Monday, 24 May 2010

Show me the way to go home

I can hardly believe it, but the time to head back to reality is upon me (I won't be in England for a few days yet, but there'll be a lot of sitting in airports before then). As I sit in a gift shop in Anchorage, using their ancient machine and surrounded by cuddly moose, I'm hard put to think of anything really serious to say! I'd like to sum up my experiences, and tell you what I've learnt, but the faux Inuit tat is really distracting me, and in any case I expect I'll still be discovering what I've learnt in months to come.

All I can really say is that it's been an adventure - I've been tired, scared, wet, boiling hot and freezing cold, and irritated beyond endurance by my fellow man (you can't beat hostel living!). I've also been elated, excited and overwhelmed by beauty; I've made friends and met people from all over the world; I've done things I never thought I could - and done them well. Right now, I'm more positive about the future than I've ever been in my life. I know that I'll face problems with finding a job, and fitting back into a working routine, and I know that I'll moan about it! But I rely on all of you to remind me that, at this moment, I knew that anything was possible.

It just remains to say thank you all for reading - it often comforted me to think that I'm connected to friends and family back home, no matter how far away I was. But now I'm so looking forward to being there in person... Over and out!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Land of the midnight sun

And so to the third new entry, and Fairbanks. This is Alaska's largest city in the interior (and second largest in the state), and I can't say I enjoyed it much. It might have had something to do with the hostel - I was greeted at the door by two obese, horridly wheezing pugs and it didn't get much better than that. It's also a very inconvenient city for the non-driver - not so much a town as a very loosely connected collection of far-flung buildings. With, bizarrely, a congregation of tae kwondo and yoga instructors at the top of my road.

Still, I did go to the Museum of the North, the pride of Fairbanks and rightly so. It's got displays on Native culture, on local wildlife - and a 9ft-tall stuffed bear in the foyer. You can't say fairer than that! I was also able to watch several informative films on the Aurora borealis (always there, even if you can't see them because of cloud or sunlight) and on living in the far north through the winter (it gets as cold as minus 60C in town; the locals recommend lots of layers and good boots).

The real reason for the trip north, however, was my tour to the Arctic Circle, some 200 miles north of Fairbanks along the gravel-paved Dalton Highway. If you want wild Alaska, that's really the place to go looking for it - from the subsistence miners and "End of the Roaders" who fill their yards with junk and insure it with Smith & Wesson, to hundreds of miles of arctic tundra. There's only one place to get supplies between Fairbanks and Deadhorse (the oil town on the northern coast). Yukon River encampment is right on the shores of the Yukon - as you might expect - but its big claim to fame is that it sells burgers and blueberry pie. Apart from that, it's just you and the pipeline, which pumps crude oil all the way from Deadhorse to Fairbanks. Although ugly in itself - and much derided by the environmentalists - the 1974 pipeline is a beautiful work of engineering. All the men in our party (three older couples and a guide called Norm) were fascinated by it, though I was more interested in the tree swallows that were nesting in the joists.

It's a long, long haul up to the Arctic Circle, but the scenery is pretty mesmerising - in spring, the tundra is covered not by ice and snow but by black spruce and stunted birch and green mosses; it's unexpected and really pretty, and you can hear birdsong everywhere across the Yukon Flats as they gear up for mating season. Our guide kept us entertained, too: Norm is a real Alaskan, by which I mean he's 61, Republican, he goes hunting and trapping, flies his own floatplane to his cabin in the woods, and moved here 40 years ago because of the freedom. He and I certainly didn't agree on everything, but he had thought hard about his choices and was willing to see that his opinions were just opinions - as long as others did the same. A really interesting guy.

The Circle itself is just an imaginary line in the ground, with a sign to say you've made it. But it didn't feel like an anticlimax to me - now I can feel I've been, and seen a different aspect of Alaska, one that tourists often avoid. I didn't even feel (that) disappointed to miss the Northern Lights - after all, they were right above my head, even if I couldn't see them. And it was cool to have all the daylight - it's early in the season, but it's still bright enough to read at 11pm, and the sun's back in the sky before 4am. By midsummer, it won't set at all.

So after all that, I've caught the railroad down to Talkeetna, a tiny town south of Denali National Park, and the hub for climbers attempting Mt McKinley, the tallest mountain in the States. I too am heading up there tomorrow, but I'm doing it the easy way - in a plane with skis, which will land us on virgin snow up top for a hike. Cheating? Perhaps - but in such a good cause...

Striking gold

The next adventure was different in tone, but no less enjoyable. I headed back to the ferry and motored down the Lynn Canal - on another gloriously sunny day; I've been very lucky with the weather - to the gold-mining town of Skagway. In between watching snow-capped mountains slide by, I fell into conversation with another Alaska character: a young man named Mark who had clearly taken far too much LSD and methamphetamine in his life. Hard to say if he was on something then or if he's just permanently addled, but he considers himself to be a prophet and a man of God, so we had a pretty good chat about spirituality. He also prayed to God to relieve me of my cough; I can't say it worked any better than the antibiotics, but his heart was in the right place.

He'd certainly have fit in to the original town of Skagway, which welcomed dreamers of any stripe when it sprang up during the Klondike gold rush in 1898. Today, the whole town has been preserved as a national park, and the buildings along Broadway have been maintained (or restored) in their original gold rush style. It had everything you expect from a Wild West (or Wild North) town: saloons, gambling, ladies of doubtful virtue and a criminal gang headed by one "Soapy" Smith, who was eventually killed in a shootout with the town's marshal.

Sadly for the thousands who flocked to Skagway and nearby Dyea in order to cross the mountains into Canada and the Klondike gold fields, the rush itself was short-lived. By the time they'd waited out the winter - when the passes are, well, impassable - and been bilked of most of their savings by the likes of "Soapy" Smith, all the productive claims had been staked by Canadians nearer at hand. It was enough to put Skagway on the map, however, particularly when they built the White Pass & Yukon Route railway to facilitate travel for the prospectors.

Today it's a tourist trap, but a very beautiful one. I trod the wooden boards of the sidewalk; visited a restored saloon; and took in the sights of the town (a brisk 10-minute walk end to end). I also went over the pass on the railway, where the snow was still lying 10 feet deep and the walls of the tunnels (blasted by those original prospectors 100 years ago) were solid with ice. My plans may have changed while I've been on the road, but I did get to Canada after all! And by a historical route to boot - though happily not carrying 40lbs of supplies on my back...

Ice, ice, baby

I left you, dear reader, as I was about to join a cruise to the glacier at Tracy Arm Fjord, and it was every bit as spectacular as I hoped it would be. We were greeted by Steve, our skipper - a true Alaskan with a laconic drawl and a dry sense of humour, who took us all the way out to Endicott Arm Fjord (Tracy Arm was still too thick with pack ice to negotiate). Along the way we passed yet more magnificent coastline, several colonies of 40-odd bald-headed eagles, and a mother bear with her two cubs, shooing them into the undergrowth as soon as we hove into sight. ("Bad tourist bear," said Steve.) We even met a rather bashful humpback whale, who barely surfaced before slipping under the waters again.

But the best wildlife spotting as at Dawes Glacier, at the far end of the fjord. As Steve picked his way through jagged blue icebergs (blue because they're freshly broken off from the glacier and lack oxygen), the seals who live on the pack ice kept poking their heads above the water, checking us out; after we stopped to take in the glacier, and the silence, and the sharp, chill air, they came even closer, wondering what the hell we were doing there!

