A Travellerspoint blog

Some reflections

Well, rather abruptly, that’s the end.

Thanks to those of you who have stuck with this blog. Originally conceived as a glorified postcard with a few scribbled notes about all the places we visited, the blog gradually evolved into something of a monster. I make no apologies for that, as some of the places we visited we’re so inspiring that to jot down two vacuous sentences would have been worse than writing nothing at all. Enjoyed Vietnam, weather was nice but some bad stuff happened here with wars which is a shame because the people really are lovely……………

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading the blog as much as we enjoyed writing it. A hell of a lot of planning went into the wedding and the following 6 months and it’s been by far the greatest thing we’ve ever done. We’ve resolved to return to some of the places we visited, top of the list being Japan and probably as part of another 6 month world tour. We’ve already planned the route, so now we just need to work out how and when.

We got home about 3 weeks ago and it’s been great to catch up with everyone. The reason this update has been so delayed is that I’ve been busy looking for a job and the market is pretty slow at the minute (massive understatement). As I write this I’m nervously waiting for the phone to ring with good news.

Right, I’m off for a walk and to enjoy what will hopefully be my last few days as an unemployed man. Might just check flight prices to Tokyo first though.

Yep, it’s nice to be home.

We travelled among unknown men,
In lands beyond the sea,
Nor, England did we know till then……………………..

Posted by MrMrsSchof 08:47 Archived in England Comments (0)

California

all seasons in one day
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We climbed off the barbarically long trans-pacific flight and dragged ourselves through US immigration before finding our way to our hotel in Hollywood. Hollywood was a bit of a disappointment to be honest, feeling a bit like the seedier side of King’s Cross.

We spent that evening with Patrick in probably the fanciest bar in Santa Monica, awoke the following morning feeling distinctly more human, picked up our hire car and sped down Santa Monica Boulevard, through the outrageously opulent districts of Beverly Hills and Bel Air before being dropped onto route 1 and the long drive to San Francisco.

We passed through Malibu and skirted the Santa Monica Mountain range before stopping briefly in Santa Barbara to have a look at the magnificent Mission. The Californian coast from San Diego to San Francisco is dotted with Catholic Missions set up by the Spanish mostly during the 18th century and all linked by a track called El Camino Real (the Royal Road). To this day route 1 follows much of El Camino Real. We then settled down for the night in San Simeon.

The patch of road north of San Simeon is torturously windy but ruggedly beautiful, passing through a coastal area called Big Sur – have a look at the pictures we’ve attached. We also passed a stinking elephant seal colony just after birthing season. I forget the specific details (so don’t quote me on this), but thanks to their mothers’ incredibly nutritious milk, elephant seal pups gain an enormous amount of weight during the first two months of life, something like tripling in size. After two months the mothers abandon the pups and they are left to fend for themselves meaning that the weight gained during the first two months of life has to last them until they work out how to swim and hunt. Instinctively heading north, many of the pups are gleefully picked off by hungry orcas on their way up to San Francisco.

Continuing north past Monterey we stopped off in Silicon Valley to see Melissa, Pete and their adorable 4 day old baby son Christopher. It was wonderful to see them all.

Late that evening we arrived at our hotel in San Francisco at the edge of Chinatown. We stayed in San Francisco for 3 days, but would have happily stayed a lot longer. Dutifully setting about the tourist sights, we rode the cable car from Market Street, through Chinatown and up to Nob Hill and Haight-Ashbury (home to the summer of love and hippy culture) before descending and alighting at Fisherman’s Wharf. We’ve attached the obligatory snap of the steepest street in the city. Never happier than wandering round a new town, we dawdled around the city centre adopting the kind of pedestrian, tourist pace that infuriates locals.

One of the catalysts for the explosion of hippy culture in San Francisco was the spread of LSD. Now this might be nonsense, but we were led to believe that LSD exploded in popularity among students and hippies after being tested as an interrogation tool by the CIA, the belief being that those under the influence are unable to lie. The guinea pigs enjoyed themselves so much and decided to spread the word. As I said, that might be nonsense but it makes a good story.

We also took a boat trip out to Alcatraz, or La Isla do los Alcatraces (the island of pelicans). Obviously the great attraction is the cells which once housed America’s most dangerous, including Al Capone, Robert ‘the Birdman’ Stroud and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. An excellent audio tour talks you through escape attempts and conditions in the prison. There are also interesting exhibits detailing the role of Alcatraz in the American civil war and the occupation of Alcatraz by Native American Indians during the 1960s; their goal being a wider global awareness of the plight of Native American Indians.

We also ate extremely well in San Francisco. Apparently it has more restaurants per capita than pretty much anywhere else in the world, which is allegedly a legacy from the gold rush days when the city was occupied almost entirely by men who couldn’t or wouldn’t cook for themselves. Neither would I if my pockets were full of gold.

We left San Francisco for the long drive back to LA, stopping at Monterey Bay aquarium on the way then settling down for the night at San Luis Obispo. The morning after we drove to LAX, climbed aboard the plane and woke up in London.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 08:46 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Dunedin, Fairlie, back to Christchurch and Auckland

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We set off on the long drive to Dunedin, passing through the most southerly places either of us have ever been, or are ever likely to go. Arriving in Dunedin it was great to see some old friends and thanks again Gill, Dave and Paul for your much appreciated hospitality. Sadly we couldn’t see much of the surrounding area as the rain and cloud had really set in, limiting visibility badly. Still, at least we have google earth. Dunedin itself has some imposing architecture, perhaps most famously the train station.

We set off back to Christchurch, following the coastal road to the Moeraki Boulders, then cutting inland via lakes Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo. Tekapo and Pukaki are fed by glacial melt water which gives them a surreal turquoise colour.

