Don’t Know They”re There

The truck rattled and jumped over the patchwork of crusty potholes on the narrow dirt track. Only three months before the vast grassland that stretched out before us was covered by a huge inland sea. Even though it was August and Southern Australia shivered in the clutch of winters icy grip, the sun in the Northern sky was as potent as a furness.
Cattle grazed peacefully on the abundant vegetation, you could easily be excused for thinking you were in the African Savannah. Water Buffalo, native to Asia and complete with giant black horns, viewed the intruders with suspicion.
My father was in his element, he had been given the job of recording all mechanical equipment and parts at an iron ore mine in the Northern Territory. The mine was being liquidated so his job was virtually autonomous, no one telling him what to do. A Londoner by birth he had taken to life in the tropics like a pig to mud. His pale white Anglo skin had miraculously turned the colour of tanned leather with in weeks of his landing in Australia and it was now impossible to tell by looking at him that he hadn’t always been here.
We were heading to the Mary River to fish for the famous Barramundi, a legendary fish in size and flavour. I had never seen landscape or vegetation like it before. I spent many years telling anyone who would listen about this park like paradise that I had seen. Apparently in later times other people felt the same as me and it is now the Mary River National Park.
We spent a great day fishing and exploring the river bank. Dad and his mate caught some unbelievable fish so it was well worth the trip.
Latter in the day my friend and I wandered further along the bank following the paths that I now know had been made by the cattle. We reached a place where the bank dropped to a low muddy tributary. The trees changed, instead of being tall and majestic they became low and tangled. Taking a moment to decide if we were going further the decision was taken out of our hands, a sound I had never heard before froze me to the bone. A blood curdling, deep, rumbling, growl began.
It may seem strange now that I didn’t know what it was or that we didn’t even think that there were salt water crocodiles in the river but the fact is they had been hunted to almost extinction by the mid 70’s. Steve Irwin was a kid like me and his famous cry “Crocs Rule” was an ungerminated seed in his brain.

Even though I hadn’t realised before that there may be crocs in the river, it only took me a moment to realise what that sound was and we ran back to our fathers as if our lives depended on it, which they probably did. The funny things was  I had actually asked earlier in the day if I could go for a swim and been told yes. I’m sure my father wasn’t trying to get rid of me.

These days crocs are known to inhabit most of the Northern Territory waterways but back then most people barely gave them a thoughts, how times change.

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