Cute as they were, though, it was the glacier that really commanded attention: so far from human activity it was clean, mountainous shards of blue and white ice stretching hundreds of feet deep, cracking and groaning with hidden movement. We saw several icebergs calf too, with a thunderous rumble and a crack like gunfire, falling into the water with a force that made our boat rock several hundred feet away.

We were the only people for miles around, and our small boat was dwarfed by the spectacle, which is just as it should be, and the day wasn't over yet - on the way home, we motored down Ford's Terror (an arm of the fjord, so named because the (white) man who discovered it was caught in the currents at the entrance and thought he was a goner). Steep granite mountains rose to either side; snow melt fed wonderful waterfalls, and then, right at the end of the arm, we stopped to appreciate water so still and dark and deep it was like glass - I have never seen such clear, sharp reflections; it was the kind of beauty that makes your heart swell.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Northern exposure

I know, it's a cheesy headline, but it fits! Alaska is all that I hoped it would be and more - I'm ending my trip with a bang, not a whimper (the only whimper being when I'm racked by another coughing jag; much to my appalled horror I was finally forced to the doctor today to get some antibiotics for my poor abused chest - I'm prouder than ever of Britain's national health care).

On a happier note, I've made it as far as Juneau up the Inside Passage (and no matter how often I say that, it feels rude!). The first few days we floated in glorious sunshine on a sea as calm as a millpond, while the fluffy white clouds stood out so clearly it looked as though we could touch them from the deck and mountains of dark cedar and spruce rose at the water's edge. The absolute highlight, however, was sighting whales - one humpback breaching the waves behind us, and a pod of Orca playing alongside the boat. Even the gnarly, tattooed hard men (of whom there were plenty on board, hanging around in their vests despite the nip in the air) rushed to the rails to see - I guess whales are just one of those things you never get blase about.

I also stopped off in Ketchikan, Alaska's "first city" (ie it's the first one you come to after passing hundreds of miles of Canadian coastline), where I spent a delightful day walking along the creek where the salmon fight their way to the spawning grounds every May, marvelling at the bald-headed eagle who'd landed on the roof of the Lutheran church not 30 feet above my head, checking out the totem poles dotted everywhere around town, and visiting Dolly's house, once owned by Ketchikan's most notorious (and successful) prostitute. All her things have been preserved just so, including what has to be the floweriest bedroom of sin ever. She earned between $75 and $100 a day, when the miners' wages came in at around $1, and clearly knew a thing or two! More staid was the Totem Heritage Center, which houses about 40 19th-century totem poles, rescued from abandoned villages where they'd been left to rot. I love the brightly painted modern ones that are everywhere in Alaska and the Northwest, but these were something else - half decayed, but vast and powerful all the same.

And now I'm in Juneau, the state capital, which is unbelievably tiny! City Hall is little more than a shack, and Parliament House is hardly bigger than a small London theatre. However, what it lacks in size it makes up for in the stature of its natural wonders. It's cupped in a valley formed by majestic mountains (once again covered in cedar, spruce and, at this season, snow), with snowmelt forming roaring waterfalls down to the sea. There's a glacier just down the road, which is close enough to walk on (I didn't! My derring-do is on hold until Mt McKinley, where I'll be doing a glacier walk in trained company). And tomorrow I'm heading out on a boat to Tracy Arm Fjord, where the ice forms walls right at the water's edge, and whales and sea lions play nearby. It's all about the landscape here, and it's almost too good to be true! Superlatives are just not enough...

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Election fever

Literally, in my case! I'm glued to Helen's computer in Seattle, watching the results as they come in, while I cough up a lung and sweat out some kind of cold virus. Not nice, but on the plus side it's only the second time I've been sick during my travels, and if I have to be ill, at least I'm doing it in someone's comfy home... till tomorrow anyway (I'll be back on the road - or ferry, anyway - and heading up to Alaska). Another advantage is that if the exit polls are correct and the Tories do well, I kind of want to be delirious.

In other news, I've just returned from Spokane, where I was visiting friends I met on a cruise in New Zealand (I love travelling!). Don, Nancy, Janet and Brian were incredibly welcoming, and treated me like a queen (of England)! They even threw an all-American barbecue for me, with cheeseburgers and apple pie, and invited the neighbours round. It was a totally different experience from the rest of my travels, and great to see the other side of America (I've been in the big cities and doing the common tourist trail; Spokane is far inland in Washington state, close to the Idaho border, and my friends live in Republican suburbia). Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and though we didn't always agree politically, it was interesting (and salutary) to hear other views. And in addition to three days of lovely hospitality, I got to see Deadliest Catch - a reality TV show about Alaska fishermen, following five ridiculously manly and tattooed fishing crews as they go their storm-toss'd and cussing way across the Bering Sea. Just fabulous.

And all that testosterone lies ahead of me - the ratio of men to women in Alaska is five to one, apparently, and I may yet meet a man who wrestles bears in between taking off bottle tops with his teeth. Or not. I suspect the trip may be more about the scenery than the (human) wildlife! But before then the UK will elect a new parliament (and government) - and I've still got hopes that it won't be a Conservative one. Whatever happens, I'm incredibly cheered by seeing lines outside polling stations, even if - disgracefully - too many of them couldn't cast their votes. How can you get people to participate in the democratic process if they can't be sure their vote will be counted?

Friday, 30 April 2010

Tempest toss'd town

I've been in Seattle for nearly a week now, and it's certainly living up to its reputation as the rainy city - the skies have been pretty uniformly grey, and any hint of blue disappears like a false dawn as soon as I get outside! Having said that, today the sun shone - and stayed shining - as I headed out to Bainbridge on the ferry. It was a glorious trip, with Seattle's skyline gradually disappearing behind us as this tiny island appeared ahead. The real highlight was getting out on the water, but I also enjoyed pottering about Winslow's bookshops and
cafes, and absolutely loved the city centre - three wooden buildings and a bizarre pod-like sculpture. Archetypal small-town America, right down to the picket fences.

Elsewhere, I've been mixing food for body and soul. Yesterday Helen and I went on a tour of Theo's Chocolate Factory in Fremont. It's a small place that makes Fair Trade and organic chocolate: we got the low-down on production from tree to tummy, and at the same time were given a bunch of free samples to concentrate the mind! Just to balance out all this indulgence, earlier in the day I'd been round the Seattle Art Museum, with some really interesting modern art (my favourites, a giant black mouse sitting on a man's chest, and a chainmail coat made out of 40,000 dog tags. What did they mean? Who knows? And who, really, cares? It's all about how they make you feel. There was a quote by Georgia O'Keeffe up on the wall that is possibly the best explanation for abstract expressionism (and modern art) I've ever seen: "Even if I could put down accurately certain things that I saw and enjoyed it would not give the observer the kind of feeling the object gave me - I had to create an environment for what I felt about what I was looking at - not copy it.").

Rather less high-mindedly, the previous day I'd been to the Seattle Center, photographed the Space Needle, and run amok in the Frank Gehry-designed Sci-Fi Museum (it also housed the Seattle Music Experience, but except for a rock photography exhibition, and some information on the grunge scene of the Nineties, this didn't interest me so much). But, oh, the books! The cyberpunk! The models of the Terminator! The original costumes and ray-guns from Star Trek! I admit it - I geeked out. Then I went on the monorail into town and felt like I was in Fahrenheit 451 - without the book-burning...

Anyway, I'd best head off and get some more coffee down me. Seattle being the home of the barista (yes, I've had a mocha in the original Starbucks - I couldn't resist), they have coffee shops every few steps here, just in case your caffeine levels fall dangerously low. By the time I leave here I may well be vibrating, but, oh, it's delicious! Bottoms up!