A significant amount of domestic demand for electricity in New Zealand is met through hydroelectric schemes. Lakes and rivers in this part of the country are marked with a succession of cascading dams and impressive engineering works. We’re led to believe that the scenery in this part of New Zealand is stunning, but unfortunately we can’t comment as we could barely see past the end of our noses.

Having stopped overnight in a dreary old town called Fairlie, we arrived in Christchurch for a single night before dropping the van back at the airport and flying north to Auckland. Around this time, we were faced with the ominous realisation that this trip was actually coming to an end……..

We had a couple of nights in Auckland before the long flight to LA and enjoyed staying with Helen, Vance, William and Natasha. Helen and Vance kindly allowed us to use one of their cars to have a good look round Auckland and we spent a couple of days pottering round the city centre, as well as Devonport, Mission Bay and Cornwall Park.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 08:46 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Te Anau and Milford Sound

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We set off to Te Anau, a place largely marketed as a stopping point for those intent on seeing Milford Sound but with a great deal more to offer. The town of Te Anau sits astride the eponymous lake on the very edge of the Fjordland National Park, which is where much of Lord of the Rings was filmed.

First up we managed to find a crazy golf course and I diligently went about correcting the horrors of Queenstown. I set about the 18 holes with an air of determined concentration, intent on winning, not having fun. I won comfortably, order was restored to the universe and I slept well that night.

We also thought we’d try our hand at Quad Biking in Te Anau. Fortunately, only Adél and I had booked in for that evening so the two of us were guided round by a nice chap called Fraser. Virtually indestructible, these 450cc bikes are built for serious agricultural purpose, not for poncing about at the fairground. Leading us through some pleasant and gently undulating countryside, Fraser lured us into a false sense of security, before charging through 2 foot deep mud holes and up 35 degree ascents all the while nipping round hazardously strewn boulders and curious sheep. The route we followed would undoubtedly be outlawed at home but the tremendous disregard for health and safety in New Zealand is matched only by the tremendous regard for a sense of adventure. Having said that, most of the track would probably constitute a reasonable road surface in parts of India.

The following morning we got up in the pouring rain and made our way along the eastern fringe of Lake Te Anau, up the Eglington Valley then through the Homer tunnel before arriving at the shore of Milford Sound. Bit of geography for you now. A sound is formed by the sea eroding the coastline and carving a route inland whereas a fjord is formed by glaciers carving away and eventually meeting the sea. Fjords are deeper, narrower, have much steeper sides and are generally more spectacular. Milford Sound is a fjord, not a sound. And it’s a spectacular fjord whose grandeur bears comparison with the might of Geirangerfjord, Sognefjord and the other great Norwegian fjords.

We took a boat trip for a couple of hours heading out to the mouth of the fjord, passing Mitre Peak and some unbelievable waterfalls on the way. Rising out of the fjord are sheer rock faces up to 1,300m in height. That’s the equivalent of Ben Nevis rising directly out of the sea. Judging distances in these magnificent surroundings is pretty much impossible – pleasure cruisers carrying 200 tourists are mere dots at the bottom of gargantuan rock faces.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 08:46 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Queenstown and Arrowtown

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We reluctantly left Wanaka bound for Queenstown, checking into a campsite on the edge of town for 3 nights. They filmed a lot of Lord of the Rings near Queenstown.

20 kilometres from Queenstown lies the once prosperous gold mining settlement of Arrowtown. The painstaking extraction of alluvial gold from the river has gradually been replaced by the lazier but no less profitable extraction of gold from tourists’ pockets. The town has been diligently preserved in all its gold rush glory and features an open museum describing the conditions in which a significant number of Chinese migrants lived and worked across Otago during the gold rush days. The museum insightfully tracks the lives of a handful of migrants, telling in some detail the story of one chap called Tin Pan. Yep, Tin Pan. We even saw Tin Pan’s hut, which is presumably where he kept his rudimentary kitchenware, including perhaps his tin pans. Tin Pan’s tin pans.

The following day we made our way to a place called Shotover Gorge to have a go on the much hyped Shotover Jet. Unbelievably, these jet boats can travel at 85 km/h in 10cm of water but the real attraction is how perilously close the boats travel to the side of the steep gorge walls, often only 50cm or so away. Exciting stuff. Andrew ‘call me Kelty’ Kelt was piloting our particular jet boat that day and had the bloodshot eyes and rancid smell of a man unsuccessfully trying to hide a hangover. His booze impaired reactions only added to the fun. Oh yeah and before I forget, the Shotover river was used in the filming of Lord of the Rings.

Returning to Queenstown we opted for the quiet joys of another wonderful crazy golf course where, tragically, Adél beat me. It felt like my world had fallen apart. I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to explain how it happened.

Queenstown itself occupies an implausibly beautiful location; sandwiched between the Remarkables mountain range and lake Wakatipu (both of which are used in the filming of Lord of the Rings). Lake Wakatipu is shaped like a lightning bolt and on our second day we drove along the eastern edge of the bolt up to a place called Glenorchy; a place made famous as a setting for Lord of the Rings. Predictably, the scenery along the drive was out of this world and felt like some kind of quasi-imaginary landscape. They should use the area as a film set, perhaps for some kind of epic, fantasy science-fiction thriller. I wonder if anyone else has had that idea?

Before we arrived in New Zealand we were a little concerned that perhaps the country had been over-hyped. Surely it can’t be as stunning as everyone had told us? But it truly is. I’d encourage anyone with a love of landscapes and the great outdoors to go immediately.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 23:44 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Wanaka

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After the heli-hike we hopped back in the van and travelled south to Wanaka which is where we've spent the past 3 days. We've enjoyed some dramatic landscapes whilst in New Zealand but the drive from Franz Josef to Wanaka probably provided the finest yet.

