Bay of Islands and beyond

I had been a little remiss in organising accommodation for our next leg so was pleased that I was able to get a last-minute deal for a place called the Outrigger Motel in Paihia. Paihia is about 220km north of Auckland on New Zealand’s east coast, and it’s something of a tourist hotspot during the peak summer season but it was getting quieter by the time we arrived in early March.

The motel turned out to be in a perfect spot for us, just a block and a half away from the main pier from which all the marine activities take place. We were booked here for four nights so, on arrival, we planned out our activities for our stay. We wanted to get up to the country’s northernmost point at Cape Reinga. This was another 200km further north than Paihia so we thought it best to book a tour and let someone else do the driving. We also wanted to take the opportunity to dive while we were here before we forget everything we learned when training at Cairns. Luckily, there was a dive shop about 20m from the motel so we decided to walk down and get ourselves organised for the next couple of days.

First stop was Paihia Dive where we were able to get two spots on Friday’s trip. We would be reef diving while some of the other people on the boat would be wreck diving HMNZS Canterbury, a New Zealand Navy frigate that was decommissioned in 2005 and scuttled in the Bay of Islands to serve as a dive wreck in 2007. The top of the ship is at a depth of 19m and, since we’re certified to a maximum depth of 18m, it wasn’t an option for us. We booked ourselves in for two reef dives then moved on to the tourist office on the pier.

The bus trip to Cape Reinga set out the following morning at 8:00am and would include a drive on Ninety Mile Beach (not actually 90 miles long), and sand tobogganing. Also, it would cost NZD 150 each. We decided that this was too expensive for what we wanted and the extra activities were just padding to justify the cost, so we decided to make the trip independently.

So it was that we were up early on Thursday morning and into the car for the drive north. As usual, we made a couple of stops en route at look out spots but didn’t linger, making steady progress towards our destination. Eventually, we arrived at Cape Reinga and took a walk out towards the lighthouse. It was very reminiscent of our visit to the Cape of Good Hope, lighthouse and all.


And there’s no reason why they should be different, since they’re only 5 miles apart, north to south, with Cape Reinga being the more southerly. It surprised me to learn how far south New Zealand is, or how far north the whole of Africa is. I’m not sure which.

We also saw here the two currents meeting each other just like in South Africa, although here it’s the meeting of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea.


This is also the most spiritual place in New Zealand for the Maori culture. It is the point from which spirits make their last journey after death, over to the islands just offshore before returning to the land of their ancestors.

After our visit, we got back in the car and headed south again. The journey was uneventful, with the one notable point being a stop for ice cream which was made by crushing frozen fruit into the ice cream and forcing it out of a Mr. Whippy type of ice cream machine. I had pineapple and Ishbel had boysenberry, both of which were delicious. I would recommend the place but it was just a roadside hut and I have no idea where it was. After the long drive we chilled out in the evening, knowing we had an early start for the dive the following day.

We were due at the dive shop by 07:45 to get fitted for the necessary gear then made our way down to our boat, The Sentinel. There were about 12 divers with two-thirds of them doing the wreck dive and the other four of us doing the reef. There were also two snorkelers and a honeymoon couple from New York doing a discover diving course.  We anchored over the wreck first. If you’re doing more than one dive in a day, it’s important that each subsequent dive is scheduled to be less deep than the previous one, due to the build up of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream. Consequently, the wreck divers went out first, since they could be going down as deep as 25m.

Once they were gone, the reef divers had the chance to get into our gear. We were going from wearing dive skins (0mm) back in Australia to 7mm wetsuits here in New Zealand. This thickness is recommended for very cold water, but the water was 25°C here, so we declined the offer of a full hood and gloves as well.

Once the wreck divers were back on board, the boat shifted to be closer to the reef in shallower water. They took a quick photo of us just before we got into the water.


I think the divemasters on board – Luke, in this case – take great delight in photobombing the divers. We had a lovely dive at this spot with an abundance of fish around and we also saw two rays: one manta and one sting.

After we were back on board, the boat moved over to an island called Putahataha, where our dive would take us along a reef wall around the tip of the island, and into an underwater cave.


Again, there were a lot of fish around. I particularly enjoyed being accompanied for a while by this little fellow…


…a Sandager’s Wrasse, who swam along beside my head, keeping pace with me. Apparently, they love divers stirring up potential food for them. I suspect he picked me out as being the least elegant of the divers on the trip and therefore most likely to do the maximum amount of stirring up.

I was a little nervous about the cave thing. It’s all very well strolling into a cave at ground level but the underwater element added a little more of a frisson. This may well explain why I got low on air before the others in the group, so I headed back with Divemaster Luke while Ishbel and an American chap called John buddied up and continued their dive. I was back on board and dried off by the time the rest of them got to the surface. Which I was pleased about since both the current and the wind had increased subsequently, which meant the boat had to move before they could let the other divers approach and get out. We moved and anchored and beckoned the divers over. As they were swimming towards us, things got lively again and the boat had to change position once more. Ishbel later told me that she thought we were having a joke at their expense as they all swam to the spot where the boat wasn’t and looked up to see the skipper inviting them over to the new position. We managed to hold that position and get most of them out of the water, but a further shift was required before we finally got everyone on board. After that, we headed back to harbour.

I would comment on Paihia Dive that their rental equipment was better than the stuff we had learned in. Instead of the slip-on shoe integrated fins, they had dive boots and pull on fins which were much more comfortable. Also, the BCD’s had integrated weights, which are a lot more comfortable than the weight belts we used in our training course and make getting out of the water a lot easier. So kudos to those guys.