Friday, 23 April 2010

Just enjoying the vibe

So, Portland. I wish I could say I've been exploring the politics of America's greenest city, and soaking up the hipster arts scene, but sadly not! Perhaps it's because I'm coming to the end of my odyssey (only five weeks to go, and then I'll be back in the UK - pray God not under a Conservative government), but I've been content to mooch about instead.

And in fairness, that's been pretty cool all by itself. The first major landmark I visited was Powell's, the largest independent bookstore in the States. Strangely, I find myself walking past it often on the way to somewhere else, and popping in for a browse - the ways of my unconscious are not that unconscious! Apart from all the novels (room after delicious room of them), there's a pretty good graphic novels section too, and I've belatedly discovered Preacher, the dark tale of one man's attempt to make God answer for abandoning humanity. But with sex and guns and secret societies. Those who know the series (and even those who don't) will not be surprised to learn that my favourite character is the tormented but charming Irish vampire. I know, I know, I'm sorry! I've tried to like nice guys, but unless they come with a side order of torment, misery and emotional angst they just don't do it for me.

Back in the land of the emotionally sane, the other delights of Portland tend to revolve around its green spaces, lush and plentiful because of the climate. Washington Park is glorious, with an incredibly moving Holocaust memorial tucked among the trees, as well as a beautiful authentic Japanese garden. This really blew me away - there's a steep climb to get there, and suddenly you come across this haven of peace and tranquillity, with gentle waterfalls and limpid pools full of coy carp, winding paths and carefully arranged stone gardens. Unlike many Japanese gardens it's user-friendly, too - you can walk around it without being told not to touch (or walk) in case you disturb some deeply meaningful arrangement.

Equally lovely is the Chinese garden - you walk off the street and suddenly you leave Chinatown (one of Portland's sketchiest areas) behind. Portland is twinned with Suzhou near Shanghai, and they designed this garden for the city as their sister gift, basing it on scholar gardens of the Ming dynasty period, which were also meant to create an illusion of spaciousness and peace right in the heart of a city. The relatively small plot (less than an acre) is divided into scenes that flow into one another - the view from one pavilion, for example, would take in a small pool running under a bridge, leading the eye to a larger pool and waterfalls beyond. Small paths run into nowhere, and the walls between courtyards are pierced with windows that frame more beautiful views beyond. As soon as you walk in you can feel your cares lifting from your shoulders - a wonderful experience.

My other highlights in Portland have been hanging out with other guests from the hostel - I've met a really good bunch of people, and part of the reason I haven't been out sightseeing is because I keep getting sidetracked into gossiping with my room mates! Still, it's nice to chat over a few glasses of red wine, and probably better for the soul than checking out architecture - my world needs a little balance! Tomorrow a group of us are heading out to a comics convention, where I will be geeking out and having an all round cool time. And after that it's on to Seattle - Starbucks, here I come...

Monday, 19 April 2010

San Francisco days

I left you, dear reader, lounging about in San Bruno, cuddling babies and generally making myself (a little bit) useful about the house. But the following day Dad and Vanessa joined me in San Fran, I moved down to the boutique Hotel Frank in the city, and the serious sightseeing began...

And thus started the pattern of the next four days: in the mornings the three of us went to some major attraction, and in the afternoon D&V went to rest (Dad's just had a tendon injury) and I pounded the streets checking out the neighbourhoods, before we met up again in the evening and I showed off the photographs - virtual sightseeing!

The results of this punishing schedule will be up on Flickr, as soon as I can find a computer terminal that lets me upload photos (God bless the YHA for being so security conscious, but it's killing me that most of a normal computer's functions have been disabled!). Day One we saw the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a glorious collection with some new names for me (the emphasis was very much on American and local artists, with a bunch of Diego Rivera stuff too, which I absolutely love). Day Two was Alcatraz, which should have been cheesy but was awesome - they had an audio tour you could follow as you went around which was superbly atmospheric (lots of slamming doors and distant shouts and cries), and the place itself has a lowering atmosphere all of its own. We went into one of the cells in solitary at one point, and had to hold on to each other because it was so damn scary.

Day Three our joint excursion was to the Golden Gate Bridge (of course!), and it was a lovely clear day - something that doesn't often happen in SF, I hear, but which happened for me twice so I feel very privileged. Again, it's something that you think might be overrated, but it's hard not to feel dwarfed and overawed by the sheer miracle of engineering you're walking across, and it's given a human element by the phones spaced along the bridge that connect directly with a crisis counsellor, in case you feel tempted to jump.

On my own I had some fantastic trips too - an afternoon exploring Chinatown, and another following in the footsteps of the Beat generation in North Beach (the City Lights bookstore was a particular highlight, as was the first club to feature topless waitressing, commemorated - believe it or not - with a plaque on the wall! Beats our Blue Plaques, that's for sure). I also climbed the crookedest street in the world (so steep it has 10 switchbacks on the way down), and admired the gilt-and-stone Classical wonderland that is City Hall. But one of my favourites was Coit Tower, endowed by an eccentric (but rich) lady named Phyllis Coit, to beautify her beloved San Francisco; as well as building great towers on the highest hill in the city (gorgeously decorated with murals inside - Rivera is here, too), she was given to wearing a fireman's helmet and joining them whenever there was a call-out. And who wouldn't, given half a chance?

My favourite of all, though, was when I went back to the Castro district to have another look around on my last day in the city - I felt it was appropriate. I saw the Harvey Milk Plaza, and 575 Castro Street, where he ran his camera shop in the Seventies, and I ambled around the "gayest four corners of the earth" on the corner of Castro and 18th. But best of all I got to see inside the Castro Theater, one of the most amazing movie theatres I have ever been in. It's a mixture of Spanish, Oriental and Italian influences, with great golden panels and starbursts in the ceilings, while the front was designed to be reminiscent of a Mexican cathedral. It's hardly been altered since it was built in the 1920s, and it's about the most luxurious place you can think of to watch a film - and, even better, I saw A Single Man in it. In the heart of gay San Francisco. I was so excited I was bouncing up and down when I got my ticket - and not just the film, but the circumstances too made me cry like a baby throughout. [In an aside, and having now seen all the competition, Colin Firth was robbed of that Oscar.]

So there you have it - San Fran in a nutshell. Now I'm in Portland, Oregon, having come up the West Coast via a very scenic train journey (and this is for the Americans in the audience - the train was on time. I thought the UK was the place with the worst trains in the world, but it's not so, folks. Sure, we have leaves on the line and the wrong sort of snow, but here it's not unusual for trains to be three days late. Kind of puts my journey from Liverpool Street to Stoke Newington into perspective). Anyway, this too is a delightful place, all hippieish and liberal and full of AMAZING restaurants (the residents pride themselves on their food, and rightly so). It also has the largest independently owned bookstore in the States, but more of that in another blog. For now, it's dinnertime so I'll sign off and go in hunt of something delicious to eat. It's a hard life, but someone's got to do it!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

My summer of love

Well, there's been precious little sightseeing in the last week - I've been hanging out as part of a family instead, and having a lovely time. However, Mel and I, plus Sophia and Zachary, did head down to hippie central yesterday, the place where it all happened in 1967.

Basically, Haight-Ashbury was once a mecca for all the drop-outs and alternative lifestylers from America and beyond, and it's still leftfield and incredibly cool. As soon as we left the car we were right among the Tibetan handicrafts, tattooists, hemp products and "smoke" shops - plus the skinny teenagers in Gothy T-shirts and winklepicker shoes. In short, it's like Brighton, but with wooden town-houses and steeper hills. And sunnier, of course.