Within 350 kilometres the drive took us past incredibly beautiful coastal scenery before cutting in land along a river valley with steeply rising mountains and interlocking spurs and finally depositing us between lakes Wanaka and Hawea. Wanaka is probably our highlight of New Zealand so far. I'm not desperately good at describing landscapes, but it's a bit like a far more dramatic Lake District with far fewer people.

The campsite where we're currently set up is on the shore of the lake and within stumbling distance from Rippon Vineyard which must be one of the most implausibly picturesque vineyards in the world. Armed with a dangerously limited amount of wine knowledge, we spent yesterday afternoon sampling a variety of Rippon’s wines and making intelligent conversation about the subtle sweetness of their Riesling and the exquisite bouquet of their Pinot Noir Jeunesse, before smugly admonishing the old world wine snobberies of the past. We then cracked on with the serious business of greedily guzzling a load of the wine which we’d chosen as our favourite during the tasting session. We eschewed the cheese platter in favour of the steak pie and ready salted crisps we'd packed. Yum yum. A couple of hours later, and a little worse for ware, we wandered down to the lake for a swim, passing on the way a young couple who had just that minute got engaged. Quite literally. I’d noticed him shuffling round a little nervously during the tasting a couple of hours earlier.

I've spent most of today playing some exceptionally cowardly golf on an attractive and challenging course whilst Adel settled herself down with a book, a brew and lakeside views for a relaxing afternoon. There seems to be less suffocating pretence about golf in New Zealand. I played on a first rate course and they didn't mind me playing in a stinking old t-shirt, shorts and old trainers. I like that attitude. Old world snobbery again you see.

Anyway, we're heading down to Queenstown now for 3 nights or so then pushing onto Te Anau, Milford Sound, Dunedin and possibly Twizel before flying from Christchurch to Auckland on the 25th. A couple of days in Auckland, then we fly to LA on the 27th for a week in California to see Patrick in the City of Angels, Melissa and Pete in San Francisco and maybe Yosemite National Park if we get time. I've got a sinking feeling that the next blog update will be written from home...........

Before I sign off I'd just like to make sure that you all know that Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand. There's no bloody danger of forgetting it when you're here and frankly I'm sick of being told. If I hear one more thing about Lord of the bloody Rings I'm going home.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 21:12 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Arthur's Pass and Franz Josef

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The drive from Christchurch to the West Coast took us over Arthur's Pass, a sub-alpine pass. Stopping on the way for a couple of short walks, we pushed onto Hokitika on the west coast for some fish and chips on the beach in the wind and light drizzle (felt very like home), before stopping for a couple of nights at Franz Josef.

I wrote most of this blog entry from a campsite sandwiched between the Franz Josef glacier and Southern Alps to the west and the open ocean to the east. Despite the beautiful location, the most remarkable thing about the campsite was that it had 8 broken tumble driers. From a total population of 10. Incredible. There are certain things we'll never be able to explain. A bit like that field full of 3 legged sheep in Morfa Nefyn.

You'd be justified for wondering why we're worrying about tumble driers on our honeymoon. Well, our van sprang a leak a few days ago. When I say leak, I mean that the huge plastic skylight above the living room / kitchen / dining room / bedroom blew off on the drive from Christchurch. We’ll feign confused and naïve innocence with the rental company, but I suspect it had something to do with our little bump in the Bay of Islands. We tried to patch the hole up with a hastily and shoddily improvised collection of plastic bags and pegs, but the relentless overnight downpour meant that we woke up with sodden feet. Life goes on.

Whilst in Franz Josef we went heli-hiking on the eponymous glacier, courtesy of Tom and Haley - thanks guys. It was brilliant. You start off with a scenic helicopter ride over the glacier before being dropped off about half way up, swan around on the glacier in ice caves for a couple of hours then get a helicopter ride back down. The lad who guided us round the glacier had the air of a man who really enjoys his job. He'd stop occasionally to swing his axe around his head before thumping it into an unsuspecting chunk of ice. I suspect were it not for the fact he was accompanied by 10 paying customers he'd have roared ferociously at the same time. We've attached a picture of Adel having a go with the ice axe. She looks simple and dangerous.

Just south of the glacier there's a town by the name of Haast. Haast was an Austrian explorer in the 1860s and named as much as he could find after himself (the bits that Captain Cook left essentially). At some stage he ran out of money and sent a photo of the Haast glacier to Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Franz liked what he saw, send Haast a big bag of cash and asked that the glacier be named after him. Parts of the glacier are moving at 4 - 5 metres per day. By glacial terms that's lightning fast and indeed marginally quicker than Prasad's top bowling speed. The only downside about Franz Josef is that it rains an average of 290 days of the year, but if you drive a few hundred kilometres to Lake Wanaka that all changes and the weather improves immeasurably…………

Posted by MrMrsSchof 21:12 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Kaikoura and Christchurch

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We arrived in the dreary little seaside town of Kaikoura following a long, but scenic, drive from the Abel Tasman National Park and booked ourselves in for some whale watching. Full of uncharacteristic (and frankly unsettling) morning joy, we arrived at the visitor centre for 07:00 sharp the following morning to be warned of nasty sea conditions and the likelihood of sea-sickness.

An exhibit at the visitor centre featuring thank you letters from kids at a local primary school foretold of the dangers ahead. Replete with hopelessly inaccurate scribbles of giant sperm whales and the sea, the letters made entertaining reading. Most wonderfully, Nils Fleischmann (aged 8) commented:

Thank you for taking me to see the whales. It was a good day for me. Even though Norman spewed on me.

