Canadian Adventures 5: Jasper National Park Maligne Lake Road

So, this blog is getting written before the end of 2017! This is good news.

We left off at the beautiful Pyramid Island in Jasper National Park. After admiring our beautiful surroundings (our main pastime on this trip), we drove on to find our campsite for the night. The campsite was quite out of the way, but didn’t take too long to get to. The last road before the campsite was partially unsealed and suddenly changed from sealed to unsealed with a sickening thump of the tyres, even if I drove very slowly.

At the campsite, we made dinner, which was, as usual, adequate. We decided to make some noodles, despite worries that we would run out of gas. I kept the gas low to make sure we didn’t use it all, so we had some left for our very important morning coffee (ground coffee brewed in cafetiere – we might have been living in a car, but we didn’t become complete savages)! Because of my conservative cooking method, it took what is technically known as f*cking ages for the noodles to cook. Meaning that when I accidentally knocked the pan off the tiny stove and spilled the finally-cooked noodles onto the floor, it was especially devastating.

Life goes on.

We made up for this loss by drinking some Kracken rum. See – not total savages!

In the morning, we did some more cold water hair washing. This never got less horrible. This was the day that we decided to drive down the gorgeous, winding Maligne Lake Road (we affectionately pronounced Maligne as “Ma-ligg-nee, apologies to my French/ French appreciating readers). Maligne Lake Road is such a perfect drive, with lots to see and do along its length – a must do for Jasper National Park.

Our first stop was Lake Edith, where we found yet another set of red chairs and did a “colour quest” from our Xplorers booklet. The idea was to find things of various colours. Eva and I decided we should only choose natural things, that made it much more difficult to find anything red.

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The softies at the Lake Edith red chairs

Our second stop was Maligne Canyon. The canyon was very beautiful, carved out of a moody grey rock. There were many bridges crossing the canyon, with bigger and bigger drops to the river below. We also found some fossils – another Xplorers task – but nowhere near as many as the booklet suggested. After our walk in the canyon, we did a quick tour of the gift shop, where I bought a large bottle of maple syrup in a maple leaf shaped bottle.

We carried on along the road. I was really enjoying the drive and thoroughly used to driving on the right. We stopped off at a random layby to find another set of red chairs located next to the river, which were harder to find than expected as they were hidden by a mass of foliage.

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Eva at the chairs

One of the most atmospheric stops on our journey along Maligne Lake Road was Medicine Lake, whose surrounding area was devastated by fire in 2015, meaning that there are hundreds of blackened trees lining most of the hills surrounding the lake. There were signs there about the Caribou, which are very rare to find in the park.

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Medicine Lake

After Medicine Lake, we continued on to Maligne Lake, stopping on the way for a quick look at a black bear close to the road. These bears are becoming habituated and aren’t scared enough of humans. This means they are more likely to scavenge and become “problem bears” which means they will likely have to be killed before they hurt any humans. The recommendation is to just drive past them or stop briefly to look or take a photo while remaining in the car.

Sadly, we saw many tourists approaching the wildlife to take photos, not understanding the impact they are having.

We saw two more bears down a bank further round Medicine Lake, potentially one was a grizzly, but we couldn’t stop to look as it was on an awkward bend.

We carried on, keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife, driving slowly and having lots of cars overtake us. I couldn’t really understand why people wanted to drive so fast – it’s a stunning drive to be enjoyed.

Eventually, we spotted two cars pulling over just ahead of us, so slowed down to look for the animal they were stopping for, Eva readying her camera excitedly. As we slowed, one of the men, who had got out of his car began waving his arms like a runaway windmill and shouting “there’s nothing here!”. It was then that we realised that they had simply stopped to pee.

And that’s how Eva nearly took a picture of a random man peeing.

We carried on to Maligne Lake and saw a mule deer. We parked up carefully and headed into the visitor centre to get a map of the hikes in the area. Our Xplorers booklet asked us to hike the Mary Schaffer Trail and find various types of pretty lichens. The walk followed the edge of the beautiful lake and had great views.

We realised pretty soon after starting the walk that it was sleeting. In June. It was really odd, but likely due to the high altitude of where we were.

After our walk we headed into the cafe at the visitor centre for drinks. There was a man doing a talk about the wildlife of the national park and how humans fit in with it. He had furs and skulls to show people and told a few stories, including some that sounded a bit unlikely. He explained that bear bells are useless and you should only give them to people you don’t like.

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View from the trail

We drove back along the wonderful road to Jasper. At one point,  we turned a corner and there was a bear in the road! Luckily I was doing the speed limit, which is set quite low in case of such encounters, so I was easily able to avoid the bear.

As we neared Jasper, we saw another wildlife jam. The cars had all stopped because there was a small herd of elk hanging out by the road, some with babies! It was great to see them, but again we were dissapointed by the number of people who had got out of their cars to take photos.

In Jasper we went to a tasty buffet curry place for dinner, which was good, but not like British curry houses. We are lots! After curry, Eva wanted ice cream, so we found a pot of mango pineapple sorbetto and took it back to the campsite with us. We had to eat the whole thing, else it would melt by morning. We almost managed it. As we stuffed our faces with copious amounts of sorbetto, we watched a group of friends on the pitch in front of us, the one man dancing very camply on the roof of one of their cars.

In the morning, I got Eva to drive us to the front of the campsite to fill up our water. She hadn’t driven before, but this was an automatic, so there wasn’t much teaching involved. She did well, but underestimated (as most people do) how sensitive the pedals would be. We jerkily approached the tap and pulled up next to some Parcs Canada rangers.

Eva decided we should pretend she just hadn’t driven for a while, so we made conversation to that effect as we went to fill our water.

We drove into Jasper to fuel up and pick up some more camping gas, then went into the visitor centre to finish our tasks and hand in our Xplorers booklet for a prize. We had to swear an oath to protect Canada and the world, which seemed like a bit of a responsibility, but we got some pretty dog tags saying we had Xplorer Jasper National Park.

We then headed through the national park to visit Miette Hot Springs. The drive up was again rather stunning, with beautiful water and incredible mountains.

The hot springs were quite cheap to go in, only $6 or so and had two large hot pools and two smaller cold pools. We spent an hour or so dipping in and out. It was a lovely place to be, but got swarmed by teenagers on a school trip.

As we were having a decadent afternoon, we decided to go to a proper campsite and pay to stay the night! We drove in and set up for the night. It was very swanky, with actual warm water! We had soup and kale for our adequate dinner and tidied the car.

After much chatting, laughing and run drinks, we went to bed in our comfy car home.

Our Jasper adventure was at an end and we were very sad to leave the next day for Edmonton, but excited by the prospect of beds and showers.

The drive went smoothly and mostly long straight flat roads through countryside. It was nice, but a far cry from the beautiful mountain roads of BC and the Canadian Rockies.

We stopped at subway for lunch and eventually reached Edmonton. Eva’s expert navigation got us to our hostel where we grabbed a free tofu-dog, watched TV and did washing – our exciting Edmonton adventure!

Soon I will write a blog about our adventures in Calgary as well as Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.

By soon, I mean sometime within the next month.

 

 

 

Canadian Adventures 4: Jasper National Park Glaciers and Bears

We drove into Jasper town, arriving in the afternoon. We parked in a back road, then walked back to the main high street to go to Tim Hortons for coffee and wifi. We visited the information centre and picked up loads of leaflets, including one called “Xplorers” which was full of fun activities (this would become our main way of exploring the national parks – you get tags when you complete the booklets).

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Our first national park!

We drove south towards the ice-field parkway – a wonderful road that runs through most of Jasper and Banff National Parks. I had a sore throat and felt a bit tired, so we didn’t want to drive too far. We stopped at the Athabasca Falls on route. They are very powerful and beautiful and lead down a twisty canyon to a pretty lake.

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The Athabasca Falls
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Where the Athabasca river exits the canyon
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The beautiful canyon

We went on until we found a campsite called honeymoon lake, which is by a pretty lake with dramatic mountains.

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Honeymoon Lake

We had been having trouble with can openers. We bought one in Vancouver for cheap, but it was rubbish and flaked off fragments of metal every time we used it. We tried to but some more, but they seemed to be bottle openers, which was strange because the packet said can openers. They were completely useless anyway. We had to borrow one from the Germans in the next pitch across.