My favourite place was the comics shop (I told you it was like Brighton), but the incredibly attractive man who chatted me up in the hippie coffee shop ran it a close second (I'd dressed up for the occasion in purple top, heavy eye make-up and oversized jewellery). Feeding the ducks in Golden Gate Park with Sophia afterwards was another highlight, as was the gopher - it popped its head up right by us, which I personally found very thrilling!

Talking of thrilling, I've also introduced myself to 3D films this week. Clash of the Titans was absolutely rubbish - it bore almost no relation to the myths I knew and loved; its only redeeming feature was that Sam Worthington was dressed in a short tunic throughout. How to Train Your Dragon, however, was absolutely awesome - seriously, it may be a cartoon but it's bloody brilliant. Highly recommended!

Tomorrow I'm joined by Dad and Vanessa, and there'll be some serious sightseeing going on. Honest! This blog will have educational content once more - and some pretty pictures too. Over and out for now...

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Here's a question

We did a lot of driving on my road trip, and there was plenty of time to think. Something that occurred to me as we powered our way along Route 66: if you were a question, what would it be? After some consideration, I decided that mine would have to be: "Says who?"

Route 66 was awesome, by the way. Every anti-Establishment bone in my body (and that's quite a few of them) thrilled to be retracing the steps (well, wheels) of all those Harley riders and leather-clad rebels. And in Seligman they serve the best milkshakes in the States.

Road trip!

It's been a whirlwind week - I've been through four national parks, partied in Sin City for two days, and taken in the world's campest Easter Parade in the Castro District of San Francisco (trust me, you've never seen an Easter bonnet competition quite like it). And I've had an absolute blast throughout.

Our road trip started in Los Angeles a little over a week ago - 11 women and one man (one half of our honeymoon couple!) boarded a minivan at the airport and headed out to Joshua Tree National Park. We were incredibly lucky with the time of year - being spring, the trees were blooming. All these spiky arms were reaching for the sky, topped with white pinecone-like flowers (the trees are actually part of the lily family, hence the waxy flowers). I thought nothing would top Australia till I reached New Zealand, and then I thought nothing could impress me more... till I reached the States' desert landscapes. The vast rock formations, the lonely trees, the scuttling lizards and croaking birds - it was so beautiful, and so eerie.

And even this was as nothing compared to the Grand Canyon. I splashed out and took a helicopter ride, which was the best decision I've ever made - the first five minutes of the flight hugged the tops of serried ranks of pine trees, before bursting over the rim and revealing the Canyon in all its glory. It has to rank as the single most spectacular moment of my life - nothing can prepare you for how vast, how splendid it is, inhuman in its scale. We flew for 50 minutes and it felt like seconds - every moment we were seeing another amazing view: the Colorado River the size of a bootlace below us; being dwarfed as we flew below the rim; amazing rock formations in the shape of temples and animals; all the amazing colours... We ended the day watching the sun go down over the Canyon, the grey gradually leaching the reds out of the rocks in front of us. It was a truly magical day.

But the trip wasn't just about the glories of nature: the next day we hit Las Vegas, which has to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on (or even without). Regina (a 70-year-old Swiss grandmother, and an awesome travelling companion), Anna and Nikki and I hit the town together the first night, picking up margaritas (but sadly no men!) as we went. Every so often we'd have to stop and just laugh in disbelief and delight: it was all in the middle of the desert, for God's sake. My favourite was the Venetian - with a replica of St Mark's Square inside, plus a false ceiling that bathes the place in constant daylight, and canals with gondoliers plying tourists up and down... and it's all upstairs. But the boulevards of Paris (plus l'Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower), and the streets of New York, New York (Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, brownstones and the Brooklyn Bridge no less) were awesome too. And the lions - real lions - in the lobby of the MGM Grand were pretty cool, as were the old-school kitschy sword-and-sandals style of Caesar's Palace and the Luxor. I even went to a totally naff and over-the-top magician's show on the second night (Criss Angel - basically Paul Daniels with Gothic frills). It all tickled my sense of humour (and after all I love a bit of camp), and I am totally going back again - I'm not done with Sin City!

So what could follow that? Death Valley, of course, a vast plain of salt pans and churned up, baked earth. It had rained the previous day so there were flowers, but it was still an eerie landscape - beautiful, though. I'm definitely a deserts girl. Yosemite, where we went last, was also beautiful but didn't move me in the same way (perhaps because we have mountains and snow at home?). In fairness we weren't seeing it at its best; while spring is good in deserts, in Yosemite it just means that most of the tracks are closed off by snow and ice. The waterfalls were going great guns, though, and the lakes were at their best!

And now I'm having a few days of domesticity: I'm in San Francisco with Mel and Will (who have very kindly taken me into their home, and shown me Doctor Who specials - life doesn't get much better than that). After all my travels it's great to be in a real home again, and I'm loving being Aunty Abigail to two small children (both Sophia and Zach seem to like me, which is incredibly flattering!). But I did pop down to the Castro district yesterday, and I'm heading off to the hippie area of Haight-Ashbury in the next few days, so I haven't abandoned all my sightseeing. Stand by for a post on the Bay, and in the meantime, au revoir mes amis.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

LA woman

So here I am, right in the heart of Hollywood, and by jingo it's an unhappy place. The wannabe starlets are desperate, the people dressed up as Batman and Tinkerbell and the like outside the Kodak Theater, hustling for tips for having their photos taken with tourists, are desperate, and most of all the homeless people, who are everywhere here, are desperate.

Funnily enough, Downtown - which all the tourists are told to avoid at night because it's dangerous - is much more welcoming. I just spent the day there, looking at gorgeous architecture (from the metallic sails of Disney Hall to the Spanish Mission adobe buildings of the Pueblo, from the Art Deco-like City Hall to the wrought iron loveliness of the Bradbury Building, the location of Sebastian's apartment in Blade Runner). I also took in the Spanish stalls of the historic founding district, and soaked up the cheerful pandemonium of Chinatown. Tomorrow, more beauty - I'm heading out to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has one of the largest collections in the States.

Mind you, Hollywood's not all bad: I have enjoyed looking at Grauman's Chinese Theater, with all the stars' hand- and footprints outside; and the stars on the Walk of Fame (most of whom have since sunk into obscurity, though apparently Viggo Mortensen's star was being instituted today - sadly I didn't see him!); and this evening I went to a Mad Max double bill at Grauman's Egyptian Theater (gold-relief scarabs set into the ceiling; statues of Canubis in the lobby) and it was frigging awesome! And walking home past all the neon and the hustlers and the wannabes was pretty cool too. But I won't be sad to get on the road on Sunday - out into the desert again, with a few days in Vegas to reconnect with civilisation. American road trip - now we're talking...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Fiji time

Newly arrived in Los Angeles from the Pacific, which was 10 days of extremes and no mistake. It all started pretty badly - the day after I landed, Cyclone Tomas hit the outlying islands to the east, and suddenly we were all grounded. I was safely tucked up in Nadi (on the west of the mainland), confined in what was after all a pretty nice place, albeit not what I'd expected.