Sadly, I couldn't find Norman's letter. Perhaps the whole experience was just too traumatic for him. Either that or he was the class teacher.

We paid the exorbitant charge and were whisked away into the open ocean on a powerful catamaran, all eagerly scanning the horizon for whales. Giant sperm whales can grow to about 20m long and they eat big fish, squid and occasionally shark. They spend a while at the surface to replenish their oxygen supplies, have a quick poo and then dive to a depth of about 1km to feed. We were lucky enough to see 3 whales when we were out in the bay which was a real privilege. They gather at Kaikoura because the sea bed drops sharply and 2 currents converge, all of which brings a wealth of marine life to the area.

As prophesised by Nils and Norman, the ride descended into an ugly spew-fest. The gut-wrenching noises started quietly and discretely but built gently into a horrid crescendo, at which point Adel succumbed and enthusiastically joined the party. I'm happy to say that my gut survived. Returning to land the colour that had drained from Adel’s face gradually returned.

We left Kaikoura and continued along the attractive coastal road to Christchurch. Just before we got to Christchurch we stopped at the International Antarctic Centre which has features and exhibits outlining the research being conducted by Kiwi scientists at Scott base on Ross Island. More excitingly, the centre has a big room where you can get wrapped up in warm clothes and feel the full force of an artificially created Antarctic storm. It felt like a balmy summer’s day in Harrogate.

Pleasant if unremarkable, Christchurch has a very English feel about it. We checked into a B&B for a couple of nights as we were keen to get out of the van for a while and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of days in the bars and restaurants around Cathedral Square. We wiled hours away in the art gallery, the civilised little cinema and watching the punters shuffle up and down the river Avon adorned in waistcoats and striped straw boaters.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 21:11 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Wellington, the Cook Straits and Abel Tasman National Park

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We pushed onto Wellington on the morning of 5th February. Regrettably we only had one night in Wellington, but it left a great impression of a vibrant harbour city with a lively waterfront nightlife.

One of the star draws of Wellington is the world class Te Papa Museum which features all kinds of exhibits dealing with the flora and fauna, geology / tectonics and social history of New Zealand. Most famously, the museum has a giant pickled squid. Fished out of the sea near Antarctica a few years ago the squid has eyeballs the size of a football. It's horrible.

The museum has a good exhibit about the Waitangi Treaty. Waitangi is a place up in the Bay of Islands, not far away from where we parked up at Russell. In 1840 a treaty was signed in Waitangi between the British Crown and a number of Maori chiefs. The contents of the treaty remain hugely contentious throughout New Zealand to this day. It’s complicated stuff, but this is how I understand it.

After Captain Cook returned home with tales of New Zealand, more and more European settlers began arriving. The early settlers sound like a real bunch of drunken, seal-clubbing savages and their behaviour brought them into frequent conflict with the indigenous Maori population. The settlers brought new ideas such as money and new weapons, all of which began to influence Maori society.

Fearing the erosion of the Maori way of life in the face of ever growing numbers of settlers, a number of Maori chiefs requested help from the British Crown to control the settlers, establish law and order and to limit the settlers’ greedy land grabbing.

Although initially unsure about extending a fragile empire, many believe that the Crown was then happy to use the invitation from the northern Maori chiefs to push through the Waitangi Treaty and annex the entire country. A process made all the more urgent because of growing French designs on New Zealand.

According to the English version of the treaty, the Maori ceded sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain in return for the rights common to all British subjects. Maori were also guaranteed legal ownership of their current lands and property but effectively gave the British crown first refusal on anything they wished to sell. Whether accidentally or nefariously, a lot of the above was lost in translation and a sea of legal semantics into the Maori version; the English version included the word sovereignty, whilst the most accurate translation of the Maori version back into English uses the word governance.

Another bone of contention is that the northern chiefs which requested assistance from the Crown certainly didn’t represent the entire Maori population from across New Zealand.

Regardless of the Treaty contents, land grabbing by European settlers and the Crown continued unimpeded. Bits of land that weren’t grabbed were often bought for farcically small sums of money from people that didn’t truly understand the nature of buying and selling land.

In 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to address Maori claims on land and property taken by European settlers and the Crown. It's a credit to New Zealand that efforts are being made to redress the mistakes of yesteryear, but needless to say it’s a painstakingly slow process relying upon often tenuous evidence from over 100 years ago.

Wishing we’d had longer in Wellington, we caught the early morning ferry across the Cook Strait to Picton. Happily, the often choppy Cook Straits were placid. The crossing is glorious and cuts through the Marlborough Sounds before dropping you off in Picton from where we drove up to Abel Tasman National Park.

Abel Tasman was a Dutch voyager and explorer who anchored in the area, had a quick skirmish with the resident Maori tribe and decided, quite wisely, to leg it. This was in 1642, a good 120 years before Cook was knocking about. The National Park has beaches and bays more beautiful than the Bay of Islands of Coromandel Peninsula in my opinion. We took a boat trip past a local seal colony then spent a day walking back along the coast to the boat pickup, stopping sporadically to dip in crystal clear waters, wash the feasting sandflies off and admire the views.

When we were booking our place on the boat the previous evening I politely asked the chap about the weather forecast for the following day. “Yep, should be a great day for burning Pomes like you”. Charming.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 21:11 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Waitomo, Rotorua and Tongariro

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After Tauranga we travelled down to Waitomo. Set amidst limestone country, the area round Waitomo is pock-marked with labyrinthine cave formations, many of which are home to glow-worms. The life of a glow-worm is a little miserable; once hatched they live as a worm, emitting a green bioluminescence to attract mosquitoes and other insects. Once caught in the worms' sticky webs, the glow-worm will suck the goodness out of the mosquito then spit the corpse back down onto the cave floor. After 9 months the worms get bored of all this, pupate and emerge, somewhat disappointingly no doubt, as a fly without a mouth. The lucky flies quickly mate and then starve to death whilst the unlucky files get caught in the webs of their erstwhile friends and messily devoured. Lovely.