We got back to the motel and washed off the salt water from ourselves and our gear, then decided on a slow stroll towards dinner. We ate in a nice little place called Alfresco’s where the food was good and the wine was reasonable. We had a bottle of The Landing, which is produced in Russell, right across the bay from Paihia.

We then took a leisurely walk back to the motel. Except we saw a sign announcing live music tonight at the ex-servicemen’s club. The night was still young, so we decided to take a look and see what it had on offer. We arrived and, not all that surprisingly, the live music consisted of a lady singing, a gent on guitar, and a drum machine. They were playing what you would expect them to be playing, Boney M classics, songs that people could line dance to, and the kind of fare you’d expect to hear at most weddings. Except, the lady then took a break from singing leaving the gent to his own devices. I couldn’t help it: I had Ishbel up on the floor and dancing to a range of old rock and roll classics, and some lesser known tunes that I was surprised to hear. Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee, followed by Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues might have been expected. But I was surprised to hear a version of Big Joe Turner’s classic Flip Flop and Fly. The locals appeared to enjoy my *ahem* uninhibited approach to dance and I was delighted to entertain them.

Sadly, all this fun music delayed our departure and I may have had one beer more than I should have done. Depart, we eventually did and went to bed that night facing the brutal reality that we were booked to go kayaking to Haruru falls the following morning. At least we had a 10am start, so not as bad as it might have been.

We both felt surprisingly chipper the following morning and a nice breakfast had us ready to face the kayaking challenge. We presented ourselves at the boat promptly and our skipper, Ben, set off sharp at 10am. We had waited to see if anyone else showed up but they didn’t so we were in the fortunate position of enjoying a private tour. The boat headed across the bay in front of Paihia and into the Waitangi River where we anchored and ventured into the kayaks. I’d never done this before so had no idea what to expect. The first thing I should have expected was a cold behind, since these things are designed to float low in the water and let in through some little holes in the sides. The good news was that it was a warm, sunny day, so the discomfort wasn’t too bad and the water trapped there warmed up fairly quickly.


Ben seemed content that, between us, Ishbel and I would be able to paddle our kayak from A to B as necessary and off we set. We had a couple of stops en route to the falls, stopping to look at an old, man-made river inlet that had been made by the Maori people to serve as a dry dock. The river is still tidal up until the falls, so the inlet would fill at high water, when they could float in the canoes they wanted to work on, then empty as the tide went out. We also took a look at some mangroves then carried on to the falls.

By this time, I was ready to turn around and head back to the boat. You sit at an odd angle in these kayaks and the paddling was playing merry hell with my much under-used stomach muscles. It was fun, but I’d had enough. Back to the boat we went and safely made it back on board.

We headed back to the harbour and thanked Ben for providing the private tour, then we headed to the motel to dry out a bit. One last dinner on Saturday evening and our Paihia stay was over. Sunday, it was time to head back to Auckland for one last day before saying goodbye to New Zealand.

New Zealand’s Oldest City

We took our leave of Manapouri on Saturday and set out on the 300km drive to Dunedin. In New Zealand, a town officially became a city when its population reached 20,000. Dunedin breached that threshold in 1865, three years before Christchurch and six before Auckland, making it the country’s oldest city. The city enjoyed(?) a major influx of Scots in the mid-19th century in an expedition sponsored by the Free Church of Scotland it and derives its name from the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh. In fact it was originally going to be called New Edinburgh but the city fathers preferred Dunedin. After the Scottish immigration, gold was discovered nearby in 1861 and it was the associated population boom that pushed Dunedin to 20,000 people and cityhood.

This was to be our last stop on the South Island and we had a couple of things we wanted to see here. First was the colony of Royal Albatrosses that nest out on Taiaora Head on the Otago Peninsula. We made good time on our long drive and drove straight out to the Royal Albatross Centre to get booked in for an official tour. We were lucky enough to see not only a couple of the chicks who hadn’t yet fledged but also some adults returning from feeding expeditions.


I was surprised to learn that these graceful, elegant birds weigh around 7kg, and make very ungainly landings.

As part of the Centre’s tracking program, they put steel rings on the legs of the chicks at this stage before they leave the nest, but add coloured identification rings only when they return. I questioned the wisdom of this since I thought it would be easier to catch a young albatross before it could fly. The guide told us that when they leave the nest in New Zealand they spend 5 years on the wing or on the water. When they get back to Dunedin, it’s the first time they’ve been on land in all that time and they have what she described as “severe jelly legs”, making it easy to catch them and put on their identification rings.

After our highly educational tour, we went for a short stroll along the headland and spotted a group of fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks below. To be honest, I’d been looking at them a little while before I realised what I was looking at. Can you spot all nine in this picture?


Having enjoyed a healthy portion of fresh air, we made our way to our AirBnB stop for the night and had a quiet evening. The following morning, we were packed and ready for our flight to Auckland but still had a couple of hours to spare. We decided to use our time taking a look at Dunedin’s centre.

We strolled around the city’s streets, which are laid out around a central octagon, called The Octagon. The city’s layout had, apparently, been planned from Scotland during the first expedition, with no attention paid to the hilly landscape. This meant that the vision on a two dimensional map doesn’t quite translate on to the contours, one impact of which is that the town contains the steepest street in the world – Baldwin St.

We took a look at the Renaissance Revival masterpiece that is the railway station.


This construction earned for its architect, George Troup, the nickname Gingerbread George. The interior is full of decorative elements that reflect the design aesthetic of the time and has a preponderance of ceramic tiles from floor to ceiling.


After seeing the town from street level, we drove up to Signal Hill to get a look at it from above.