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Buck Lake – our breakfast spot

The next morning I felt a lot better we drove to the next lake along to have breakfast, which is where I had an unfortunate incident with a pit loo. Pit loos are basically a long drop to a tank full of waste – they smell bad and they often have flies in them. This loo was probably rarely used because it was by a tiny lake that hardly anyone visited. I needed to go for a longer visit, which is fine, I don’t need luxury toilets for this, but what happened was truely traumatic. I received a large amount of splash-back. Splash-back not just of water, like in the toilet at home, but of waste filled water. Shudder.

After the incident and a suitable chance to get over it, we drove on to see the Sunwapta Falls, another falls inside a canyon. They were also very pretty. We began a walk in the forest, which was lovely, but increasingly scary as we hadn’t brought our bear spray. We eventually turned back and returned to the car park for lunch.

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The Sunwapta Falls

The drive on from there became more and more scenic as we neared the ice-field parkway. More mountains rose up between the trees, now sporting glaciers. There were open glacial plains, with thin turquoise waters flowing through in winding ribbons.

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Distant Glaciers

We stopped at yet another waterfall, that cascaded down the mountain and was guided under the road. It is called Tangle Creek. Everyone was parking on the roadside just past it because, like us, they drove past, saw it and had to stop because it was surprisingly spectacular.

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The break-pounding beauty of Tangle Creek

We expected the ice-field parkway to be covered in ice and snow. Apparently this is just in winter. In summer the snow has melted and the ice is reduced to just the glaciers high up on the mountains. When you reach the visitor centre there, you are at quite a high altitude already, but still below the glaciers.

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The view from the visitor centre

We decided at this point that we wanted to walk on one of the glaciers. The Athabasca glacier, we found out, is the same one our Grandma visited quite a few years previously on her trip to Canada. We had booked to walk on the glacier and had to wait for our bus up the mountain. After an hour of browsing the gift shop, we queued up and got on the bus that took us into the alpine zone of the mountain.

We transferred onto a special vehicle called an “Ice Explorer” driven by a very young guy called Jack. The ice explorers cost 1.3 million dollars each and there are only 23 of them in existence, with one in Antarctica and the other 22 serving the tourists on the Athabasca glacier! The drive up was really cool, especially when the very large and very HEAVY ice explorer went down a 32% gradient slope – scary, but these vehicles are built to cope with it without rolling or sliding.

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That slope.

When we reached the top, we were allowed out onto a small, safe section on the ice. It was very cold. We had 30 minutes to enjoy the experience, which Eva and I made full use of – tentatively wandering around, taking photos and enjoying the view. Eva borrowed a bottle off a random man to drink some of the fast flowing glacial-melt water and I decided to lie down on the glacier. This was quite chilly.

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These are big vehicles!

Eventually we had to return to the not-so-icey ground. We got back to our car and drove to a lovely big campsite for the night. We had dinner, then Eva went on a mission to find a bin and took so long that I went to find her, thinking she’d been eaten by a bear. Of course, she got back to the car before I did and thought I’d been eaten by a bear. I had not.

We settled down in the car and slept. It was one of the colder nights, likely due to the increased altitude.

The next morning, Eva experienced the joys of being poor and living in a car, by washing her hair in cold water!

When she had defrosted, we began to pack the car, when I scared her by shouting “behind you!”. This was because there was a ground squirrel behind her, not a bear! Cue Eva whipping out her camera and taking several hundred photos – see her instagram for the result!

We also had a minor incident where I was filling our large water container from a tap that suggested you didn’t take too much water and a campervan came, causing Eva to shout “campervan”, for some reason, I heard this as “rangers” and panicked, thinking I would get in trouble and ran back towards the car with the now very heavy water container and overbalanced and fell over. Well done me.

Once I had gotten over my embarrassment, we decided to tackle one of the challenges in our Xplorers booklet – find the red chairs. The national parks of Canada have wonderful scattering of red chairs throughout them, at various viewpoints. The first one that Eva and I chose to find was on Wilcox Pass, a popular hiking route starting directly by our campsite.

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We hiked up the hill, as the trees thinned out and the wind ripped by. We met several much fitter hikers on our route up, but the views were pretty stunning by the time we emerged from the trees. The red chairs weren’t all that much further. We took a few photos on the chairs then headed out of the howling wind.

We drove back up towards Jasper village. The drive was lovely as the roads were clear and the views were good. We eventually reached our second red chair destination: the valley of the five lakes! This valley is creatively named after the number of lakes it has in it. The lakes are given the vastly imaginative names of first lake, second lake, third lake, fourth lake and fifth lake. Eva and I theorised a man must have named them.

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One of the five lakes

The lakes were lovely – all different shades of blue. Sadly it began to rain while we were hiking, but we found the chairs and began to make our way back to the car.

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The weather turned…

On our way back, I was walking maybe 5m ahead of Eva and we weren’t talking as it was raining quite heavily. As we walked along the empty path, around 5m in front of me a BEAR ran across! It was an adult black bear, going very quickly. I immediately stopped and went “There’s a bear, there’s a bear, that’s a bear, oh my god Eva a bear!”

Eva got ready to use the bear spray as she couldn’t see due to rainy glasses. The bear had luckily already ran on through the trees and out of sight.

The adrenaline rush was like nothing I had felt before and I jumped out of a plane and off a bridge earlier this year. This was a positive bear sighting – safe but also stunning. Being so close to such an incredible animal in the wild is a truely awesome experience.

Once we had recovered from our bear encounter, we headed back into Jasper and found a cute vegan cafe and got hot chocolates and a ginger cookie. We managed to get some wifi at Tim Hortons to talk to mum and dad and stocked up on some more food.

Our next destination was Pyramid Lake, another of the many beautiful lakes in Jasper National Park. I saw an elk on the drive in and there were warnings about dangerous elk as it is the time of year when they have calves. We found another red chair, which was not too long a walk, with nice views back over the lake.

 

We headed back down and walked onto the very pretty Pyramid Island which was accessible by a long foot-bridge. We hoped to see loons there, but no such luck.

Loons, for those who don’t know, are a lovely Canadian bird that is featured on the $1 coin. Not Eva and myself.

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The view from Pyramid Island

The second installment of our adventures in Jasper National Park will eventually get written, hopefully before the end of 2017!

 

 

 

 

Canadian Adventures 3: Eastward Bound

The first place that Eva and I visited with the car was Capilano Suspension Bridge. We had heard about the bridge from our lovely Grandma, who had visited quite a few years previously.

Capilano is a very cool site in the North of Vancouver, with the massive suspension bridge, a cliff walk, a treetop walk and various informative exhibits, all inside a beautiful area of Canadian rainforest.

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Capilano Suspension Bridge

We spent quite a long time there, we walked over the laden, swaying bridge, had lunch and wandered around between the beautiful trees. There were lovely signs with quotes on about trees and forests. There were tiny red squirrels running around, trying to steal food.

We climbed the treetop walkway and collected a booklet that went through some of the features of the forest. We ran around, enjoying finding things and completing the activities. Once we had completed it, we got a badge for our trouble – we are now official rain forest explorers!

Eventually, we crossed the bridge again and walked round the cliff walk, which has a large curved section that hangs over a sheer drop – pretty scary stuff! We also braved the glass platform.

We loved our day at Capilano, despite the quite high entrance fee. It was a great introduction to the natural areas of Canada, which we would see many more of along our journey east, to the national parks and beyond.

After Capilano, we drove up to Whistler. This was my first long drive, along a wonderful road called the sea to sky highway. This road has absolutely stunning views, both by the sea and further inland, where mountains suddenly loom in front of you, dressed in snow. It was a hard road to drive quickly on, partially due to its twists and turns, but also due to my amazement at my surroundings.

We arrived quite late into Whistler and found some wifi at a closing Starbucks. We opted to drive to a nearby Regional Park campground, instead of staying illegally in one of the large carparks. The road back to the campsite was mainly dual carriageway, so we had to find a suitable place to turn round to find the campsite.

It was very dark when we got to the campsite. We found a pitch and nervously set up for the night, keeping an eye out for sudden murderous bears. We even peed at the edge of the campsite, rather than risk attempting to find the toilets.

We woke in the morning, unharmed by bears discovered that there was a toilet less than 100m from our pitch. We made lukewarm coffee using our tiny stove, packed up and drove back into Whistler. It was raining, so after a quick play on the very cool playground, we retreated into Starbucks for a drink, a snack and some more free wifi to research where to stay that night.