Now, Nadi is not where you'd choose to spend a holiday, despite the most awesome and unexpected Hindu temple downtown, and when there's a curfew and everything is shut it's worse. But while being bored and having my sailing trip cancelled was the worst thing that was happening to me, over on the other side of the mainland people's homes were being destroyed; a few people were even killed in the waves. It was incredibly uncomfortable, being a tourist and in an incredibly privileged position while the people working (and being totally cheerful the while) were worried for friends and family. What was worse was that I was the only person who'd watch the news with the staff to find out what was going on.

I did manage to spend some of my tourist dollars at least, when the curfew was lifted. Not a lot was going on because of the threat of rain/wind, but I headed out to a village on the outskirts of Nadi to meet some of the locals. Mind you, this hardly lessened the burden of guilt, not least because I was the only person on this tour so they were spending all day looking after just me! A charming young man called Adam (missing most of his teeth but gorgeous nonetheless) was my guide for the day because his English is the best in the village, and after being fed breakfast - cross-legged on the floor, which was a test for my knees - in the chief's hut, we wandered round the rainforest and down to the waterfalls. Along the way we met one of the men, who was setting a trap for a wild boar that had been stealing their root crops; the villagers mostly live on chickens and eggs, as well as the produce that they can grow, but still go hunting with spears for meat on occasion, though it's a dangerous business. Then it was back to another hut, and more food - even I was struggling by this time; no one wants to be rude but I'd had three meals by 12.30pm and had NO IDEA how much of the vast spread before me they wanted me to eat! I compromised by eating something from every plate, while Adam and two old ladies looked on, laughing like drains when I was caught unawares by a wild chilli.

So, an interesting but not a cosy experience for a Westerner - the huts are clean but basic, with corrugated iron roofs and bamboo walls; there's one tap in the whole village; it's clearly a hand-to-mouth existence when it comes to eating, and there are 70 mouths to feed with very little. They really need the money the tourists bring (Adam was furious to hear that I'd been hassled by two blokes on the street the night before; Fiji needs a good reputation, he said), and it was little enough. I'm glad I went, though, and didn't just hang out with the other tourists.

However, for all that the second part of my holiday was your typical Western experience - the cyclone over, boats were again bound for theYasawas (islands to the west), and I spent six days in Botaira Resort on Naviti Island, the largest in the group (and it's tiny). This couldn't have been a greater constrast - I slept in a bure (a kind of bungalow) right on the beach - I could see the sea from my bed. There were never more than 10 people staying in the whole resort because it's off season - and for the last few days there were only two of us! Everywhere there were palm trees and hibiscus flowers, with nothing to do but go snorkelling right off the beach (literally - you could wade out to the coral and be right among all the glorious tropical fish). And in the evening we'd have dinner looking out at pink-and-orange sunsets from a bamboo verandah, while the crabs skittered over the sand below.

My fellow guests were lovely, and the staff were incredibly friendly. Though my favourite was the enchanting Cookie, the son of the chef (appropriately enough!), who turned three while I was there and whose big treat was to head out on the launch every afternoon when they were dropping off guests to the catamaran. He was terribly shy, but by the end of my stay he was saying "Bula!" (hello) and waving quite happily. As for myself I managed to subdue my guilt to a dull roar, and had a wonderful time - and who could fail to, really? And as it's likely to be my one and only luxury tropical holiday I'm glad I got to go!

Now I'm in the City of Angels and pounding the city streets, which is yet another contrast. More on that later, but I'm sorry to leave Fiji - like everyone, I have fallen in love with it.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Goodbye, Pork Pie

So here I am in Auckland for my last day in NZ, and everything is conspiring, God bless it, to make me feel not too sad about moving on. Since I landed it's been damp, grey, congested, expensive and thoroughly miserable - just like London, in fact, and I can't say I'm feeling homesick. Plus the bunk above me is so low I feel like Alice in Wonderland.

So it's off to Fiji iwth a glad heart, for 10 days of boats, beaches and bronzing (sounds better than "sun, sea and, er, precious little of the other"!). I don't think there's much in the way of internet access out there, so this is adios until Hollywood. I'll be an LA woman before you know it...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Decorated hero

All of which brings me neatly on to Napier, the Art Deco capital of New Zealand, where I've broken my journey up to Auckland for two nights. I spent yesterday afternoon taking in the town, which is a ridiculous, glorious riot of sugar-pink and peppermint-green facades, with tall palms crowning the effect: I feel like I'm in an Agatha Christie novel, set in Torquay.

And perhaps this extravagance is entirely apt, since it sprang from such an extravagant catastrophe. The 1931 earthquake razed the previous town to the ground - the museum has pictures, oral histories and newspaper accounts, and it really was as though the world had ended. Yet in response to all that violence they rebuilt something glorious. I begin to see the importance of the history of design and fashion; before, austerely, I felt it was irrelevant. Now, although it's an effect of history rather than a cause, I don't think you can understand people from the past unless you also know how they decorated their homes and themselves.

There are so many resonances in Napier, for example - the desire to be modern, yet also to follow Santa Barbara out of disaster; to make something distinctively different than before yet very much of its time; to be as fashionable as the rest of the world but keep their New Zealand character - that you cannot ignore the Art Deco. Though I understand why, if you lived here, it and all the related tourist industry would become stifling. Like living in an Agatha Christie novel...

Artistic licence

I've just spent a glorious three days in Wellington, gorging myself on the Arts Festival and generally being a black-bereted, pretentious type. Wonderful. I finally saw Schiller's Mary Stuart - good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the RSC's production of The Duchess of Malfi with Harriet Walter, which sounds like faint praise but isn't - and also a Swedish circus troupe called Cirkus Cirkor, who were amazing: from the white-painted ringmaster to the (supposed) audience members who suddenly turned out to be able to dangle from ropes above the stage by the power of their calf muscles alone, it was an abandoned, joyful experience - with that faintly sinister edge that all good circuses have. Plus it was set to a live soundtrack of dreamy indie pop by Irya's Playground - the kind of music that David Lynch used for Twin Peaks.

And the films! I finally broke and took a Lord of the Rings tour (I've been so good, but I could no longer resist). Quite a few of the locations were close to Wellington, including (and fans will know what I mean) the place where the hobbits hid from their first sight of a Black Rider - remember those hooves? But the real draw was the Weta Cave, where they've put some of the artefacts on show. It's a glory hole of swords and chainmail, full-size models of Gollum and the Uruk-hai Lurtz, plus the Sumatran rat-monkey (Brain Dead) and some of District 9's guns, as well as a new series of ray guns that might be the basis of a film one day. Basically, it's a film geek's idea of heaven and I LOVED IT. They were even selling Doctor Who merchandise, presumably on the grounds that a nerd with a jones for Lord of the Rings will also be a Who fan. They're right, of course, much as I hate to admit it!

More highbrow was my tour of the Parliament buildings, from the ultra-modern Beehive (which reminded me of the Barbican, all brushed concrete and curves), to the Library, a ridiculous pink-and-white birthday cake of a building in Victorian Gothic, and absolutely delightful to someone with a quirky sense of humour! The tour itself was interesting, though the guide lost a shade of her friendliness when I asked some smart-alec questions about freedom of information (oops). And after that it was on to the new St Paul's Cathedral, a monstrosity in pink concrete, quite the ugliest church I have ever seen. But just as I was recoiling from the evangelical stained glass, this bloke came up to me and invited me into the bell tower. No, not for any nefarious reason, but because he's an enthusiast. He's been ringing bells for 40 years in one or other of New Zealand's seven bell towers, and delights in showing off his knowledge. He and the rest of his crew were going to be ringing a quarter peal for a delegation of visiting campaniles from GB later that day, and I was lucky enough to be passing by as they were ringing that afternoon - I felt quite touched by stardom, knowing one of the band, so to speak.