As we looked at the town and tried to identify what we could see by comparing it to points on a map, I was struck by just how many Edinburgh associated names have been used for different suburbs: Musselburgh, Portobello, Leith, Corstorphine and Calton Hill all appear, and I’m sure there are many more. The Scottish influence and fraternal relationship continues.


We finished our Dunedin reverie and headed for the airport, dropping off our trusty Rav4 at the Thrifty desk before checking in for the Air NZ Auckland flight. Once again, everything went smoothly and we took off and landed on time.

We retrieved the one checked bag we had and headed for a shuttle bus to our car hire provider here: Ezi Car Rental. I was a little nervous as I’d never used this company before but I needn’t have worried. The pickup worked fine and we were processed quickly at the rental centre and were, once again, back in a white Toyota Rav4 for the next part of the journey.

The first task we had was to get to the Luggage Hotel to pick up the suitcase and instruments we had left with them the previous week. We phoned ahead and the gear was waiting for us when we arrived. Then we were off to Whangaparaoa, just north of Auckland for our next AirBnB. The reason we chose this town was that Ishbel’s sister’s husband’s sister and her husband live there. For convenience, I’m going to refer to them as Wynn and Linton as I’m not typing all that out again.

The evening was wearing on by the time we got there, so we checked into our AirBnB then just grabbed some takeaway food which we ate up at their house. They have a lovely view over the bay and we sat out on the terrace and relaxed while we ate and made plans for the following day.

We were going to take Linton’s boat over to Tiritiri Matangi, an island in the bay from which all introduced mammalian predators have been eradicated and that is now home to a number of New Zealand’s endangered species. We agreed a start time and called it a night.

The following morning dawned bright and breezy. The breezy part was a concern. Landing at Tiritiri Matanga would be problematic if the wind didn’t either abate or shift. Even if it shifted, it might shift back after we landed and leave us stranded ashore. The decision was taken to sail out there and make a decision closer to the island.


We sailed out in this 12m yacht and, once the sailors on board (of which I am not one) assessed the situation, the decision was made not to attempt a landing on the island. We chose instead to sail across the bay and anchor for a while to have lunch. And very pleasant it was too. We had killed the diesels and were travelling under sail only, which was very peaceful. We returned to harbour using wind power as well, only starting the engines again to manoeuvre back into the berth.

While it was slightly disappointing not to have landed on the island, we knew it was the right decision for the conditions and we had an excellent day on board in any case. For the evening, we headed back up to their place for dinner and relaxed as the sun went down over the water.

We had a lovely time in Whangaparao, but the following morning it was time for Ishbel and I once again to strike out on our own. We would be saying goodbye to family and driving due north.


Highway 6 Revisited

Today’s title is adapted from the famous Bob Dylan album, Highway 61 Revisited.  Highway 6 is the road that runs down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island and we were back on it this morning as we set off for our next stop in Manapouri. We had decided to take a look at Queenstown on the way past as well. When she was here as a young woman, Ishbel chose her 21st birthday present here. It was a seascape painted by a New Zealand artist named Mark Thomas. She wanted to see if she could track down the gallery and maybe find out what that artist was up to these days.

There are two suggested routes: the easy one, which carries on along Highway 6, or what we’ll call the fun one: the Crown Range Road. This is the highest main road in New Zealand, peaking at 1121 metres as it traverses the Crown Range. The ascent and descent are full of hairpin bends and the locals are not averse to sharing both lanes as they go round bends, so it pays to stay alert. It’s worth taking this road for the spectacular views all the way along the route but particularly at the top of the pass.


It’s always interesting when you’re looking down on an aeroplane. This is an Air NZ flight descending through the valley to land at Queenstown. This wasn’t the only flying object that Ishbel managed to capture while we were there.


This New Zealand Falcon happened by while she had her camera out.

After having our cobwebs blown away at the viewpoint, we got back into the car and headed for Queenstown. We re-joined Highway 6 and were on a straight route into the town, until we passed Wet Jacket Wines, which offered not only wine tastings, but cheese tastings too. Unable to resist, we pulled into the car park and signed up for both. The cheese was all locally made and we bought a cheddar and a blue to have after dinner that evening. The wines were also local, but we didn’t buy any. They were nice, but the biggest red wine production in NZ is Pinot Noir, and I’m not a huge fan of that grape. My tastes are too crude, I guess. One other attraction they had at the place was a reconstruction of an old wool shed, which brought back childhood memories for our brother-in-law as he recalled the same tools being used on the farm on which he grew up.


After this stroll down memory lane, it was back in the car and on to Queenstown. The town was very full when we got there but we managed to bag a parking spot just next to the main library, so it was easy to walk everywhere we wanted to go. Our first target was the Skyline, which claims to be the steepest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, rising 450 metres to the top of the imaginatively named Bob’s Peak.

This was always going to be an interesting exercise as neither Ishbel nor her sister are particularly fond of heights. They decided to sit together facing the upward slope, which meant we got excellent views back down over the valley and lake as we ascended. Their view improved about halfway up when they opened their eyes.

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We declined the add-on activities that were available at the top – bungee jumping or taking a wheeled luge down a concrete ramp – for fear of invalidating our travel insurance. Instead, we had a nice, sedate coffee then went back down the hill.

We took a stroll around town and located the gallery where Ishbel acquired her painting all those years ago. They had some recent works by the same artist available but his style has changed considerably since then and his current oeuvre didn’t strike a chord with her. We wandered through a street market, and some musicians entertaining the cafe crowd that thronged the centre but didn’t find anything to detain us further so headed back to the car and, once again revisited Highway 6. We still had 170km to go before we reached our next AirBnB at Manapouri, so it was time to be on the move.