We headed out towards Kamloops, the approximate halfway point between Vancouver and Jasper National Park. The drive was better that day, with my confidence building and less twisty roads, our average speed increased. The scenery became barer and dryer. There were fewer trees and more railway lines. Massive long trains trundled by slowly.

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View from our pitch at Juniper Beach

We stopped for a break at a place called Lilooet and had a quick walk around the tiny mineral museum and shop there, before continuing on to our campground. It was called Juniper Beach and it sat off the main road, with a railway and a river on one side and another railway on the other side. We saw and heard a lot of trains go by that evening. We also saw an absolutely stunning sunset!

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The sky looked like it was on fire!

We drove on into Kamloops the next day, just in time for lunch in a sunny park. The weather was getting warmer at this point, enough to put the air con on.

We had decided to do a wine tasting while in the Kamloops area, so headed to a vegan approved vineyard called Privato. We were welcomed by a lovely lady who gave us many wines to taste, which were all very nice. We decided to buy the surprisingly dry and very excellent rosé and the most expensive and also most delicious pinot noir. We saved the latter for when we were reunited with Mum and Dad.

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Grapes at Privato

After the wine tasting, and a suitably long sit down, we drove on to a place called Enderby. On the way we stopped to get dinner from an asian restaurant and coffee from Tim Hortons in rainy Salmon Arm, whose name always made my giggle. Enderby is home to the Starlight Drive In Movie Theatre, which was showing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2!

We arrived and queued up to pay for our tickets. Apparently, my card was being a problem again, because it was ‘foreign’, and we didn’t have enough cash to pay. We didn’t know what we should do, but the friendly man on the box office let us in for free!

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Parked up!

We settled our car in to a spot near the front, then ran to the concession stand to spend all the cash we had on some popcorn. We then nested for a while, pulling out the sleeping bags and softies ready to watch.

The film was fantastic! I can thoroughly recommend it. It is badass, heartbreaking and hilarious, with an incredible soundtrack to take you through it. The experience of seeing it in such a cool cinema was so much fun! I wish we had drive-in movies in the UK, but I guess that the weather can be fickle.

After the film, we also could have waited and seen Beauty and the Beast too. But it was late and we had both already seen it, so we quickly rejigged the car into driving mode and left Starlight behind us.

Sadly, we did not have a plan for where to sleep. After a brief stop in Enderby itself, where we were accosted by a homeless man asking for money, we drove around sleepily, for about an hour on the dark Canadian roads. We found a very full and slightly creepy caravan park that wasn’t going to work and eventually ended up at a rather nice, but completely full campsite called Swan Lake.

It was very late at this point, and I really didn’t want to drive anymore, so we parked on the edge of someone’s pitch and set up to sleep. As it was such a nice campsite, and looked expensive, we decided to set an alarm for 6am and be out by 6:30 to avoid paying. Rude, I know, but we had been stung by our $500 young persons’ fee on the car.

The next morning, we got up and left as quickly as we possibly could. We were out by 6:15 and we’d gotten away with it!

We drove to a nearby village to try to get breakfast, but nowhere was open/ vegan. We carried on along the quiet road until we got back to the main highway, where we found a Denny’s diner to have breakfast – a much more worthy recipient of our money!

The rest of the journey that day seemed to go quickly. We stopped once for a break in a layby near a river as I was quite tired from my lack of sleep, but arrived in a place called Valemount nice and early. We got some coffee at a cool cafe/ giftshop, then found a campsite called Canoe Creek. It was sunny and we were both feeling slightly under the weather, so we decided to pitch our tent and lie flat for a night!

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In the campsite in Valemount

We made food, while fighting off what seemed like thousands of massive mosquitoes! They were approximately the size of my face. I killed quite a few, maybe forty or fifty over the course of us cooking. Mmmm, mosquito corpses everywhere!

We had a little walk around with our cameras – it was a big campsite with lots of odd things to see like old machinery, wooden carved animals by the reception building, an old car and, especially strangely, a tree with a face.

We also got some washing done and hung it out all inside the car to dry. We slept pretty well in the little tent and packed up easily in the morning as the good weather continued.

Eva wanted to go back to the little gift shop to buy some minerals, but it was a Sunday, so it was closed. We managed to get some food before heading out excitedly towards Jasper National Park.

 

Canadian Adventures 2: Carlife Begins

The time had come for us to pick up our car from Vancouver airport. We had a lot of luggage (two big suitcases, one big rucksack, three small rucksacks and myriad camping equipment), so we left it at our accommodation and took public transport out to the airport. At this point, I was excited. I had no idea what was to come.

We had booked the car online ages ago via Expedia. It was booked for three weeks, giving us enough time to drive over to Alberta and visit Jasper and Banff National Parks before heading back to Vancouver in time to meet Mum and Dad at the airport.

We arrived at the Avis check-in desk and queued to get the car. When we were called up to the desk, we hit our first problem. For some reason, the deposit for the car could only be taken on a credit card. I don’t own a credit card.

Now, annoyingly, the debit card that I was using for our travels often counted as a credit card as it was a ‘foreign’ card, which wasn’t always useful – like I literally couldn’t use it in some places. But for the purposes of Avis car rental, it was a debit.

Obviously they can’t rent the car out without the deposit, so I began to feel a bit worried, all our plans revolved around us having a car. I hurriedly handed over all three of my cards for the man to check with his manager: my UK debit card, my New Zealand debit card and my Travelex currency card.

The man went away for a while, I began to get a little paranoid that he was stealing all my card details, but no strange transactions as of yet. He came back and explained that he couldn’t use the currency card, he couldn’t use the New Zealand card as it doesn’t have my name on it (I got it at the bank, so it just says ‘cardholder’), but he could try my UK card. Not ideal, but that’s okay.

He put the card through. Then our second problem occurred. An automatic charge of $500 went through. FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS.

From this experience, I have learned two very crucial things about hiring cars:

  1. If you are under 25, don’t even think about it.
  2. Always read the small print.

I am 23. This means that that $500 was a $25 a day surcharge for being a young person. Obviously, if you are under 25, you aren’t allowed cars. Probably because you are a reckless mess who will deliberately crash and try to sue everybody. Young people don’t even need cars, they have everything anyway: mobile phones, the internet, crippling mental heath issues. The one thing we don’t have is money. So they make nice things, like houses, cars, university degrees, too expensive for us. Then we’re told it’s our fault that we don’t save our imaginary pounds.

I’m not bitter about this at all.

This brings me to my second point. The online car hire gave me a price along with a lovely sentence: “The total price includes all mandatory taxes and fees”. I thought that meant I’d paid for everything. But no.

Expedia has a very tiny little clause in its small print that says “Additional charges or restrictions may apply for drivers under 25 or over 70”. Sneaky sneaky. Read it, if you ever hire from Expedia. And then expect the worst.

Thankfully our car hire experience did end in us getting a car to drive around Canada. We also got upgraded from our pre-ordered “Chevrolet Spark or similar” to a beautiful VW Golf TSi with more power and most importantly, more space! We were able to fit all our bags in and rearrange our stuff to fully recline the seats to sleep at night.

We, rather organically, named the car “the expensive bitch” and set off to explore this beautiful bit of Canada.

Canadian Adventures 1: Vancouver and Victoria

I arrived in Vancouver on the afternoon of the 7th June, after the night flight from Auckland – it had been a long day, I had left my hostel in Australia at 8am over 23hrs previously and it was still the 7th June! I waited for Eva to arrive and made her a sign – it was weird but good to see her after five months.

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My sign for Eva

We lugged all of our bags to our accommodation, a place called Churchill House, where we spent forever chatting and getting ready to go to dinner.

When we finally made it out, we were talking so much on the skytrain that we forgot to get off at our stop!

We eventually got to MeeT, a lovely vegan restaurant in Gastown, which serves comfort food like burgers, as well as tasty cocktails. We splashed out as it was our first night reunited!

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In MeeT with our cocktails

We had portobello mushroom burgers and two cocktails each (a pineapple basil one and a tequila mojito)! Despite our extravagance, the meal was still very cheap.

We got up quite late the next day (I had only got to sleep at 3am, because of the time difference). We decided to visit the Bloedel Conservatory – a big dome built in the 1960s, which houses plants and over 150 free flying birds.