All of this makes for an incredible spectacle as you serenely drift along a river through the pitch black cave network, the roof alight with unrecognisable star constellations comprising thousands of green pin-pricks of light.

We left Waitomo for the short drive to Rotorua and decided to have a bit of an adventure day. Kiwis love adventure sports and sometimes it gets a bit suffocating. It doesn't matter where you are in the country you'll be inundated with bloody pamphlets explaining the local options for canyoning, jetboating, black water rafting, bungee jumping, sky diving and christ knows what else. All very impressive, but there’s a noticeable lack of snooker clubs.

If New Zealand ever decides to become a republic, then no doubt it will need to think long and hard about a new flag design; one wary of both Maori and Pakeha (European settlers) sensitivities. Perhaps rather than a Kiwi or some rubbish unfurling fern, a flag featuring an array of promotional tourist pamphlets would be more appropriate.

We opted for some leisurely adventure pursuits in the end. First up was zorbing, which I'm sure most of you are familiar with. For those that aren't, it involves climbing into a big inflatable ball with a load of water inside and rolling down a big hill. Simple idea but great fun. Next up was fake sky-diving, where you don a boiler suit and lie on top of an incredibly powerful fan until you're blown into the air. Also great fun. Next was Agrojet, which is a speedboat that moves from 0 to 100km per hour within the space of about 50 metres. Terrifying. Finally we went on a ride called the Luge, where you take a chairlift to the top of a big hill then slide back down on a plastic tray with a primitive breaking system. Again, brilliant fun.

Aside from the fun and games of adventure sports, Rotorua is famous for the active geothermal areas which surround the area. We visited Wai-O-Tapu (Maori for "sacred waters") and Orakei Korako ("the place of adorning" - thanks for the tip off with this one Neil and Fran), both of which were absolutely excellent. Each of these parks has geysers, hot pools, sinter terraces and a palette of vivid colours caused by various minerals and stuff. Needless to say the place is redolent of sulphur, although the pungent smell is certainly no more malodorous than the inside of our van every morning. My fault, I hasted to add - not Adel's. We've attached some of the good photos - take a look at the colours.

On our final day in Rotorua we went to the disappointing local museum then onto see some Kiwis at a local conservation centre. New Zealand was the last significant landmass inhabited by man, with the Maori only arriving here around 800 years ago from various south pacific islands. When New Zealand split from Gondwanaland (about the same time Manchester City last won a trophy) it didn’t bother to drag any land mammals with it meaning that many birds lost the need and consequently the ability to fly. In the late 19th century European settlers introduced rabbits to New Zealand and, as rabbits tend to, they bred like rabbits. To control the rabbit population stoats were then introduced and in keeping with the law of unintended consequences, the stoats gorged on Kiwi. The population has been declining so seriously that were it not for conservation efforts across the country ("operation nest egg") the Kiwi would likely be facing extinction within 20 years or so. Happily, operation nest egg continues to be a roaring success, not breeding Kiwi in captivity, rather taking the eggs from the wild, hatching them in captivity and looking after them until they're more capable of surviving in the wild.

Afterwards we drove from south from Rotorua, past Lake Taupo to a place called Ohakune in the Tongariro National Park to walk the much hyped Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Although it was only a 20 kilometre walk it felt a lot longer, because half was uphill and half was downhill. Adel was very unhappy about the ordeal, accusing me of talking her into the walk under false pretences. I protest innocence - she read the 3,456 different promotional pamphlets outlining the Alpine Crossing as well as I did. The walk ascends steeply then passes Mount Ngauruhou and drags you through volcanic craters, around emerald green lakes and across high ridges with fabulous views down to Lake Taupo and beyond. It was truly stunning and we’ve attached some tremendous photographs.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 21:10 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Auckland, Bay of Islands, Coromandel and Tauranga

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We've spent the last few weeks on Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud) sandwiched between Papatuanuku (earth mother) and Ranginui (sky father) and we’ve loved it.

New Zealand has certainly lived up to sky high expectations. Along with Tibet and Nepal, New Zealand has the most epic landscapes we've seen on this honeymoon. We've enjoyed stunning coastal scenery in the Bay of Islands and Abel Tasman National Park, glaciers cutting through temperate rain forest at Franz Josef, volcanic and geothermal landscapes at Rotorua and Tongariro and deep, jaw-droppingly beautiful, glacial carved valleys at Wanaka and Queenstown.

I’ll start from the beginning. We arrived in Auckland airport and made our way into the city, stopping overnight in a pleasant part of town called Parnell. The following morning we picked up our camper van and headed north to the Bay of Islands. We didn't really get time to look round Auckland but we're back up there for 2 nights on the 25th Feb so we'll get another chance.

Apologies, but I’m going to have to start this blog entry by ranting about our camper van. It’s a disgrace. With a youthful 260,000 kilometres on the clock even the slightest incline causes deafening, fuel devouring, bone-shaking difficulty. In fact, I'd go as far to say that with a mere 115 break-horse-power available, progress is too leisurely to be called fast, but on the motorway in fifth gear the Toyota Haice's slow pace really becomes a pain. Uphill runs become power sappingly mundane, while overtaking National Express coaches can become a long, drawn-out affair. Not my words, but those of Top Gear magazine. It’s not just that it’s dangerously weak, but it smells, it’s grubby and bits of it keep falling off. Never mind, we’ve struggled on somehow.