We were unsure how big or well stocked the shops in Manapouri might be, so we took our first opportunity to stop off and buy provisions for the evening meal. We bought some food but, more importantly, spotted an appropriate beer. Monteith’s brewery is in Greymouth, where we alighted from our train a couple of days ago, and they produce an IPA called Highway 6. It was fate – we had to have some.

We arrived at our “Crib” and settled in. I’m not trying to be gangsta. In the South Island, a crib is a holiday home. Once again, we had lucked out with views over the Waiau River which feeds Lake Manapouri – one of the deepest lakes in New Zealand being over 450m at its deepest point.


After dinner and a taste of the delicious beer, it was time for bed. We had to be up early the following morning as we had booked a tour to Milford Sound. This is the place that 90% of people will recommend if you tell them you are visiting the South Island, so we were looking forward to the trip. We had decided to take the organised tour as it was a long drive there and back so we wanted to let someone else take the strain.

We were organised and ready to go dead on time the following morning. The tour started from Te Anu, a 20 minute drive away, so we set off as soon as we were ready, parked up near the pick up point, and had breakfast at a nearby cafe. The drive across had been quite foggy, but the forecast was for that to burn off as the day warmed up.

We got on the bus and set off, with everyone having a quiet time except the driver and guide, both of whom were very knowledgeable about the landscape through which we were travelling and very entertaining. We made a brief stop on the journey and the mist hadn’t quite cleared yet.


As we got back on the bus, I noticed the lady who was sitting across the aisle from Ishbel and me. I wasn’t sure and obviously looked too intently at her as she started to appear quite concerned at my scrutiny but I eventually decided I was right and addressed her by name. She looked surprised but when I told her my name, she recognised me. My beard had grown since we last met, but she was a former colleague from my last place of work. The world is a small place.

But the main object of the day was to get to Milford Sound and enjoy our boat journey. We made it just on time for our scheduled 10:30 departure and boarded the Milford Mariner.


We set out on the sound, which is actually not a sound (apparently) but a fjord. The inlet is narrow and surrounded by towering peaks that plunge down into the water on both sides.

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As we cruised along, we passed several waterfalls, with the flow from some of them creating dazzling sea level rainbows.

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From others, the water simply cascaded noisily down.


We were lucky enough to have a beautiful sunny day at Milford Sound, which is the first place I’ve ever been where I was told we should come back when it’s raining. In the rain, waterfalls appear from every mountainside and vast quantities of water flow down into the sea. I was happy with what we got and with staying dry.

We once again saw dolphins and, once again, they remained too elusive to get a really good photo. They move too fast and pop up in unexpected places. These are not criticisms one can levy at the Fur Seals, who are content to remain in one place and offer up photogenic poses.


We returned to dock and made our way back to the bus. After our early start and long day, it was a quieter journey back to Te Anu. We collected our car and returned to Manapouri. The weather was still lovely when we returned so we took a stroll around the town and stopped by the local pub for a drink before dinner. It was Saturday night and they had pulled out all the stops for entertainment.  The local Young Farmers had organised a “Bark Off” where contestants were to bring along their dogs and their barks would be judged against their peers (pee-ers?) for the chance to win a range of prizes. Sadly, we found we had to leave before the competition got into full swing, but we did have the chance to scratch behind the ears of some of the contestants. And their dogs.

The road trip was now almost over. Our last night in Manapouri then we were off to the bustling metropolis of Dunedin.


Taking the right path to Anaka’s place

Thursday was scheduled to be a busy day. We were driving from Hokitika (meaning: “Take the right path”) to Wanaka (a corruption of Oanaka, or the place of Anaka).  This was to be the longest leg of our west coast journey, covering 419km with a Google Maps estimated journey time of five and a half hours. Road travel takes longer in New Zealand. So much so that I’m starting to suspect they’re lying about the mileages.

Apart from the travel time, we wanted to visit at least one of the glaciers that we would be driving past: Franz Josef or Fox. We also wanted to be able to stop for a stroll or to enjoy the view as we went. Also, we had heard that a slip had occurred on the road, meaning a huge chunk of the hillside – rock, soil, trees and other vegetation – had fallen down on to the road, so it was open only for a ten minute window on the hour every hour.

Coping with these complexities meant another reasonably early start, although not as early as Ishbel chose. She was up very early and shooting atmospheric photos across our back yard river.

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A nice view to wake up to.

As we passed through Hokitika town the previous evening, I’d noticed a sign announcing the National Kiwi Centre. I didn’t want to come to New Zealand and not see a kiwi, and the chances of observing one in the wild are vanishingly small, so I wanted to pop in here and observe the symbol of all things New Zealand. Everyone else agreed to indulge me, which was nice of them, so after packing up we headed in to town and paid our entrance fee. As luck would have it, the Kiwis are scheduled to be fed at 10:15am, just after the giant eels are fed at 10am. We decided to take in both experiences.

When the curator offered the opportunity to visitors to assist with the feeding, Ishbel and her sister were first in line.

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They may not be easy to see in this photo, but these long finned eels are well over 2m long and allow themselves to be stroked.

After the eels, we were able to see the kiwis. As nocturnal animals, they are kept in near darkness so no photos of them, but it was lovely to see them digging around for food in the topsoil.

After a quick look at the remains of the driftwood sculpture exhibition that ended the previous week…


…we were back in the car and headed due south along the coast. We had cleverly calculated our journey to arrive at the point of the landslip just five minutes before the hour so we would be able to keep moving efficiently. Sadly, roadworks in New Zealand are as unpredictable as they are anywhere else, and we all had plenty of time to stretch our legs and get a breath of air before the road eventually opened for us a half-hour later than scheduled.