It was such a cool place to be, with the birds swooping overhead, the cockatoos and parrots preening and occasionally talking. There was a big feeding area where most of the bird congregated. We spent over three hours in there, watching them and taking hundred of photos!

 

 

We especially loved the cockatoos – like Blanca, who hung from her branch by her beak and Kramer, who was a salmon pink colour and knew lots of phrases.

 

 

After our long afternoon in the conservatory, we wanted some ice cream, so went back to our accommodation via safeway to get some. Our evening was relaxed, we ate food and watched TV – but still didn’t get to bed early!

The second full day in Vancouver was bright, but not particularly warm. We took the chance to explore more fully. We found a cool art deco building called the Marine Building, which was decorated with sea creatures.

We had a wander round the waterfront and a bit called Canada Place, which has a walkway with names of different Canadian towns by Provence. After this we had a proper wander around the hipster streets of Gastown and saw the steam clock do it’s thing.

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By Canada Place

We had lunch in a lovely vegan pizzeria, called Virtuous Pie. The pizza was very tasty, as was the vegan ice cream! They had water on tap that you could take for free throughout your meal.

After faffing around and running into various shops to get change, we took a bus up to Stanley Park, the massive park north of downtown. This park is so beautiful. It runs along by the coast and has both cultivated and non cultivated areas. At the end of the park is a bridge that leads to North Vancouver, which we traveled along later in our journey.

 

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The waterfront by Stanley Park

One of our favourite things in Stanley park was the goth squirrels. This is not their real name, sadly, but you have to admit they have that stylishly gloomy look.

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Goth Squirrel

We really enjoyed walking around in the sun. it was very warm, but it was nice and the park was very beautiful. We sat around for a while by the Lion Bridge and watched the world go by.

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Cruise with Lion Bridge

We also found a cool and very sittable-on tree!

 

 

We took the bus back to our accommodation and spent a while getting dressed up to go out. We had found a gay club we wanted to check out. Before we headed to the club, we stopped at the Vancouver lookout tower, which wasn’t very expensive to go up. We timed it to coincide with the sunset! We spent a while there, enjoying the view, then headed up one more floor to the revolving restaurant, where we ordered cocktails and admired the view. The moon was massive and bright and kept being partially covered by clouds, making it look like an odd-shaped UFO.

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View from the Vancouver Lookout Tower

We headed down and caught the bus to the club. We had to change buses as our one broke, which was especially annoying because it was cold. When we arrived we were sad to learn that entry to the club was $40 as it was a special night. We had a strange cocktail each in the bar opposite, then headed home to have our own drinks and watch Hannibal!

The next day was a day of traveling: we had to take a train and a bus to Tsawwassen ferry terminal, where we caught the ferry to Vancouver Island, then another bus from Schwarz Bay into Victoria. The journey was 5hrs door to door, so we were understandably tired when we arrived. We repacked our stuff to fit it nicely into our assigned lockers, bought food and ate before the day was over.

The next morning we had a leisurely one: we ate breakfast and watched TV, then ventured out to go and watch whales! We had booked the tour a few months previously and we were very excited to see orcas, dolphins, seals and possibly humpback whales!

The company was called Spring Tide Whale Watching. We arrived and joined the group, paying our small conservation fee. We walked to our boat and boarded, enthusiastically taking seats on the bench right at the front of the front deck. We were given a safety briefing, which was momentarily interrupted by a sea plane taking off noisily.

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Sea Planes

As we set off into the bay, our chosen seats began to take a beating from the wind. I asked for an extra jacket (these were given out to people as part of the tour) and Eva shared a pair of her gloves with me. After a while I couldn’t take the cold any longer, so I retreated inside and grabbed a hot chocolate.

 

We went on for a long time without seeing anything, except for one or two fins that belonged to porpoise or dolphins. We were beginning to worry that we wouldn’t see any whales at all, when the boat turned and headed in a new direction. All the boats in the area radio each other when looking for whales, to tell each other where they are. We were heading towards a whale sighting.

As we approached we were joined by at least nine other boats. We stopped for a while and waited to see the whales, but then we moved on again. Eventually we caught up with them: a group of four orcas, a family of a mum and three babies of varying ages.

They were so beautiful.

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ORCA!

I wanted to watch the orcas for hours. They came up out of the water very often, moving as a close knit group, popping up in different combinations. The boats following them maintained a suitable distance and the cameras snapped. Eva and I became enthralled in watching and photographing them, so much so that Eva almost stepped off the edge of the boat with her one foot (there were railings, so she would have stayed on board)!

Eventually it was time to leave the beautiful whales, We were in a state of bliss after what we had seen and we were very sad to be torn away. We both want to see orcas again.

On the way back to the harbour, we stopped to look at some bald eagles chilling out on a rock, as well as a group of loudly honking sea lions and an elephant seal flobbling its way up a shallow slope.

 

As we pulled back into the harbour, we were told about one or two things, including one building, which is technically classed as a boat and used for navy training. We were also told about the sea plane runway, which is the only runway in the world that occasionally has to close because of whales!

We headed for dinner at a lovely Buddhist restaurant called Lotus Pond where the food was cheap and tasty and lots!

We then went for a walk around to Fisherman’s Wharf, which has lots of floating shops. As we walked, we watched the sun set and chatted. We saw a harbour seal chilling out, but it dived away as we got close.

 

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Sunset in Victoria

When we got to Fisherman’s Wharf, everything was shut, but we met a lovely, but pretty fat cat called Humphrey, who just sat there as we said hello. He resembled a furry puddle.

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Humphrey

On the way back to our hostel, we walked past the beautifully lit British Columbia Parliament Building and the pretty harbour. Victoria is an unexpectedly stunning city – both Eva and I were surprised at how nice it was there, mainly because we didn’t know much about it before we went. It is well worth a visit!

 

On our second (and last) full day in Victoria, we decided to visit the bug zoo. The bug zoo is a small place, only two rooms and a shop, that houses a collection of insects, arachnids and a few other creatures of a many-legged nature.

The zoo’s aim is to educate people, especially children, on the importance and beauty of these creatures, to help conserve them out in the world. There is a tour guide that moves around the rooms, explaining a little about each bug and giving you a chance to hold the more harmless ones.

Eva and I held practically everything! We held a beetle, a leaf bug, a praying mantis, a thorny devil, some millipedes (including one as long as my forearm) and a hissing cockroach. They don’t let you hold the centipedes because they are wildly aggressive.

 

Our favourite part of the experience was getting to hold the beautiful Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula, who gently strolled along our palms in a friendly manner. We also held a beautiful scorpion called Max!

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Eva and Max

Again, we were sad when we had to leave the bug zoo – it was such a cool idea and so much fun to visit! Our evening went by gently: we watched a film and ate dinner.

The next day we travelled back the way we came to Vancouver and checked into a different accommodation. This was much nicer than our first Vancouver accommodation which was in a very smelly, damp basement. This was an attic-type room in a bright, airy house and had two cupboards built under the eaves, which were fun to play in!

This time in Vancouver, so we didn’t do any more sight seeing – we had a job to do. We headed out to a massive shop called Canadian Tyre, where we bought around $200 worth of camping equipment, including bear spray. We returned on the bus clumsily, made a late dinner and skyped Mum and Dad before bed.

More on our Canadian adventures soon – in which we pick up a car and drive several thousand kilometers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marvellous Melbourne

I arrived in Melbourne quite late, after a very nice flight with food and inflight entertainment despite only being four hours long. I was very tired, because I had flown from Samoa to Auckland, then spent the night at Auckland airport before catching my flight to Wellington to connect with my flight to Melbourne. It was a horrible night, despite having Chris’ company, as I didn’t sleep at all.

When I arrived in Melbourne, I got the bus to my hostel – they have a service that takes you from the main city bus terminal to your hostel for free. I checked in and slept!

The next day, I woke up and could properly get to know my surroundings. The room was lovely and clean – only two sets of bunk beds, with only three occupied, including mine. I went out to buy food for the week – it was pretty damn cold after being in hot hot Samoa for two weeks!

Food is cheaper in Australia than in New Zealand, so I could easily stay in budget. Back at the hostel, I had breakfast and sorted my things out, before heading into town just after lunch.