All that, and Katherine Mansfield's birthplace, the New Zealand film archive (where I saw an NZ cult classic, Goodbye Pork Pie, whose incredibly slow car chases down unsealed and winding roads in a Mini were worth the entry fee alone), the Wellington Museum, the art gallery, Te Papa (New Zealand's national museum) and some lovely second-hand bookshops too. Who said New Zealand had no arts scene?!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Ouch. No, really, ouch

Have finally got around to reading the New York Times Bestseller (TM) "Eat, Pray, Love", and have been gripped by a dark and savage jealousy. I wondered why everyone I met was urging me to get it: like me, Elizabeth Gilbert is a woman in her mid-thirties who threw everything up and went travelling to seek enlightenment. Except that she's done it more wittily than me and in print. The bitch.

She has also, as the title suggests, fallen in love. And the closest I've got to male attention is to be told, very kindly, by Christie the 18-year-old Geordie lad that people his age still go clubbing, so they like to hear the indie tunes remixed when they're out (we were listening to the indie tunes on my iPod at this point; boy, did that put a dent in my cool self-image).

And I can't even hate her as she's great! I guess I should turn jealousy into envy and spur myself on to emulate her success. After I've finished sobbing brokenly into my pillow, of course...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

I made it!

I've just finished walking the Queen Charlotte Track - four days, 71km (plus side tracks, making it about 80km in all), 1,700m ascent and a real sense of achievement: six months ago I could barely walk up a hill; now I'm climbing 1,200ft before breakfast. I'm really proud of myself; exhausted, but proud!

Actually, although people call this the "easy" tramp, because you don't have to carry your cooking utensils, sleeping bag etc, it's about the longest walk in NZ, and is pretty gruelling in parts - particularly day three, which is officially 24km, not counting the climbs to lookouts, and climbs up some very steep hills! But in fairness the nights are more comfortable than other tramps, as you can get your head down on a nice soft bed in one of the hostels and homestays along the way.

Although everywhere was comfortable, my favourite night's stay was with Noeline and Tuppence - the former being a 79-year-old lady who rents out beds in her house to fund her travels during the off season. She's been to 48 countries in the last 15 years, and is considering a trip down the Amazon in a canoe this winter! Tuppence has just as much character - she's a little terrier who has a penchant for men's underpants; she steals them out of the guests' bedrooms and hides them under Noeline's chair. Luckily she didn't get hold of my bra, but she did spirit away my knee support before I knew where I was.

The days were lovely, too - two of them were overcast and showery, but this in fact makes walking more pleasant. Plus, the greens of all the ferns in the undergrowth really come out during the rain, and you get to see the sea in all its different colours in the different weather - from today's sparkling blue to an opaque, almost milky turquoise yesterday, and the slate blue of a Persian cat (and an angry one at that) the day before. Throw in the usual rolling hills, cicadas and bird calls (plus cheeky weka on the path - the size of a small chicken, they think they're the baddest thing in the forest and are totally fearless!), and you have a brilliant four days. And now I'm heading for bed and a well-deserved rest before gearing up for my last days in NZ. There's a lot to see and not enough time to see it in!

And just so as you can see where I went, below is the map of the track...

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Mud, mud, glorious mud

It's been a funny old week and no mistake. I did manage to make a few new friends among the fresh Flying Kiwi-ers - I even hung out quite a lot with the 18-year-old Geordie lads, once they'd decided that my music was OK for an oldie, and I knew my rugby! (They played quite seriously for a local league.) But it wasn't quite the same, and there was another serious disappointment when the Tongariro Crossing was cancelled due to bad weather - an alpine walk and 70kph gale-force winds being uneasy bedfellows. However, there were a few high points to make up for it - and most of them included mud.

Yes, it was time to hit Rotorua, and it was awesome. The first day we had free time and I went alone to the Maori village and thermal pools while most others headed straight for the spa. It may have been touristy, but I think I got the better deal: Te Puia houses a replica village, carving and weaving schools, mud pools and hot springs, and the Pohutu geyser. The village was a little kitsch, but still interesting, particularly the replica whare [meeting house], one of the few that tourists are allowed to enter. Sadly I was there too late to see the carvers and weavers at work, but I saw their stuff on display (and sale - it was a miracle I didn't leave bankrupt!). And the mud pools and hot springs were fabulous - there was even a cooking spring, where Maori women would have boiled their food in woven flax bags; you could even cook at different temperatures depending on the pool. The geyser was great, too - the Prince of Wales geyser (so named because it looks like three feathers, his symbol) gushes continuously, and the Pohutu every 20 minutes or so, spraying viewers in sulphur-scented water and generally delighting all concerned.

The next day was Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which many consider to be superior. It was certainly spectacular, starting with the Lady Knox geyser, which is ignominiously induced to perform every morning at 10.15am by pouring soap into the opening (this breaks the tension between the layers of hot and cold water inside, and brings the hot water rushing to the surface). Three prisoners discovered this phenomenon while they were washing their clothes years ago, and it still has the power to send shivers up the spine - not so much because of the water rushing out, but because of the rumbles beneath your seat just before it comes. Quite unnerving.

Not so unnerving but really cool were the mud pools - from the brilliant lime green water of the Devil's Bath, to the sulphur yellow caves and the pink and orange of the Champagne Pools, this is the most extensive area of thermal activity in the world. The smell was indescribable - no matter what they say, you don't get used to it, at least not in a couple of hours - but the colours, and the plop-plop-plopping sound of the mud making a bid for freedom, were a delight. We spent a happy few hours there, basking near the warmth of the water, and because of its uniqueness it was another highlight for me.

And that was it, really - the next few days were mostly spent on the bus or sheltering from the rain, apart from a few hours in Taupo, looking at the lake in the afternoon sunshine, and spending a lovely few hours in the bonkers local museum, a riot of eccentricity (it included a replica Sixties caravan with original fixtures and fittings, to demonstrate the height of Taupo's tourist era, and a local man had willed it his collection of model aeroplanes!). And now I'm walking the Queen Charlotte track, of which more when I get to the end - currently I'm resting my much abused knees (most of it seems to be uphill) and gearing up for the last push! So it's goodbye from me until then...

Monday, 22 February 2010

New beginnings

I was going to call this post "All good things must come to an end" as I'm feeling pretty bereft this evening, but having gone out for a walk to Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula, I got a bit of a positive groove back and I'm choosing to think of the remainder of my Flying Kiwi tour as an opportunity... You see, nearly all of that fabulous group of people I've been hanging out with got off this morning, and we had a very emotional farewell on the pavements of Auckland. Even John (60 years old, and seemingly a very no-nonsense fellow) had a bit of a sob, so you can imagine what I was like! There's something about a tour that throws people together far more quickly than real life, and it feels like you've made great, great friends in a very short time - but in this case I think it really can translate to the UK too.

Our last week has been jam-packed - too packed to write about it all. However, there have been stand-out highlights. Most of these came in the Bay of Islands, where on the first day Werner, Gillean and I made up for having missed a heli-hike to the top of Franz Josef Glacier (the weather was too dodgy) by taking a helicopter ride over the bay, all on the spur of the moment. It was awesome - there were just us three and the pilot, and we flew over the wonderful clear blue waters right the way to the outskirts of the bay and back, feeling very adventurous as we did so. The next highlight was actually all the next day, when we stayed a full day in the same place and 14 of us (mostly the old crew with a few additions) chartered a yacht for the day and pottered about the bay, waiting to catch the wind and soaking up the rays when it died down. It was amazing not to be subject to the tyranny of an organised tour - a few minutes extra for a swim at lunchtime met with no drama! - and it was super-cool to be sailing rather than following a fixed course with the motor on. I even took the helm for a while, with June and John giving me encouragement (well, June was; John was mostly taking the piss!), so now I can also say I've sailed a yacht.