We stopped in a couple of places for a look out over the sea but then started the steady climb up to Franz Josef Glacier. I was surprised to learn that the local town was called Franz Josef Glacier, having grown up around the tourist traffic attracted by the ice. We parked up and took the walk to the closest point where tourists are currently permitted, about 750m away. Along the walk, there are various signs indicating where the edge of the glacier had been at various points over the past 100 or so years. It has receded an enormous distance as a direct result of climate change.


Back in the car, we set off again for Wanaka. Time was getting on, so we wanted to get to our destination by this time. We did stop off at one more viewpoint and encountered New Zealand’s answer to the Scottish midge: Sandflies. They are quite a bit bigger, but no less voracious than our Caledonian bloodsuckers. Once we realised that we were under attack, we hopped back into the car and set off down the road again. I spotted one that had stowed away on board and managed to swat it, leaving a smear of what was probably my own blood on the dashboard.

We eventually made it to Wanaka and had a rudimentary dinner, thanks to our rudimentary kitchen. This was the first place we had stayed where it seemed clear that the owner was using the space as a money making business rather than being a “host” in the more usual sense of the word. It did the job, and we were once again early to bed, not having seen anything of Wanaka. The following day, we were scheduled to drive to Manapouri, via Queenstown which was another three hour drive but we didn’t want to leave without having seen anything of Wanaka.

We drove down to the shore of Lake Wanaka which, even at this time of the morning, was buzzing with watersports activity. However, the activity that fascinated us was happening just under the short pier. Having seen the eels in captivity yesterday, we were delighted to see the wild version of these creatures gathered en masse. I’ll admit that I did buy a bag of eel food for them (which was just overpriced dry cat food, I suspect) and threw it into the water, creating a feeding frenzy.


Ducks and gulls joined in when they realised there was a free meal available. That ended our brief stay in Wanaka, and we set off on the next leg of our journey.

Tranz Alpine Express – I see what you did there

We were booked on the train from Christchurch to Greymouth on Wednesday morning. The ‘Z’ annoys me. Yes, I know it’s New Zealand but…just don’t. Moving on…

The train was due to leave Christchurch at 8:15am and they want you there 30 minutes before departure. With AirBnBs, we’ve discovered that the rate determining step on how quickly you can get people on the move is bathroom and shower access. Invariably (so far) there’s only one, so an early start means an even earlier start to make sure everybody can get cleaned up before departure. We overcompensated on this occasion and were at the station by 7:25. The train is set up for this specific journey which means there is negligible luggage space in the passenger carriages so suitcases need to be loaded in the allocated luggage car at the rear of the train.

IMG_3153 We had already established that the train had a restaurant car. It was in carriage C, so we were delighted to discover that our seats were at the rear of carriage D. Handy for the cups of tea necessary for a four hour journey.


The journey offers spectacular views of the Southern Alps, and of the striated rivers that cut through the mountains. IMG_3203 2

The train winds its way up to its highest point at Arthur’s Pass, 737m above sea level and VERY windswept.


While it may be windswept, at least it was dry while we were there. That can’t be said of a couple of other settlements that we passed through. I’m reluctant to call them towns as they are really only a few houses clustered round the railway line with the occasional outlying farm. The on-board commentary that the annual rainfall in some of these places is over 5 metres. That’s five times more rain than Glasgow. By any reckoning, that’s a lot of rain.

Eventually, we descended into Greymouth where we had booked a rental car. Having witnessed the volume of bags that had been loaded onto the train in the morning, my guess was that most people would be leaving the train here and not taking the return journey. I deduced that this would also mean that most people would be picking up rental cars at the station, so devised a plan that allowed the ladies to go and pick up the bags (like a true renaissance man) while the gents rushed to the rental counter to beat the crowds, show our licenses, and be the designated drivers for the rest of the trip (slightly less renaissance man).


Anyway, it worked. We were first at the Thrifty counter to pick up our Toyota Rav4 and by the time we had finished, the queue behind us snaked out of the station building and back along the platform.

We skipped off gleefully to assist the ladies with the bags then loaded the car. Our first stop on the road trip was south in Hokitika, but we had decided to head north to see the pancake rocks. Although it’s my first time in NZ, all three of my travelling companions know it to a greater or lesser extent. Ishbel spent some time here nearly 40 years ago visiting her sister, who lived here for over 12 years and married a New Zealander. There was a lot of local knowledge for me to tap into, which was hugely helpful in defining our itinerary.

We drove out of Greymouth in the rain, and arrived at Punakaiki in the rain. It was wet today. The pancake rocks are an interesting limestone formation that it would have been delightful spending some time at. If it were drier.

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After the pancake rocks, we set off south, back through Greymouth and onward to Hokitika. As we drove, the cloud lifted and the sun started to push through. It was sunny again.

IMG_3521By the time we arrived in Hokitika, the sun was shining and it was getting warm. We had a brief stroll around town and did a quick grocery shopping for essential supplies and dinner, then headed out to our AirBnB. This turned out to be a lovely place on the riverbank.

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Also, our host had left us 8 eggs laid by his hens, fresh grapes grown in his garden, and a still warm loaf of home-baked bread. So often, it’s the little things that make a difference.


Christchurch after the quake

We hadn’t appreciated that our arrival in Christchurch, on February 25th, was so close to the anniversary of the 22nd February 2011 earthquake that devastated the city. Eight years on, there are still plenty of visible scars here in what is recognised as the most English of New Zealand’s cities.

On arriving at the airport, Ishbel identified a bus we could get to our AirBnB. We weren’t exactly slap bang in the city centre, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that we had a public transport connection available. We hopped on the bus, paid our fares, and high-fived the driver. He was a young Indian guy who seemed to enjoy getting, or at least attempting to get, a high-five from all of his passengers. We had a chat with him before the bus set off and discovered that he was from the Punjab region of India. We told him that, coincidentally, the drivers of the two taxis we took when we were in Auckland were both from the Punjab. He seemed unfazed by this coincidence. “Punjabis like to drive,” was his philosophical response.