I decided to do a free walking tour – these are a great way to orientate yourself to a new place and they cost as much as you want them too (they are free, but usually you tip). The first one I did was in Rome three years ago, and now they’re a go to when exploring somewhere new.

This tour was really good, especially as our guide, Laura, was so enthusiastic. We saw the State Library, the Old Gaol, the Exhibition Building, two pretty parks, parliament and China Town, as well as some of the cool laneways that they have here.

 

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State Library Melbourne

The State Library is pretty cool, inside is the armour worn by the infamous gang leader, Ned Kelly. The Old Gaol (pictured below) was his last residence before he was hanged on 11th November 1880.

 

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Melbourne Old Gaol

The Royal Exhibition Building is the first world heritage site-listed building in Australia. It was built for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880 and is still used as an exhibition venue as well as an exam hall.

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Royal Exhibition Building

The parliament gardens is one of the parks we saw – some of the trees have special bands to stop possums climbing them. These don’t work – we even saw a possum in one of the banded trees.

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Parliament Gardens

Melbourne’s laneways are very famous. They are basically alleyways, that have been transformed either by street art, or tiny cafes and shops, or both. The street art scene is phenomenal with some laneways being completely repainted every week.

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Beautiful Street Art

There are also some cool arcades – fancier, covered alleyways. The block arcade, whose floor is shown below, houses an incredibly popular tea room called Hopetoun Tea Rooms – right now their next available reservation for high tea is in ten weeks!

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Mosaic Floor in Block Arcade

After the tour, it was getting dark, so I headed back to the hostel. I had been invited out to meet James and Gary, my Mum’s cousin and his partner at their flat. The original plan for my time in Melbourne was to stay with them, but they had just moved all their stuff in a few days before I arrived and their flat was literally STUFFED with boxes! No room for me this time.

We went out for a lovely dinner at a Greek restaurant called Hellenic Republic, where the food was very tasty. After a few hours of enjoying the food and catching up, they put me back on the tram to my hostel, where I headed to bed.

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Lobby of the National Gallery of Victoria

The next day, my first stop was the NGV (the National Gallery of Victoria), which has a gorgeous water window in its entrance. There was a lovely photography exhibition on, as well as one about chairs.

Being a designer is 99% about chairs, so I went.

These chairs were particularly arty explorations of the concept, but some of them were pretty cool – like the one in the shape of a fierce orca. For some reason, chairs are something that people love to design, maybe because we spend some much of our time in them? I suppose someone has written and article about this phenomenon somewhere.

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“Fiona Blackfish” chair concept in contemporary chair design exhibition

After the gallery, I headed over to the State Library, mainly to see Ned Kelly’s armour. I have always been fascinated with crime stories, as my TV history would tell you, so gang leader armour is the kind of  thing I like to see.

The library itself is very grand, and was full of revising students.

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Inside the state library

Ned Kelly, for those who don’t know, was an Australian bushranger in the late 1800s. Bushrangers were the Australian equivalent of highwaymen, but Kelly also committed other thefts as well as assaults and murders. His life of crime came to a head when he and his gang took over a town called Glenrowan, keeping 62 hostages in a hotel there. There was a shootout with the police, during which Kelly wore some armour that he made to prevent him from being shot. However, the armour didn’t cover his legs, which allowed the police to shoot him and capture him.

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Ned Kelly’s armour

That evening, I headed out to the Eureka Tower – it was just down the road from my hostel. I timed it so I could see the sunset. The tower has the tallest observation deck in the southern hemisphere. That last bit is important, because there isn’t so much in the way of tall buildings in the southern hemisphere.

The views were great though, so I stayed for a long time, just enjoying the view. I watched the sun go down and the lights come on.

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Sunset from Skydeck of the Eureka Tower

All I managed to do on day three was see the Shrine of Remembrance. The shrine was originally built to commemorate those who served in WW1, but is now a shrine for all Australians who served in war.

I arrived in time for the flags to be taken down for the day, to a bugle call.

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The Shrine of Remembrance

I sat there for a while as it got dark and watched the flame they have there.

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Flame at the Shrine

The next day, I went to see St Kilda. This is an area of Melbourne by the seaside. Even though it was pretty cold, I always enjoy walking by the sea. St Kilda was easy to get to by a tram.

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St Kidla Tram Stop

I walked along the high street and had a peak in all the cute little shops, before heading towards the sea. On the way I passed Luna Park, an old theme park with a very brightly coloured and mildly terrifying aesthetic.

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Luna Park Entrance

The beach was beautiful and the weather was good, so I could explore without getting wet and (too) cold! By the beach is a long pier, with a cute little pavilion building on it, which doubles as a cafe – I got coffee there. Apparently it burned down in 2003, but was rebuilt using the original 1903 plans.

 

I love the seaside – especially the dogs running along excitedly. There was one dog that wouldn’t stop barking at the birds as he tried to catch them – so cute!

The other side of the high street from the seaside is the St Kilda botanical gardens, which I decided to go and see. On my way there, I enjoyed the crunchy leaves that lined the pavement (crunchy leaves are the best – I even have an instagram video from last year when I went to Kew Gardens of me jumping in the leaves)! They have more autumn leaves in Melbourne than they did in Levin – I suppose that they have different kinds of trees in New Zealand, maybe more native ones than ‘English’ imports.

The gardens were nice, but not at their best as it was autumn. They had a beautiful gate though, decorated with stunning details in the ironwork.

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The botanical garden’s gate

After a brief time in the gardens, I headed back to the pier to look for penguins!

Behind the pier is an area of rocks that houses a penguin colony. They are called Little Penguins, sometimes called Fairy Penguins, due to their small size – they are only 33cms high!

They come out more often at dusk, so I headed down for sunset. There were lots of other people there too and we were lucky to see one standing between the rocks, looking out at us and being thoroughly photographed.

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Fairy Penguin!

After my penguin encounter, I went to get fish and chips, before returning to my hostel.

The next day I met James and Gary again and they took me to the Heide Museum of Modern Art. We had brunch, then a look around. The Heide site is made up of several buildings. The first is an old farm house, Heide I, which John and Sunday Reed moved into in 1934. The couple opened their home to like-minded artists. In 1964, they commissioned a new home to be built on the site in the modernist style. This is Heide II.

The site also includes Heide III and the Sidney Myer Education Centre. The spaces are all art galleries. There were some very interesting paintings, but my favourite part of the site was certainly Heide II. The design of the space was beautiful as both a living space and a place to display art – truly stunning.

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Inside Heide II – I love the big windows!

After our visit to Heide, James and Gary dropped me on Brunswick Street and also recommended I see Smith Street. I wandered up and down the two, going into the most interesting looking shops. They had some really cool places: arty cafes, second hand furniture shops and a very pretty tea shop.

 

I had a snack on a bench outside the Catholic cathedral. I wanted to go in, but even though it said there wasn’t a mass on, there was. It was still lovely from the outside.

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The Catholic Cathedral

On the Monday morning, I met Gary to talk about design (I want to be an interior designer, and he is one). He showed me some fabric houses and we discussed his work and costings and other aspects of the job. It was so helpful to have that meeting and great to have a conversation about design with someone who really knows their stuff!

After our meeting, I headed back to the hostel, then briefly out to the botanical gardens before the sun went down. It was gloomy and drizzly, but I could still appreciate the beauty of the place – I especially liked ‘Guilfoyle’s Volcano’, a water storage solution installed in the gardens in 1876, which has gorgeous plants coating the sides.

 

On my final day in Melbourne, I mainly packed and did some more planning for my trip to Canada. In the evening, I met up with James one last time for dinner.

We went to a very cool, speak-easy type of bar in an odd backstreet, called Bar Americano. It certainly had the prohibition vibe and you weren’t allowed to take photos. We had some very tasty cocktails, made from things I hadn’t heard of.

We then headed to Chin Chin, a highly recommended Asian fusion place for dinner. We had a very tasty goat curry and a fiery papaya salad – the food was excellent. Afterwards we had some Vietnamese iced tea, which was red tea and ice and condensed coconut milk – this was amazing.

Melbourne was a marvelous place to visit, with its arty, hipster vibes and I’m sure I will return one day – I am intrigued to see some more of Australia after listening to people on the farm rave about it!