That evening we headed out to the Treaty House at Waitangi, the site of the place where the Maori chiefs signed a document that effectively gave Queen Victoria sovereignty (not that they thought they were doing that - there's still controversy to this day about whether or not they were cheated out of their land). The show was very touristy, but actually pretty cool - particularly when we all headed for the whare, and three people had to represent our chiefs, facing down the warriors challenging them. It raised hairs on the back of my neck as it was - the real experience must have been terrifying. The Maori history we gleaned from the show was also very interesting - though I'd love to have looked at the museum during the day; sadly we ran out of time. History aside, the absolute highlight of the show were three of the actors - mostly running about in loincloths and not a lot else, and slapping themselves on their perfectly formed pecs and generally showing themselves to advantage. The ladies in our party were beside themselves! We were going to kidnap them for the bus, but reluctantly decided against...

I also managed to catch up with Catriona, who's doing a bone-carving course in this tiny town called Opononi on the west coast of the north island. Sadly (the tyranny of the schedule again) it wasn't for long, but I was able to pop in to the place where she's staying, and meet her teacher, Jim, and see some of his and her work. His wife Charlotte - a wonderful, welcoming woman - weaves flax, and his aunties make feather cloaks for dolls, and ceramics. Basically, their whole family seems to be obscenely talented! As, of course, does Treenie. There's something very special about meeting a friend from home all the way over here - I was terribly sad I couldn't stay for a few days; as well as the luxury of spending some time with Catriona, it seems like a wonderful place to relax and contemplate life over the gorgeous views of the bay. But a little visit is better than nothing!

My other highlights of the last week also revolve around friends, new ones this time. Painting Auckland red to say goodbye to half the crew, and last night having a party on the beach under the stars to wave off the rest, are evenings I'll always remember. This whole post has been very sentimental, I realise, but that's how I'm feeling today! I still have some great activities lined up, however, from the Tongariro Crossing (an alpine walk through volcanic scenery) to the mud pools of Rotorua. Onward and upward - with only a little glance back...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Goodbye, sandfly...

... and hello geysers. Today I start the North Island part of my tour, and will shortly be disappearing into the bowels of New Zealand (perhaps a little too literally, given what tour veterans have said about the smell of the hot pools!). We had an awesome few days at Abel Tasman - I took a water taxi out for one of them deep into the park, and hiked along the coastal trail for about four hours, past glorious emerald green water (something to do with the tannin, I believe), and through rimu forest, with the frantic sounds of nature getting it on all around me (the cicadas making their mating calls were deafening).

The other full day we had there I went horse-riding again, on a nice chap called Lightning Jack. I say nice, but stubborn might be a better word - he was really a little too overqualified for an amateur like me, and fought me every step of the way because he could sense that I wasn't in charge. After a few hours of tugging at his bridle I was a little tired - he was definitely the winner in our battle of wills. However, we did get to ride along the beach, and I even cantered a couple of times - definitely more than I thought I could manage! The man who owns the horses was a treat all on his own - he's called Harmony, and is an American hippie who's somehow ended up on a horse farm in the middle of nowhere in NZ; most excitingly, a couple of his horses appeared in Lord of the Rings, and he himself was a Rider of Rohan. I know you can't throw a bale of hay around here without hitting someone who was an extra, but it thrilled me all the same...

Which just leaves the Valentine's Day party. We'd all been given "secret Santa" Valentine's, and a $5 limit to get them a present, and there were some fantastic gifts - from possum fur nipple-warmers to beautifully penned poems. I'd drawn the guide, Mike, out of the hat, and found him a lovely pink wand and hairband, which turned out to be extremely apt, as he'd come to the fancy dress party wearing fairy wings! We'd all been given strict instructions to turn up in pink or red, and though Frans (an older gentleman from Holland) was a strong contender for first prize with his op shop pink dressing gown, accessorised with pink flags, the winner was Werner (from the Austrian part of Italy, and seemingly very straight-laced... until he'd had a few beers): "Dancing Queen" came on the stereo, and suddenly he was dancing on the table in a lovely pair of women's pink pants, with his chest hair shaved into a heart. Outright winner.

Sadly we're losing a lot of the crew in two days when we hit Auckland, but I think there are six of us staying, and I'm sure the next lot will be just as good. We'll soon get them in shape if not. But before we get back on the bus and all the tour madness starts again, I'm heading out to look at Wellington's architecture and be a grown-up for a few hours! I'll be signing in again when I can, and in the meantime love to you all! [NB I don't think I mentioned that the worst thing about the South Island is the sandflies, hence the title of this post; most of us look like plague victims right now, and we're overjoyed to be leaving them behind!]

Saturday, 13 February 2010

We're in the Wild West, baby

And it's the reason for my radio silence over the last week (no internet or mobile reception). I've rejoined Flying Kiwi and have been cruising up the west coast of the South Island, where men are men, and sheep are nervous. There are few specific sights, as it's the least touristy part (of the South Island at least), but there have been some highlights - greatest of which is the group of people I'm travelling with, who are awesome. From dressing-up days when we're doing a long drive, to bus bowling (it's a long story), and karaoke nights by camp fires on the beach, they're all up for having a giggle. I realise it sounds pretty naff when I write it down, but it's great when you're out there under the stars, beer in hand and singing along to Queen!

Other than that, we went to the Bushman's Museum, run by a man called Peter who has no truck with mealy-mouthed PCism. He was one of the guys who started out in the venison industry, which has a long and adventurous history. Years ago, the English (I know, we do all the bad stuff) introduced deer to hunt, and their population boomed. In the Thirties, the government sanctioned hunters to track them down, but they weren't making enough of a dent. Eventually someone came up with the bright idea of hunting from helicopters. This, however, worked too well, and they were running out of deer to sell to the venison industry. But one enterprising man had the solution: they would capture live deer, and ship them off to farms, tied to the bottom of helicopters... As Peter put it, jumping off the skids of a helicopter and wrestling a deer to the ground "makes bungy jumping look like a pastime for fairies". The museum celebrated all these men, and also talked frankly about the difficulties in living off the wild west coast. Eccentric and fabulous - though judging by some of the outraged letters of complaint (pasted up around the place) not everyone shared Peter's sense of humour!

Other than that, we've been on coastal walks, seen the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, passed swiftly through the jade factories of Hokitika, and are gearing up for a big Valentine's Day party this evening (we all had to pick a name out of a hat and buy that person a Valentine's gift; I got the guide, Mike, and I've bought him some lovely pink fairy wings - thankfully I suspect he'll find it funny!). We've now made it as far as Abel Tasman, and I'm about to catch a water taxi deep into the National Park to spend the day hiking over limpid pools and through cool beech forests. Oh, and I should be able to eat my lunch on the beach. Wonderful.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Fjord of the rings

Well, technically not - Fjordland seems to be one of the few places Peter Jackson didn't film, though it can't have been because it lacks the requisite beauty.  According to Maori legend, demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved the fjords out of the coastline with his adze, with the northernmost fjord (Milford Sound) being the summit of his art.  However, when the goddess of death saw the glory of what he had made, she was afraid that visitors would never leave, and so created sandflies as the price of all that perfection.