We were safely delivered to a bus stop just round the corner from our AirBnB. We easily found the house and recovered the keys from the lockbox then made ourselves at home. I had discovered that the local casino hosted a poker tournament on Monday evenings. But not a run-of-the-mill Texas hold ’em tournament but Pot Limit Omaha, or PLO as it is known to aficionados. This is a game that I play but Ishbel doesn’t, so we would be going our separate ways after dinner. The casino was about halfway to town from the AirBnB so we headed out for a look at the city, walking down the riverside for a bit before changing direction to get a look at Christchurch’s centre.

There is, as you would expect, a lot of recent construction replacing the structures lost in the earthquake. But there’s also a fair amount that survived.


As we wandered on, we noticed tram lines on the road and, shortly thereafter, a tram. Ishbel was keen to have a go on one so we duly paid our $25 fares (tourist prices for a hop-on, hop-off service) and saw a little more of the city from the comfort of a museum piece.

IMG_2916We hopped off down by the riverfront just after seeing the damage sustained by St. Paul’s Cathedral.

IMG_2898It would appear that this particular structure is a long way from being restored to its pre-earthquake splendour.

We grabbed an early dinner then went our separate ways. I strolled off to the casino for my PLO tournament while Ishbel hopped back on to the tram for a jaunt around the rest of its route. She enjoyed a visit to the local Botanic Gardens, as tradition now insists, and I had quite a decent run in the tournament. They attracted 28 players and 14 of those bought in twice, which boosted the prize pool. I lasted a long time in the tournament. They were only paying three people and I went out in fifth place after my nut flush/straight flush draw was called by two pair with a second nut flush draw. My nut flush hit, but unfortunately the board paired, giving the villain a full house and knocking me out just short of the money.  If you don’t play poker, none of that will make sense but don’t worry. Most of the poker talk will wait until our Vegas arrival in June.

After I bust, I walked back to the AirBnB and called it a night. The next day, Ishbel’s sister and brother-in-law were joining us in Christchurch for our extended NZ South Island tour. We had some time in the morning before they arrived so we put it to good use by heading over to the Christchurch Gondola, a cable car that ascends Mount Cavendish and affords wonderful views over the city.


The family’s flight from Brisbane arrived dead on time and they, too, used the bus to get to our place. We met them at the bus stop and, after settling them in the house, we went strolling once again into Christchurch where Ishbel was part qualified as a tour guide thanks to her attentive listening on her tram rides of the previous day. After seeing the city, we headed back for dinner and an early night. We had an early start the next day and didn’t want to oversleep.


Unillustrated Auckland

Saturday, 23rd February saw us take flight once again. We were flying Qantas to Auckland. This would be our 8th stop of the 15 permitted on our RTW ticket, so a halfway point in a sense.

There was a little excitement in the air as we arrived in New Zealand because, as luck would have it, our initial brief stay in Auckland coincided with a decent size poker tournament with a NZD 500 buy in, which is around GBP 250. This was a single day tournament so it fitted perfectly with our schedule. We were planning only two nights in Auckland before flying south to Christchurch as part of our extensive tour of New Zealand.

The SkyCity Casino was hosting the tournament so, for convenience, we stayed at the SkyCity Grand Hotel.  We arrived in the early evening so didn’t get much chance to explore the city. The one sight we did see, since it was slap bang between the hotel and casino, was the Sky Tower.


This is yet another tower built on exactly the same lines as the Stratosphere in Vegas and the Macau tower which we photographed back in January. We made it our mission to find out who was first.

The Macau Tower was completed in 2001 and is 338m high. Auckland’s Sky Tower was completed in 1997 and is 328m high. The Stratosphere Tower was completed first, in 1996 and is the tallest, at 350.2m. I’m sure that will settle lots of arguments around family dinner tables.

We called it a night at this point – there’s only so much excitement we can handle – and rested ourselves in preparation for Sunday’s tournament.

We had breakfast in a place just next door to our hotel – and across the road from the casino’s front door – called the Federal Deli, which was delicious. We registered promptly for the 12:30pm start and, like so many tournaments, it started a half hour late. Also in common with many tournaments, I busted out early and it was left to Ishbel to fly the flag for Scotland. There were 70 entries in the end and a five figure sum was on offer for the eventual winner. They were paying only 8 places in the tournament, so Ishbel was disappointed to eventually bust out of the tournament in 11th place.

After she finished, we had a late dinner and since we’d enjoyed breakfast there so much, we went back to the Federal Deli again.

So almost all of our Auckland activity took place in one small street in the centre of town. And that’s why this post is mostly unillustrated.

The following morning we re-packed our gear and stowed a suitcase and both instruments at a storage facility called The Luggage Hotel. We would be moving around a lot for the next week or so and decided to travel light.  Then it was off to the airport for a budget one-way flight to Christchurch. Ishbel’s camera should be back in action for the rest of the trip.

Melbourne’s terrifying riverside

After leaving the Great Ocean Road, we arrived in Melbourne just before rush hour on Wednesday, 20th February. Our home for the next three nights was an AirBnB on the 15th floor of a modern block of flats in the Southbank area. We collected our keys from an external lockbox, attached to a particular lamp post to whose location we had received detailed directions. All very dead letter drop tradecraft. We then transported our luggage up to the apartment. Luckily, the flat had indoor private parking and a lift so the move-in process was easy. We had spectacular views from our small balcony, with what was probably the less glamorous perspective, looking away from the city, out over the motorway and towards the sea.