The Eater of Money: AKA Queenstown

The journey to Queenstown was long and beautiful. The south island scenery is incredible. Everything is so big down there – the mountains, the lakes, the valleys. The coach was very full, but we kept making stops – almost too many stops! It seems that it is quite normal here for a coach driver to stop for 10mins at a local beauty spot – today it was a large waterfall.

I said goodbye to my German friends at Wanaka and we sped on into Queenstown. The lake the town sits on, lake Wakatipu, is massive and gorgeous. The mountains that stand above Queenstown are well named – the Remarkables.

I arrived in Queenstown, found my hostel and cooked. I had an early night before my trip to Milford Sound the next day. The trip was one of the best things I did in New Zealand. It was beautifully organised and the area was just stunning.

I feel like, at this point, I ought the explain what a Sound is, because I had no idea before I came here. A Sound is a river valley that has been flooded by sea water – like Queen Charlotte Sound, where I was when I visited Picton. Milford Sound is, in fact, not a Sound. It is a glacial valley flooded by sea water – which technically makes it a Fjord. At the time it was named, the word “Fjord” had not entered English – hence “Milford Sound”. Which does sound cool, to be honest.

The bus picked us up at 7:05 (i.e. horribly early) and we drove a few hours to Te Anau, where we had a break and picked up some more people.

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Te Anau

After Te Anau, the real tour began. The bus, which was very new, had a glass roof so you could see the mountains above, even if you were on the wrong side.

We stopped at a few places on the way. First, we stopped at a glacial valley, where you could see the misty mountains from Lord of the Rings (part or the southern alps). Then we stopped at a lovely lake, called mirror lake, which had near perfect reflections.

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The Mirror Lake

The third place we stopped was called Monkey Creek – you could see some great mountains and glaciers from there. I got out of the bus to look and take photos. The driver had also informed us that the water was safe to drink. I originally wasn’t going to as I tend not to trust things like that, but then I figured I should. So I got my bottle and bent down to get some water, when I heard a splash next to me – my phone had fallen out of my pocket into the creek. A few swear words later – I was back on the bus with my wet phone.

This is the bit where everyone goes “you should take the battery out and put it in rice”. Which is very helpful, but I was out for the day, so rice wasn’t an option. I took the battery out and left it until I got back on the bus from the boat tour, but the screen flickered and died. RIP crappy NZ phone 1.

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Moody Glacial Mountains

After the creek, we stopped at a car park just before a tunnel through to Milford Sound. There were some Kea in the car park. They are beautiful Alpine parrots, but have a reputation for mischief.

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A Cheeky Kea

After that quick photo opportunity, we headed through the tunnel and down the valley to Milford Sound. The bus dropped us by the port and we boarded our boat. There was a free lunch on board.

The boat took us out through the sound, which was stunning. We saw the waterfalls and the massive shear cliffs, which have trees on despite their lack of soil. The trees tangle their roots together to stay on – the basically hold hands. But if one tree falls, there is a tree avalanche as the ones connected to it fall too.

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Milford Sound

The boat journey took a few hours. It remained mostly cloudy, but it didn’t rain, which was good as it rains in Milford about two thirds of the time.

As we went round we stopped to look at some beautiful fur seals, hanging out on a rock.

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Seals!

The sound got wider and wider and the steep cliffs sank, until you could see the vast Tasman Sea ahead. The boat turned at the view back into the sound was stunning.

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The view back

On our way back, we came to a large waterfall. The waterfall, called Waimanu falls, was said to have regenerative properties – those who bathed in the water would become younger.

The tour company seemed to think this was a good idea, so they push the front deck of the boat under the falls so the passengers can get soaked (or hide inside).

The boat took us back to the dock and we reboarded the bus. I had a great day out, despite losing my phone. I would recommend Milford Sound to anyone!

The second day I spent in Queenstown was rather different. I had booked onto a white water rafting and bungy combo. It was another fairly early start to get to the river to raft.

We took the minibus from Queenstown to the centre and went to change into our wetsuits.

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It’s a great look!

We then got back into the minibus and headed for the Shotover river, a big gold bearing river near Queenstown. It used to be mined, now people just pan for gold. The road we took into the canyon was very narrow and had nice steep drops on the sides. The rafting guys gleefully told us that it was the most dangerous road in New Zealand and, at one point, made people stand up and look down the 100m drop that we were right next to.

We reached the bottom safely and had a briefing about what to do if you fell out of the boat while rafting. Then, we were ready to go!

I was placed in a team with a big Maori guy called Chief, who put me in the front of the boat. I thought I was terrible at rowing, but Chief was a good teacher and by the end, I was getting it!

We rowed down the canyon for a couple of hours, following Chief’s instructions to avoid big rock walls and navigate the rapids. We had a false start as we messed up on the first rapid and two of our passengers fell out! I almost fell out too. They were quickly rescued and returned to our raft.

After that we did much better. The other rapids went reasonably smoothly – it was so much fun! The final rapid came after a long tunnel through a rock face (I’m guessing made by the miners). It was a really big, fun rapid!

I have a video of my whole rafting experience that I will post at some point!

After rafting, I had lunch, then headed back to Queenstown. After running some errands (including getting a new phone), I headed to the bungy centre to prepare myself. I checked in and they weighed me and checked some medical questions.

We then got on a bus to go to the bungy site. I wasn’t as apprehensive as I had been about the skydive, but I had had less time to think about it.

We arrived and were told where to go for the bungy. I watched a few people do it first, then went to queue up. That’s when I got scared. I watched people jump and scream. I waited in the sun. Soon I was handed a harness – no going back. A few more people jumped. Then it was my turn.

As with the skydive, I let it all happen. I was fastened in. I was told to stand up and wave at the camera. I shuffled to the edge. I didn’t look down, because I knew I wouldn’t jump. I closed me eyes and jumped.

What followed was so disorienting! I felt the fall and then I felt slow deceleration and saw the river slowly drifting closer. I touched the water and was almost immediately sprung back into the air. The bungy guys swung the bungy cord. I bounced around, swinging and spinning in the air, flashes of landscape whirring before my eyes.

Soon, a long poor came into view, I grabbed it and was pulled slowly down onto a dingy. Once I was lying on the dingy I began to laugh. It was so much fun!

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The drop!

The hardest bit of the whole experience was climbing the stairs back to the centre! I have a video of this whole thing too – another one to upload when I have time!

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The Bridge!

I didn’t do much else in Queenstown as I began to furiously hunt for a job on checking my bank account.

I did a short kayaking session on the morning of the third day on the beautiful lake. I wish I couldn’t have taken photos, but I didn’t want to drown any more electronics!

I did manage to walk up Queenstown hill as well that afternoon. It was hot and steep, so it wasn’t the easiest climb, but there were beautiful views at the top.

At the top is a sculpture called the Basket of Dreams. It is quite cool and atmospheric.

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The Basket of Dreams

On the way down I discovered a really cool area where people had piled up hundreds of stones in little piles. It was quite beautiful in a strange way.

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Piles of stones

The piles of stones reminded me of a scene in the film “Moana” where the chiefs of the tribe piled stones on top of one another with each new chief to make the island taller. It was symbolic of progress.

I had a lot of fun in Queenstown and was sad to move on, but my next destination was breathtakingly beautiful. More soon.

 

 

Earth, Sea and Sky

A lot has happened since leaving lovely Rotorua. I took the shortest bus journey so far to Taupo, a small town on the shores of Lake Taupo – the largest lake in New Zealand.

I checked into my hostel and had a lazy evening in. On such a long trip, I don’t want to be rushing out to do something constantly, it’s nice to have a chilled evening in to plan occasionally.

The next day I decided to walk to the Huka Falls, a beautiful waterfall which is quite famous in the area. The walk wasn’t too long and took me past a hot spring where people were bathing. It was a sunny day so I enjoyed the walk.

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The Huka Falls

I arrived at the falls after about an hour. They are not your conventional running off the a cliff kind of waterfall. There is an area where the river narrows significantly to go through a steep gorge through which the water flows violently and with an icy blue and white colouring. The colour, I think, it what first attracted people to the falls.

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The river just downstream of Anatiatia Dam

From the falls, there us a longer walk on to a dam called Anatiatia. I didn’t have any other plans for the day and I thought the long walk might prepare me for the Tongarirro crossing I was going to be doing in a couple of days. The walk was nice, it followed the river down to the dam. It was a very hot walk as there weren’t many trees lining the path. By the time I reached the dam, I had finished my water. The dam was pretty and serene.