We wheezed our way from Auckland up to the glorious Bay of Islands for 3 days of tropical sunshine amongst some beautiful beaches and bays. Whilst we were there we booked ourselves onto a boat trip round the bay which promised a swim with dolphins. Unfortunately the pod of dolphins we found had calves with them at the time, so we weren't allowed to swim. Sensing the disappointment of everyone on board, the skipper winched out something called a boom-net for us all to have a go in. A boom-net is a big net attached to the side of a boat via a crude metal frame. You jump into the net and hold tight as the boat accelerates recklessly. For those powerful enough to hold onto the side of the net it's tremendous fun - a bit like water skiing on the soles of your feet. For the weak and elderly I suspect it's more akin to recreational waterboarding; the powerful waves dragging you to the back of the net and holding you under for a good soaking. Once the emergency first aid treatment had been administered to the 4 or 5 semi-drowned middle-aged Brits we set off again. Kiwis seem to have a fairly harsh, Darwinian approach to frailty and weakness.

The scenery in the Bay of Islands is beautiful and the weather was scorching hot, although mercifully a little cooler than Sydney. Taking the usual factor 50 precautions I almost managed to successfully escape the day without any evidence of having been in the sun. Unfortunately, and having recently had my head shaved by an over eager Adel, I forgot to wear a hat. 3 days later my scalp was pealing painfully and comically - one morning my pillow looked like a flapjack……

We reluctantly left the Bay of Islands bound for the Coromandel Peninsula, stopping briefly, and alarmingly quickly, for me to rearrange the top of our van on a petrol station forecourt roof.

The Coromandel Peninsula juts out from the north island, just east of Auckland over the Hauraki Gulf and like the Bay of Islands features some ruggedly scenic coastline, including the Cathedral Cove Marine Park and Hot Water Beach. Hot Water Beach sits above hot springs and, as the name suggests, if you dig a shallow hole in the sand at low tide then the water that seeps in is hot. Not just warm, but scalding. Unfortunately, by the time we'd arrived the prime slots on the beach had been taken. Undeterred we set about digging a hole just away from where everyone else was sat. It didn't work. An hour later we're sat 4 foot beneath sea level, knee deep in tepid water warmed only by the rapidly disappearing sun. We've attached a picture of Adel peering over the hole.

After a cracking game of crazy golf (the Kiwis make good crazy golf courses) we travelled onto Tauranga to see a former colleague of Adel's, Tammy, her husband, Mike, and their 2 beautiful daughters Briarna (4) and Mikayla (2). We had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon guzzling bottles of beer in Tammy and Mike’s garden.

In the morning I had a bit of a lie in and, somewhat confused by my and Adel’s relationship, Briarna asked Adel when her Dad was getting out of bed. I must have aged over the past few months.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 22:27 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Sydney

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We left Tokyo Narita airport on the evening of 16th January and arrived tired and confused in Sydney early in the morning. Compared to the spacious, relaxed and calm atmosphere of Narita airport, Sydney airport felt third world. It's one of the shoddiest international airports I've ever seen; although still comparing favourably to Heathrow's dingier terminals.

Having sneaked our bags of diseased leaves and cane toads through the onerous customs checks, it was great to see Paul and Helen waiting for us in arrivals. Having been on the road for a while now it was lovely to see a friendly face.

Over the coming week we stayed with Paul and Helen in their flat in an attractive district of Sydney called Mosman. Mosman sits nestled on the northern shore of Sydney Bay and the 15 minute ferry journey into Circular Quay whipped us past the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Sydney's attractive skyline, all nicely framed with white sail boats messing about in the Bay. Thanks again Paul and Helen for putting us up that week, your hospitality was greatly appreciated.

On Sunday the 4 of us went up to Palm Beach (set of Home and Away) and wiled away a thoroughly pleasant afternoon crashing about in the massive waves. Aussies take beach safety very seriously. Couple the ever present threat of a shark attack with powerful waves and currents and you can understand why. Drifting outside the flagged areas results in the angry shriek of a whistle and a lifeguard furiously waving his arms around like a disgruntled Italian footballer. It might be easier to take the lifeguards more seriously were it not for their outrageously camp red and yellow striped swimming caps.

We also took a trip to your old stomping grounds Tom, over at Manly Beach. Evidently home to the tanned and beautiful, there wasn’t a beer belly in sight, despite Australia apparently pipping the USA to the title of most obese country in the world! You certainly don’t get that impression in Sydney – everyone looks very healthy. There must be loads of big old fatties knocking around Northern Australia.

The Aussies also seem to have a fundamentally different mentality towards the current economic miseries. Instead of the doom-laden British outlook which I understand has become all-pervasive over the past few months, the Aussies have a far more positive attitude. In the UK, we all know that this is a terrible recession and we're all going to have to drink tap water and eat dirty finger nails for the rest of our lives, but nothing really matters anymore because the avian flu pandemic should kill us all within a few months anyway. The Australian approach is that these are tough times for many, but we’re tougher. I'm naturally inclined toward the British pessimism myself, but it's refreshing to get away from the doom-mongers.

Much like Yorkshire, Australia also seems to have an unfortunate habit of branding everything produced domestically as Australian. Rest assured, if you're in the UK and eating or drinking something of Yorkshire origin, you'll know about it. The same applies to Australia. With Yorkshire I think it's for 2 reasons. Firstly, the charming belief that people outside of Yorkshire know and understand that if it's from Yorkshire it's better. Secondly, positive identification reduces the risk of a rogue Lancastrian cauliflower sneaking into your Sunday roast, undoubtedly ruining your weekend.