After getting settled in the apartment, we headed out to see a little of the city and do a little shopping for essentials – tea and milk being essentials for us. We walked up to the Yarra, the river that runs through the centre of the city and which has been recently redeveloped into a vibrant riverfront leisure area, with broad walkways and numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. When I say broad walkways, the routes are actually shared cycle/pedestrian paths. Prominent signs beseech cyclists to ride slowly, but these imprecations are ignored by many who seem eager to use pedestrians as obstacles on a slalom course. The rate of travel chosen by many of them is really quite disturbing. Apparently, Melbourne hasn’t had a cyclist-related pedestrian death since 2006, but numerous serious injuries have occurred.

You’ll be pleased to hear we survived our riverside walk, and Ishbel even managed to get a photo of a black-crowned night heron perched quite casually on a small dock.


Overcome with the excitement of this sighting, and tired from the full on travel of the last couple of days, we dined at home and had an early night.

Thursday saw us up early and attacking the day. Research had alerted us to the fact that Melbourne offered free public transport within the centre of the city and, in fact, had a free tourist tram that circled the city.


This was a bargain not to be missed so we walked from our flat across to the north side of the river and past Melbourne’s art nouveau masterpiece: Flinders St Railway Station.

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From here, we were able to catch the tram and see quite a bit of the city centre. I was keeping an eye open for a barber as I decided I needed another all over head trim. When I eventually found one, it was in a department store so almost certainly overpriced.

We visited a number of the tourist sites, including Melbourne Gaol. This was a fascinating visit since, as well as covering the history of the building and the legal structures that prevailed at various times in Victoria’s history, a number of cells included background stories of former inmates, the most famous/notorious of whom was Ned Kelly.


Having read these tales of hardship and misfortune, I’m surprised that so many people decided that a life in the New World was a path to fortune. I’m absolutely shocked that any women ever chose to migrate since they in particular seemed condemned to live life on a precarious knife-edge between meagre subsistence and utter ruin. Who knows what life in their home country must have been like when this was seen as a better option.

Sobered by the gaol experience, we headed back to the flat to freshen up before our evening adventure. Our host from Adelaide, A, was in Melbourne on business while, coincidentally, his son was also there as part of his graduate training course, so we met up with both of them in the evening for a couple of drinks and a catch up.

Friday started slowly. But, then again, we were in no rush. Our Friday activity had been planned in advance: we had booked the VIP visit to see the Little Penguins on Phillip Island.  This was a two hour drive from Melbourne, and the penguins generally start coming ashore at dusk. Our ticket was for a tour starting at 8pm, but we wanted to have a leisurely drive down there and stop in a couple of places on the way. We set off just after noon and cruised down the road a way.

We decided to stop first at Bassine Specialty Cheeses for a tasting, We had passed a couple of wineries, but Ishbel wasn’t keen on them and I didn’t want to drink anything as there was a long day of driving ahead so cheese seemed like a good alternative. They had some lovely locally made cheeses available for tasting, and a spectacular cheesecake which we enjoyed with a coffee. After this we continued on the road. And quickly encountered a road block where Australia’s finest were performing random breathalyser tests. I was lucky enough to be one of the drivers pulled aside to be tested. I passed, as did all the drivers in our little group and we were quickly on our way again. Let that be a warning to you if you decide to go wine tasting in Victoria without a designated driver.

We carried on to Churchill Island and stopped there for a walk around the nature reserve. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll, until we realised that the bridge back over to the mainland closed at 5pm and by this time it was 4:45, so we increased our pace and made it safely back on to our route. We decided that we would stop for dinner in the next large settlement which turned out to be a town called Cowes. We ate in an Italian restaurant there which was quiet when we arrived but shortly afterward started getting very busy. First, there was a load of people in Kawasaki gear showed up. Then a bunch of people dressed in Yamaha branded clothing. Then a group in Honda garb.

We then realised why we had seen so many motorbikes on the road – and possibly why the cops had their breathalyser roadblock in place this weekend. It transpired that this weekend was Round One of the World Superbike Championship, and it was taking place at the Grand Prix circuit in Phillip Island. Who knew? Everybody who wasn’t excited about seeing penguins, apparently.

We finished our dinner and made our way down to the visitor centre where I enjoyed a quick power nap in the car before we headed in for our tour. The problem with the experience is that photography is banned completely. Flash photography can startle, disorientate, or even blind penguins so there used to be a ban on the use of flash. Unfortunately, some people just cannot comply with simple instructions so they have been forced to introduce a blanket ban on photography so it’s impossible to show any photos of the huge numbers of penguins returning from an extended feeding trip waddling across the beach to reach their burrows so they can feed their chicks, or begin the moulting process to renew their feathers. However, we were able to spot one cheeky youngster who was out of his burrow before night fell hoping for a parent to return early and provide a feed.


The penguin experience was excellent, and we had cleverly parked our car close to the exit to allow a rapid getaway at the end to get ourselves back to Melbourne. This was our last night in Australia as the following morning it was time to pack up and make the relatively short hop to New Zealand. A country I would be visiting for the first time and which Ishbel hadn’t set foot in for nearly forty years. Auckland, here we come.

A tale of two lakes

We set off early from Adelaide on Monday morning on our eastward coastal journey to Melbourne. We had taken the direct route on our way across to Adelaide but we had decided to take our time on the way back. Our target for the day was to cover the 460km to Mount Gambier where we had booked a night at the Old Gaol. We were driving the coast road, so turned off the main road at Tailem Bend and made our first stop for breakfast at Meningie, on the shores of Lake Albert.