I was given some water by a couple who were sitting in their car, then I headed back to Taupo. The walk seemed much longer on the way back and my legs were very tired by the time I got back to the hostel. I had a very lazy evening after this.

The next day I got up feeling very apprehensive. The reason for this was, after a lot of indecisiveness, I had booked a skydive the day before. The morning dragged on (my skydive was at 1pm ish) so I read a book to distract myself and soon it was time to go. I was picked up by the obnoxious yellow stretch hummer and rode to the airport with the seven other nervous passengers (who were all German – there are a lot of German backpackers in New Zealand). We arrived at the airport and checked in, we were given our flight suits and our harnesses, then we sat down to await our fate.

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About to do this!

Before long it was time to get in the plane. I met my tandem jumpmaster Elad who took some photos with me before we got in the plane. I was first out! I sat by door and looked down as the ground got further and further away. At this point I decided I was an idiot for booking it, but there was no going back. Elad strapped me securely to him and we waited until we reached the height to jump. He opened the door and we moved into position to jump. I closed my eyes and he chucked us both from the plane! I screamed as loudly as I could, the opened my eyes.

At this point I realised that free fall is really cool! After the initial acceleration, you barely feel like you are falling and the view and adrenaline rush are both incredible. It was almost calm at the point, when I looked around and thought – this is amazing! The lake sparkled below, the mountains hazy in the distance, the curve of the earth more obvious than normal. Wow.

All too soon the parachute was opened, the view was still excellent, but the harness suddenly felt tight. Elad loosened the harness and gave me the steering handles for the parachute. He took some more pictures and I marvelled at the view. We spiralled down towards the ground. This bit felt similar to paragliding, but less comfortable. We landed in a sitting position and I laughed, the effects if the adrenaline rushing through me. That was insane!

After all the apprehension, I was so glad I did it and the feeling after I landed was incredible! I would recommend skydiving to anyone (unless you have extreme vertigo) – you won’t regret it!

After an afternoon lounging in the sun letting the effects of the skydive mellow, I went out to buy some Lembas (many many snacks) for my journey through Mordor (Tongariro crossing). I was a bit concerned, as on my extended Huka falls walk, I had got a large blister on my heel.
It was a very early start to get to Tongariro – the bus picked me (and two american girls) up from the hostel at 5:50am! The bus took us to the start of the trail and we began walking. I tried to pace myself as my legs were still hurting a bit from the other walk. The first bit of the walk is fairly flat and goes through a moist marshy volcanic field.

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Through the marshes…

After maybe four kilometers of this, there is a nice waterfall called Soda Springs, then you come to the stairs. There are a lot of stairs. This bit was the hardest section of the walk – so many stairs! But the view at the top was worth the pain. At the top of the stairs is the large flat crater, shielded by the mountains. There are great views of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom). You can climb Ngauruhoe from this point, but it is crazy steep and crazy dangerous!

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Up the stairs… (There is no tunnel for Shelob to hide in though)

After the crater there is a short, steep uphill climb to the highest point of the main walk. At the top I caught up with the girls from my hostel and we walked the rest of the way together. You can go along the ridge to the top of Tongariro, but we weren’t sure we had time to get back to our bus, so we continued on.

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Looking exceedingly fashionable at the halfway point

There is a very steep downhill with a lot of sand and scree descending to the Emerald Lakes – three small and beautiful green pools. I almost made it to the bottom without slipping, but took a minor tumble on one of the less steep parts (I am fine though).

From there the path led on round to the large blue lake which is so beautiful and desolate with only scrubby grass and small alpine flowers surrounding it. The descent from the mountain is a long path. To start with the view is stunning, looking back out over lake Taupo. It was sunny where we were but you could see clouds out in the distance – long white clouds!

The path is draped like spaghetti over the hillside, running through a lovely alpine landscape. I found myself thinking a direct zipline or slide would be preferable to return to the carpark, but this was mostly because my feet were hurting! After a long while, around an hour and a half, the path descends into trees with a little river running alongside. Then, another hour later, you end up in the carpark having completed the Tongariro Crossing! I was so happy to have walked through “Mordor” and the landscape up there was just stunning!

The next day, my tired legs dragged me back to the bus stop to go to the coastal town of Napier. I had a lazy evening in my pretty little hostel resting my tired legs and reading.

The next day was the only rainy day Napier has had in months (and also the only day I had there). I put off going out as long as I could and eventually went and got coffee at the lovely Six Sisters Cafe. I then headed to the bank and set up a New Zealand bank account. This was a lot more fun than expected as Nikki, the lady who helped me set up my account, gave me a lesson in New Zealand history while she was inputting the data into the computer.

The rain had subsided, so I went to say hello to the sea. The beach was made of small round grey stones, so it was very atmospheric out there. I wandered around for a while, then returned to the hostel for dinner. After dinner I had a little wander and saw some of the famous art deco buildings before heading home for bed.

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This blog took me a while to post, so there will be anpther one along shortly about my time in Wellington!

Kiwis and Hobbits

Since I left Auckland, I have been in Rotorua and Matamata. Because of how the buses worked, I first headed to Rotorua for one night, even though Matamata is closer.

Rotorua, in the bay of plenty region, sits on a massive bed of geothermal activity and consequently there are clouds of steam arising around the city. One area by the lake is called Sulphur Point, where the brother meal activity is particularly obvious. It was here I first went exploring after I arrived in Rotorua.

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Sulphur Point

As the name suggests, Sulphur Point has a very strong smell. There is a short bush walk alongside it, with blackened shrubs and board walks. You can see the sulphury steam rising from the ground and a few holes with boiling mud inside. Birds strut around, seemingly oblivious to their unusual surroundings.

The smell began to get to me, so I retreated to the safety and better smell of a rose garden near the museum. After smelling the roses for a while, I noticed an empty play groundground next door to it. There was a very tempting slide, which I, of course, used. I also had a go on the swings and the climbing frame.

The next morning I got up early to go to a very exciting place: Hobbiton! Hobbiton is situated on a farm just outside Matamata. I am a massive Middle Earth fan and even have an elvish tattoo of two of my favourite LOTR quotes: “Not all those who wander are lost” and “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”.

Hobbiton was incredible! They have over 40 hobbit holes, some 90% scale, some 60% scale and some full scale! The level of detail is insane, down to the jars in the window and the plants in the front garden. There is also a full sized Green Dragon Inn (where you get one complimentary drink) and a watermill!

After my wonderful journey through the Shire, I met up with Wendy (mum’s cousin’s wife) and she took me back into Matamata. We had lunch with Rob (mum’s cousin) and I met their various pets: Smudge, Sooty and Mintie the cats and Holly and Zoe the dogs! Wendy took me out for a drive and showed me the surrounding area, then we had a relaxed evening playing Fluxx.

The next day was a rest day for me, I didn’t do much, just a bit a planning, washing and watching The Fellowship of  Ring. And a LOT of playing with Zoe, who is a little puppy.

On the third day in Matamata, I went to see its other attraction – the Wairere falls! I found out that Wairere actually means waterfall in Maori! The walk up to the falls takes 90mins – 2hrs and is all stairs or steep uphill! It is a lovely walk though, with mossy boulders, bridges and occasional views of the valley.

The walk is tough, but it is 100% worth it at the top – the view is breathtaking! And, with a little daring, you can walk across the river before the waterfall and climb down so you are basically on the edge of it!

After the excitement of the waterfall and hhe much faster walk down (it only took me an hour), Wendy picked me up and took me back to the house, via McDonalds! Another chilled afternoon happened, I watched the Two Towers, played with Zoe and relaxed in the spa pool.

After three nights in Matamata, it was time to head back to Rotorua. Wendy took me the long way round and we saw the boiling mud pools at Wai-o-tapu. We had lunch at a pub there and then she dropped me at my hostel. Many thanks to Rob and Wendy for welcoming me into their home for those three nights and for showing me round!

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Wai-o-tapu boiling mud

Back in Rotorua, I had a quiet evening reading and went to bed early. The next morning I got up early and headed out to Rainbow Springs, which is a native wildlife park and conservation centre. I cannot recommend it enough! I spent an entire day there, enjoying the animals, listening to talks and taking photos.