On our last night in Sydney it was good to see Burge for a couple of drinks and a bite to eat in town. Getting back to Mosman late on and a little boozed after a few drinks we found an enormous spider in our room. That’s the problem with Australia – there are nasty spiders, insects and snakes everywhere. For the second time on this honeymoon we amended our sleeping arrangements in response to imminent arachnid threat and kipped in the living room. Paul seemed to deal with the problem manfully in the morning; sedating the spider with half a can of bug spray then flinging it out of the window with a brush. Moments later it was messily devoured by a passing seagull. We’ve attached a picture of the spider.

Anyway, that's it for now. We arrived safely in New Zealand a few days ago, picked up the campervan and have been travelling around the top of the North Island. The weather is a beautiful 25 degrees, with blue skies. Perfect. Hope the drizzle isn’t too heavy at home. Further updates soon......

Posted by MrMrsSchof 01:51 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Japan Alps and Yudanaka

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Instead of heading straight back to Tokyo after Hiroshima we decided to spend a couple of nights in the Alps in a small town called Yudanaka, which is a short train journey away from a city called Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held.

Having lingered a little too long over breakfast we missed our initial connection from Hiroshima meaning the journey to Yudanaka was a lot more involved than it needed to be. We left Hiroshima and changed at Okayama, Osaka, Nagano and Nagoya before arriving in Yudanaka under the cover of night in the middle of a powerful snowstorm. We checked into our ryokan and having fought our way through the ever-deepening snow, found our way to a cosy little restaurant specialising in Chanko-Nabe, a meat and vegetable packed broth favoured by Sumo Wrestlers. After a bite to eat and a piping hot onsen we settled down for the night.

The snow had continued to fall overnight and was nearly 2 foot deep in the morning. We wrapped up warm and walked along a path through snowy forests to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Home to scores of Japanese Macaque monkeys (snow-monkeys), the Park became famous in the 1970s when Life magazine ran a feature on the monkeys. The monkeys lark around in the snow and keep warm by bathing in a couple of hot spring pools. We were there for a while, wandering around the pool and amongst the monkeys. In addition to keeping warm, the monkeys use the pool as a toilet and to wash in (sometimes simultaneously), to pick lice off one another, fight and mate – a bit like the swimming baths at Barnsley Metrodome. The smell was a heady mix of simian defecation and sulphurous spring water. We’ve attached some of the better photos we took. Better still; take a look at www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/livecam, which has a webcam of the monkeys’ favourite pool (bear in mind that Japan is 9 hours ahead of the UK).

We then spent the rest of the day walking through the old streets of Yudanaka, charmingly referred to as retro-flavoured by the tourist board. There are countless hot springs in Yudanaka, many of which are harnessed for either public onsen or boiling eggs in the street.

As the snow continued to fall that evening, we ate in a charming little sushi bar. At the end of the bar was a middle aged chap who had clearly been enjoying sake for a few hours and who I suspect spends longer in that sushi bar than his own living room. Fending off frequent pestering phone calls from his wife with a degree of charm and expertise, he kindly bought us a bottle of sake before inquiring about certain marital habits in the UK. Most crucially, he wanted to understand whether the wife normally holds hands with the husband in public. At least I think that’s what he was getting at – his thoughts and English were a little sake-clouded. His stated preference was for his wife to walk 3 metres behind him whenever in public.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 05:38 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Mijayama

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Because the train system is so good in Japan we were able to take a couple of day trips from Hiroshima. The first of these was to Mijayama, famed for its striking vermillion gate which sits some 50m or so into the sea.

Whilst in Mijayama we set about clambering up to the highest point on the island – an exhausting 2 hour climb. After an hour or so Adél had lost interest and turned around, leaving me to tackle the rest of the ascent alone. The sense of achievement from arriving at the summit of the mountain was diminished somewhat by the abundance of elderly Japanese taking photos. Nevertheless, from the top there was a wonderful view of the Inland Sea – the patch of water between the Japanese mainland and the island of Shikoku. The Inland Sea is dotted with hundreds of little islands, each with its own collection of oyster rafts. A significant proportion of the Oysters eaten in Japan are farmed / harvested in the Bay of Hiroshima.

I don’t want to finish this part of the blog without making mention of the ryokan we stayed in Hiroshima, the World Friendship Centre. The World Friendship Centre is a tremendous ryokan run on a voluntary basis by an American couple from Indiana, Kent and Sarah, who are hopefully reading this blog. Their hospitality during our stay was greatly appreciated and the breakfasts of toast, cereal and fruit which we enjoyed during our stay temporarily restored a semblance of regularity to our erm, movements.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 05:35 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Hiroshima

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At 08:15 on the morning of August 6th 1945 the Enola Gay unleashed on Hiroshima the first of two nuclear holocausts witnessed by mankind, killing 140,000 people. Almost exactly 600m beneath the hypocentre of “little boy” stands an excellent museum, sitting within the grounds of the Peace Memorial Park.

The museum begins by outlining the development of Hiroshima from the Meiji Restoration onwards. From 1600 to 1868 Japan had been ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a form of military rule. Although the Imperial bloodline remained in place during this period, the powers of the Imperial family were no more than ceremonial. In the years leading up to 1600 European traders in Japan were tolerated, largely because they introduced modern weapons to a country embroiled in civil war. However, when the Shogunate came to power in 1600, the Christianity brought by the Europeans was seen as a threat to state security and a couple of hundred thousand Japanese civilians that had converted to Christianity were executed. This ushered in a period during which Japan became increasingly insular and retreated from the world – Japanese traders sailing to India and further west were recalled to Japan, and all bar a tiny number of Dutch and Chinese traders in Nagasaki were expelled from Japan.