From there, we struck out for Robe driving along The Coorong, a long coastal lagoon. This route also took us past the Pink Lake – or one of Australia’s many pink lakes. The coloration is the result of…


The lake was looking more dried out than pink when we visited but it certainly wasn’t blue.


After this brief stop, we climbed back into the car and carried on to Robe. I’m glad that we ended up with a Mitsubishi for this long drive, as all of the controls were in the same place as the Outlander we have at home. I had spent a lot of time in South Africa switching on the windscreen wipers every time I wanted to indicate a turn, which resulted in a lot of annoying squeaks and a smeared windscreen.

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The drive to Robe was straightforward and we stopped here for a coffee and a wander around the town. It’s quite historic (for Australia) with many of the buildings over 100 years old. After Robe, we set off on the final leg of today’s journey to Mt Gambier.

Mt. Gambier is…odd. We visited two of its main tourist attractions and they were both odd. I found them simultaneously comforting and unsettling, which is a contradictory reaction but..they were odd.

First stop was the Blue Lake. I approached this with a lowered expectation after the faint pinkness of the Pink Lake earlier in the day. But this was different. This was BLUE.


Despite the day being overcast, the lake was the kind of blue you get in a child’s paintbox. Apparently, it retains the blue colour during the summer months then from March to November reverts to the kind of steely grey colour we’re more used to seeing in British inland lakes.

After the startling discovery of the lake, we went down to put ourselves in gaol. The Old Mt Gambier Gaol was a working prison from 1866 all the way up to 1995. It spent some time as a halfway house before being redeveloped as a hotel. Ishbel and I have stayed in the Malmaison Oxford, which is also an old prison, but very luxurious with only a faint air of its previous use.

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Malmaison, Oxford

The reverse is true of Mount Gambier. Every part of it screams gaol. We had managed to book one of the two double rooms. There are only two of them because most cells are too small for a double bed.

Cell 20, Old Mt Gambier Gaol

In Oxford, they had knocked cells together to create modern hotel room sizes. The reason that some of the Mt Gambier cells were bigger than others?

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We were in Cell 20. If you find yourself in this part of the world, get yourself into gaol.

We had a quiet evening in Mt Gambier, grabbing some fast Mexican food in town and drinking tea in the common room at the gaol before retiring for the evening. The next morning we were tackling the 250km drive to Port Campbell and the start of the Great Ocean Road itself.  But before we left Mt Gambier, there was another attraction we wanted to see. One that looked…odd.

The Umpherston Sinkhole just doesn’t seem like it should exist. It is a sinkhole caused by erosion of the porous limestone that is a feature of the area’s geology. But, in Victorian times, a Mr. Umpherston decided to turn it into a feature garden. And although it fell into disrepair in the middle of the 20th century, it was renovated by volunteers a couple of decades ago and has regained its innate strangeness.


It’s difficult to convey the scale of this place, which is why I am sitting on the bench in the distance. This thing is huge. And lovely. But very strange.

Wine is also red

McLaren Vale is a name with great resonance for anyone who enjoys Australian wines. And our wonderful friends had decided to drive us up to the region for a couple of tastings on Saturday so we could enjoy the local produce to its fullest. Roadworks on the main road out of Adelaide meant we saw quite a bit of the South Australian countryside before arriving at our first stop: Chapel Hill winery.


The gothic windows that feature on the labels are omnipresent at the winery itself. We enjoyed a range of delicious wines here. They charge a nominal amount for the tasting, but waive it if you buy wine, which we did. They had a really nice shiraz so we grabbed some of that.

After Chapel Hill, we moved on to Coriole. This is a name I am less familiar with and I don’t think we see as many of their wines back in the UK, but the winery is a McLaren Vale veteran. They have been growing some interesting grape varieties on the estate so the tasting here was not the usual grape varieties.


They have a farm shop here as well and produce their own olive oil, which is very popular with visitors.

After Coriole, we went on to another winery and a very familiar name: d’Arenberg. I first became aware of their wines many years ago when I discovered a bottle they named “The Custodian”. As I was working for a Global Custodian, it appealed to me, and it tasted pretty good as well.

D’Arenberg has upped the ante on where tastings are hosted with their new building: The Cube.


Tastings are hosted on the top floor of the building. There’s a museum/gallery on the ground floor and a reputedly excellent restaurant on the first. There’s an entry fee here to get in to the gallery and tastings, but it’s reasonable and they were fairly generous with the tastings.


We passed a pleasant time here then headed back downstairs but we had been told that the men’s toilets here were a must-see so stopped off for a look.

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The time had flown by and as we finished at d’Arenberg, it was time to head back to Adelaide for a lovely home-cooked meal and a chat.

Sunday was our last day in the city and we had arranged a couple of activities. First was a drive over to Adelaide port and a trip on the dolphin watching boat that goes out into the harbour. Dolphins are pretty much guaranteed on these trips and we were not disappointed on this occasion. The only problem is that they are out of the water so briefly and you have no idea where they will pop up so it’s difficult to get a photo.


After the boat trip, we took a little stroll around the port area which is undergoing a renovation/gentrification project, then drove over to the Wheatsheaf Hotel where we had tickets for our second Adelaide Fringe Festival event of the weekend: Ukulele Blues Explosion. And if you thought the ukulele was an inappropriate instrument for playing the blues, these guys would put you right.

After all this excitement, we just had time to get back to the house and freshen up before heading out for a farewell dinner at another splendid Adelaide pub: The Colonist. Either Adelaide has a wealth of excellent pubs or our friends are particularly adept at finding them. Or Both.

That was it for Adelaide. Monday was the start of our long drive back to Melbourne using the Great Ocean Road.