They are also the largest Kiwi conservation centre in the world. They collect kiwi eggs and incubate them until they hatch, then release the babies once they are a certain size. The have three older kiwis living there that you can see in special ‘nighttime’ enclosures: Te Kaha, a thirty year old female, Pai, a four month old boy and Thistle, his slightly older sister. Before I left Rainbow Springs, I picked up my kiwi, Kaia.

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Two blurry six day old kiwi chicks

I also thoroughly enjoyed the bird show at Rainbow Springs. They have some very talented parrots (and trainers)! There is also a ride called “The Big Splash” which is a boat ride that weaves around props, showing the history of New Zealand, then throws you down a steep waterslide to splash at the end!

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A basketball playing parrot

My final day in Rotorua was eventful and sunny. I had a Maori experience booked for the evening, so I decided to go to the Skyline in the day. The Skyline is a gondola thathat takes you up the hill over Rotorua and you can do activities at the top. The main one is the luge, which is a cart you t in and speed down the hill on one of three tracks. The chairlift takes you back up and you can go again!

There is also a 400m zipline that whizzes at around 80kmph through the trees to the bottom of the hill. At the end you do a free fall jump (a bit like a mini bungy, without the bounce) to get down from the tower. It was so much fun! The zipline was so fast and you felt like you were brushing past the trees as you went!

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Beautiful views!

After a lot of walking about, buying jelly beans and taking my zipline and the chilled chairlift back to the top, I boarded the gondola back to Rotorua and went back to my hostel to prepare for my outing to the Maori village.

They picked me up and the friendly bus driver greeted us and explained how the evening would go. We had to choose a ‘chief’ to greet the Maoris at the village and accept the peace offering. An older man named Andy was chosen. We arrived at the village and were greeted by the Maoris in the normal scary fashion! Once in the village there were stations where they showed you traditional Maori skills, such as the Haka, the Ta Moko tattooing and Poi, which I had a go at (it was a very basic routine).

After we were shown these things, there was a full performance that they did for us showing us how it all should be done! It was amazing. This was followed by the feast which was so delicious! I ate way too much! We had lamb and chicken and potatoes as well as carrots and salad. For dessert was steam pudding or pavlova.

After the meal the bus driver dropped us back off at our respective accommodation, but not until he’d made us all sing! A night to remember!

Wow. These posts always look so long, even though I do my best to keep them brief! That’s all for now, another installment in a week or so! Kia Ora!

Kia ora Aotearoa!

I have been in Aotearoa New Zealand for a little over a week now and so far I am enjoying myself so much and falling in love with this beautiful country.

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Trees in Albert Park, Auckland

So far I have only visited Auckland and Paihia, which are both in the North of the country. It has been very hot, although it rained once or twice and of course I was outside on both occasions!

When I arrived Auckland I was excited. I was surprised at the friendliness and helpfulness of the bus driver who took us into Auckland and I was impressed by the landscape (even though we were onto on the motorway heading into the city), but I was very tired an in need of a shower. Six and a half hours on a plane, followed by sixteen hours on a plane will do that to you!

Long story short, my first day in Auckland was disappointing. My hostel in central Auckland was terrible – messy and dirty with poor security and a weird atmosphere. I tried to find another place to stay, but was too tired, so spent the night there.

The next day I found my wonderful Brown Kiwi Hostel in Ponsonby (a nice suburb about 30mins walk from the city centre). This is one of the nicest hostels I’ve been to! They even have a hostel cat called Steffi.

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Steffi the cat

My first proper day in Auckland (I’m writing off day one), I ked around the city and found myself in Domain wintergarden, which was surrounded by beautiful parkland. There were two large glasshouses which contained lovely plants and a large area full of ferns (ferns are a big thing in New Zealand). On the way out I also found a very cool tree that was bent over – inviting me to climb on it!

On day two, I wanted to go to Mount Eden (Maungawhau), which is around an hours walk from my hostel. I set off under overcast skies and got caught in a torrential downpour on a stretcstretch of road with nowhere to hide! I decided to change my plans and go to the Art Gallery instead, where I saw a fascinating exhibition of Maori Portraits painted by Gottfried Lindauer, a European artist. The portraits were detailed and expressive – a beautiful insight into the lives of the Maori people of the time.

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A Maori Portrait

The weather had improved, so I headed for Mount Eden. It was a long walk and a hard climb, but the view was worth it – the view back to the city was wonderful! Maungawhau, the Maori name for Mount Eden, means “The Mountain of the Whau Tree” and its crater is Tapu (sacred) as it is the bowl of Mataaho, the God of secrets hidden in the ground (he used to live there).

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View of Auckland from Mount Eden

After my short stay in Auckland, I headed on to Paihia. Paihia is a small seaside town in the far north of New Zealand. My hostel here was lovely – except for the fact that the top bunks didn’t have rails! I was so scared I would fall out of bed in the night!

When I arrived in Paihia, I went on a dolphin spotting cruise. We didn’t see any dolphins! But we did circle the Bay of Islands, which has beautiful scenery (this is a trend in New Zealand). We stopped at an island called Urupukapuka on the way back to Paihia and I climbed the hill there and found excellent views. While I was there, I watched the Oyster Catchers feeding – they are so cute. As we left Urupukapuka, I saw a stingray swim past in the water – it made my day!

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View from Urupukapuka Island

On day two in Paihia, I went to Russell, just across the bay, which was the first capital of New Zealand. It is a very small place, although New Zealand’s oldest church stands there. I went for a walk through the bush next to the town and saw a kiwi bird in the undergrowth (I think it was a kiwi anyway). Ever since then, whenever I have been in a kiwi area, I have been constantly hoping for another one to appear!

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The oldest church in New Zealand

The day after, I saw a Californian quail on a walk up to a viewpoint, but no more kiwi yet. After my walk I just had a lazy day planning some more of my trip.

On the fourth day in Paihia, I visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which is where the Maori chiefs first signed the Treaty of Waitangi, joining the British empire. The site is large and contains the refurbished house where the treaty was translated into Maori. There is also a large Maori meeting house, built especially for the location. Maori meeting houses are normally tribe specific, buy this house represents all tribes. I saw a cultural performance there, including Maori music and dance.

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With the cultural performers

Waitangi is also home to a massive Maori war canoe who can hold one hundred men. It was in 1940 for the 100 year anniversary of the signing of the treaty. There is also a museum on site which explains the story of the treaty through artifacts and interactive displays.

After the treaty grounds, I went in a scenic five kilometer hike to the gorgeous Haruru falls. It was a long walk back to Paihia, but luckily I managed to hitch a lift with a kind French couple, who dropped me in the centre of Paihia.

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Haruru Falls

On my final day in Paihia, I sat on the beach, reading and swimming and consequently getting rather sunburnt. It is easily done in New Zealand. The sun is very strong due to the ozone hole and even though I wore and reapplied suncream, it was not enough!

Back in Auckland, I visited Rangitoto Island – a volcanic island just north of Auckland. The island is the newest and largest volcano in the region – there are around 50 in total! There are strict rules about what you can bring onto the island and they have a complex pest eradication scheme to ensure the ecosystem is protected. I climbed the volcano in the rain, finding myself in a lovely damp cloud as I reached the top. The view was like nothing I’d seen so far – just white cloud.

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A cove on Rangitoto

I walked back down and found a path leading to the other side of the island. I walked along, admiring the plants and birds I saw and eventually came to a small cove with some of the Baches (small holiday houses) around it. There are no permanent human residents on the island, so the houses are all deserted – only 30 of the 140 beaches remain. The weather improved and by the time I left Rangitoto, it was sunny again! Perhaps I should’ve left the summit climb until the end!

As I write this, I am coming to the end of my time in Auckland. Today I had a mostly lazy day, after heading out to a bar with some people from the hostel last night. The bar was the Ponsonby Social Club and we saw a cool funky band called Hipstamatic – it was a fun evening.

In the late afternoon, I headed out to Devonport, which is just across the bay from Auckland, to climb Mount Victoria (Takarunga – “the hill standing above”). This was a good decision. The views were excellent! You could see back across to Auckland and also out to Rangitoto. There  also these cute little mushrooms, which are actually vents for a water pumping station. I could have stayed up there for hours, but I had to return to eat and blog and pack before I head off for Rotorua tomorrow!

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View of Auckland from Mount Victoria

I will be sad to leave the Northland, but excited to see some more of this incredible country, which I am falling more and more in love with day by day.