By the mid 1800s Japan was under intense diplomatic pressure from America and Britain to open up ports for trading. Fearful of British maritime power which had recently forced China into opening up trading relations during the Opium Wars, Japan was thrown into turmoil. The Shogunate was split between accepting American and British demands and attempting to rebuff them, with military action if necessary. This split eventually caused the collapse of the Shogunate and in 1868 Imperial powers were restored under Emperor Meiji, following the humiliating resignation of the final Shogun leader. Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo, now called Tokyo (or “East Capital”), and under his rule Japan returned to take its place in world affairs. During the Meiji Restoration railways were built, compulsory education was introduced and crucially, thousands of foreign advisors (mostly European) were brought to Japan to assist in aiding the country’s development as well as drafting a new constitution. Much of the constitutional structure and balance of power between the military and parliament was eventually modeled on the existing German system, a legacy with a devastating destiny.

Empowered by the new constitution and the speed of the country’s development, territorial ambition grew quickly within Japanese military, culminating in partially successful wars with China and Russia around the 1890s and early 1900s. During the 1930s a bunch of jumped up Generals came up with some contrived justification for invading Manchuria in China. The invasion culminated in the Rape of Nanking, during which horrendous war crimes were perpetrated by the Japanese military against Chinese civilians. Signing the Anti-Comintern pact with Germany and Italy in 1936, Japan’s course over the coming decade was set.

Greater diplomatic efforts should of course have been made to negotiate with Japan prior to the atomic bomb being dropped. Assurances regarding the continuation of the Imperial system were seen as crucial to any negotiated settlement, but were never offered by the allied forces. The fact that greater efforts weren’t made is probably due a combination of 3 factors. Firstly, there was enormous domestic pressure in the US to justify the expense of the bomb, the development of which had cost 2 billion dollars. Secondly, both the US and the UK wanted a quick surrender so as to not cede any additional territory to the Soviet Union. Stalin only broke his neutrality pact with Japan after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Recognising that Japan was facing imminent defeat, Stalin’s goal in declaring war on Japan was no doubt to bring as much of the country as possible under the Soviet sphere of influence, and at a very minimum he’d have liked Hokkaido. This would have no doubt led to Japan being split like Korea and Vietnam. Finally, perhaps there was a desire within parts of the scientific community to truly understand the destructive power of the bomb. That sounds like a horrendous thing to say, but once the US and UK had drawn up a shortlist of potential Japanese targets, each of the selected cities were spared conventional bombing to ensure the effects of the atom bomb could be properly understood.

There was a short book written in 1946 by John Hersey which tells the story of 6 Hiroshima residents that survived the bomb (survivors of the bomb are commonly referred to as hibakusha). In the weeks immediately before the bomb was dropped there was an ominous sense of dread amongst the citizens of Hiroshima; confused because strategically inferior targets had been bombed heavily but Hiroshima had been spared. Most big Japanese cities had suffered an incredible loss of civilian life - 200,000 were killed in Tokyo alone in the first half of 1945.

There’s something about the totality of the destruction which is difficult to grasp. On August 5th 1945 there were approximately 76,000 buildings in Hiroshima. The atomic bomb destroyed about 70,000 of them. The most famous building that survived was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Now known simply as the A-bomb dome, the parts of the building remaining upright have been left on the banks of the river as a chilling reminder of the events of that day.

The museum also tells the story of many who survived the initial impact of the bomb but later succumbed to the massive dose of radiation they’d received. One of these stories is about Sadako Sasaki. Born in 1943 Sadako survived the bomb despite being only 2 years old at the time. Tragically she developed leukemia and died ten years later - incidences of leukemia and other cancers in Hiroshima were enormous in the years following the bomb. Sadako believed that she’d survive the leukemia if she could fold 1,000 origami cranes, which along with turtles are symbols of longevity in many sects of Japanese Buddhism. Her story is remembered in a monument to the children that lost their lives to the bomb, which is movingly surrounded by glass cases filled with origami cranes sent from schools across the world.

The museum is supported and patronised by a number of non-nuclear organisations and the arguments in favour of nuclear deterrence are dispatched out of hand. I personally believe that the cold war would have been a lot more bloody were it not for the constant threat of mutual and assured annihilation and, in that respect, nuclear weapons have saved lives over the past 50 years. However, having had a few days to dwell on Hiroshima I really believe that countries need to begin the long path towards decommissioning nuclear weapons. It’s difficult to imagine the great powers using nuclear weapons, even with Putin’s idiotic bullying and bellicose behaviour. It’s maybe less difficult to imagine nuclear weapons being used in the Middle East. It’s widely acknowledged that Israel has a significant nuclear arsenal and it’s probably only a matter of time before Iran has a bomb. Terrifyingly, many modern day nuclear weapons are 3,000 times more powerful than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Sadly but perhaps understandably, there are many within Japanese politics who think the time has come for Japan to develop nuclear weapons, largely because of the proximity and antagonistic behaviour of North Korea. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1909 and remained under Japanese control until 1945 and to this day relations between North Korea and Japan are frosty at best. At the end of the 70s a number of Japanese citizens were kidnapped by North Korea and allegedly put to work teaching North Korean spies to speak Japanese. Add to that the occasional North Korean missile flying directly over Japan into the Pacific and it becomes easy to see why Japan is a little uncomfortable. Relations between Japan and the new US administration will largely depend on Obama’s policy towards North Korea.

That night when we returned to our cosy ryokan, the owner had left an origami crane on each of our pillows.

Posted by MrMrsSchof 05:30 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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