I've now cruised up both Milford and Doubtful Sounds (geographers will know that these aren't sounds, but fjords - the distinction was lost on me!).  V- or U-shaped lakes aside, they are as wonderful as the legend has it (even with the sandflies!), and not one of my pictures can do them justice - as always in New Zealand it's beauty on a heroic scale.  

Milford Sound was fantastic, but the real experience for me was my overnight stay last night on Doubtful Sound.  Because it's so hard to get to (you need to drive from Te Anau to Manapouri Lake, then take a one-hour boat trip across the water, then another 45 minutes on a gravel road down to the fjord's edge) there are few tourists there, so on the Navigator we had the place pretty much to ourselves.  The boat was a palace of luxury (well, for a backpacker, anyway!), with old-fashioned bunkrooms below and a mini-stateroom to eat all the wonderful food they kept dishing up.  And in between times, you could wander out on deck and stare at the mountainous hillsides, decked out in myriad shades of green except where there had been a tree avalanche and the vertiginous slope was scarred white (the trees have no taproots - the entire forest clings to the side of the mountain by intertwining their roots like velcro; when one goes, a great swathe goes with it).

We even had the best of the weather - Fjordland is notoriously wet (they have in excess of 3 metres of rain a year, and only 50 days without a drop), but yesterday we had blazing sunshine throughout, and the views were spectacular.  And this morning we woke to a world of grey mist, through which the boat drifted, muffled - amazingly atmospheric.  Across the far side of the sound we saw bottlenose dolphins playing about the bows of another boat, and fur seals lounging on rocks right at the edge of the Tasman Sea.  And for a glorious 10 minutes we stopped, switched off the engines and just listened to the birds in the forest, while the water mirrored the trees around us.  A definite highlight of the trip.

And now I've got one more day in Te Anau, before I head back to Queenstown and rejoin the bus tour madness, after which blogs will be in short supply for a couple of weeks - we'll be mostly bush camping, with very little internet access.  I'll try to post when I can, but won't be online very often till 28 February.  If anyone is wondering why I'm not replying to emails/Facebook, that's why.  Normal service will be resumed as soon as...  Au revoir!

Friday, 5 February 2010


I've got so used to being on the road that for much of the time I forget how utterly remarkable it is that I'm here, in New Zealand, and not back at my desk in the UK.  But every so often there's a moment when the total unlikeliness of it all hits me, and I had one of those today when my bus was driving past "the Lake that Breathes" (Lake Wakatipu, an 80km-long pool of limpid blue water, which, through some geological quirk, rises and falls by 3 inches every 15 minutes).  With the sun shining, and the mountains rising up in the distance, it was all so amazingly beautiful that I was struck yet again by how lucky I am that I - of all people! - am on such a wonderful adventure.  Just in case you thought I might be getting jaded - no, not at all!  

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


So much to say! After a quiet few days down in Fjordland, which was all about cruising gently through the scenery, it's been adrenalin all the way.  I've now followed up hang-gliding in Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, with strapping myself to a beautiful stranger and throwing myself out of a perfectly good aeroplane at 15,000ft in Wanaka!  

The one-minute-long freefall was truly awesome - after what seemed like a long, long wait on the way up the cool air was beautiful, and the rushing wind and feeling of freedom remarkable.  I'd asked my tandem instructor to keep it gentle, so there were no somersaults during freefall, or heady spins when the parachute opened, but I think I got the better deal by going down slowly - plenty of time to admire the views of Lake Wanaka, the Clutha river, and in the distance Aoraki Mount Cook.  And that's it, I promise - I think I've done all the adventure activities that appeal, and I'm certainly never doing a bungy jump!

There have been quieter pursuits in Wanaka, too, while I take a break from the Flying Kiwi bus.  First up was the cinema - no one on the bus could quite believe that I'd travel all that way just to visit a cool cinema, but I'm sure all of you can!  And having watched The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in the Cinema Paradiso yesterday, I can confirm that it was worth the journey: it's a tiny place, with comfy sofas and sagging armchairs for seating - and an old Morris Minor in the corner for those seeking a real change!  There's an intermission, during which you can scoff home-made cookies and ice-cream, and old-fashioned tear-off tickets.  All in all, it's about as far as you can get from your usual multiplex, and totally appropriate for watching a Terry Gilliam extravaganza.  Glorious.

It's back to Queenstown tomorrow, and then a return to Te Anau and Fjordland, for some (different) scenery - and a two-day boat cruise into the wilds of Doubtful Sound.  The adventure continues, but without the screaming!  However, I'll just leave you with this...

Monday, 1 February 2010

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No! It's me, hang-gliding - and it was awesome! I was feeling pretty sick with nerves beforehand (the take-off video is a treat - I'm practically green!), but once we were in the skies and I'd settled into my harness I was all smiles - air, not water, is definitely my element. The cool dude you see steering the glider, wearing sandals and a T-shirt 700m up, is Neil, who dreamed of hang-gliding from a very early age (he even built himself a glider aged 15; luckily he didn't try to fly it!). Anyway, see the picture and judge for yourself - it's the nearest I'll ever come to feeling like a bird in flight...

Monday, 25 January 2010

The hills are alive with the sound of music

Stewart Island totally rocks... with birdsong. Not to mention some awesome (and deserted) walks through glorious scenery. This is New Zealand's third largest island, but comparatively little visited, with the result that it's wonderfully unspoilt. There are about 300 hardy souls living there full-time, and the township has one hotel/pub, one restaurant and one fish-and-chip van. Oh, and a boutique selling high-quality merino wool goods (I know, surreal!). The rest of the island, apart from fishing, is taken up with birds and walking.

I went to see the birds on Ulva Island, on a guided trip with a botanist/biologist who could actually tell me what I was looking at (like cars, I pretty much tell them apart by colour and size alone). There was a dedicated twitcher on the trip (carrying a camera as big as my head), and he seemed pretty impressed so I think we got our money's worth! We saw Stewart Island robins (white-breasted instead of red, but just as cheeky and inquisitive), saddlebacks (incredibly rare) and weka (about the size of a large pigeon, flightless, and, now that they've rid it of stoats and weasels, the island's most dangerous predator; this could perhaps explain why so many of New Zealand's bird species are extinct or nearly extinct - they're frankly weedy, as they had nothing to defend themselves against until the Europeans brought all sorts of mammals over. First it was rabbits, to hunt, then stoats and weasels to contain the pestilential population explosion of rabbits; possums for their fur, mice who hitchhiked across, then cats to catch the mice... It's like the old woman who swallowed a fly, with about as much success.) There were numerous others too - but my favourite of all (apart from the weka, who came over right to our feet to find out what we were and what we had to offer!) was the yellow-eyed penguin, which we spotted on the boat ride over - he hung around for ages right next to the boat, preening and diving and posing for photos. And these are supposed to be shy birds, the tart!

The walking was fabulous, too - most of the trails were deserted, and around almost every corner you could stop at an empty and picturesque beach or bay. I wish I could capture the sounds for you as well as the sights - part of the glory of the experience is not just what you see, but the gentle lapping of the waves on the sand, or the buzzing of bumblebees, or the wind in the trees. It was all good training for my ultimate walk too - I've booked a multi-day tramp through Queen Charlotte Sound (it's the only New Zealand Great Walk where you can have your luggage transported to the next night's accommodation, rather than carrying tent, gas stove and all on your back. Vital for me, particularly when some days there are 23km sections and 1000m ascents!

Tomorrow I rejoin the Flying Kiwi bus, so I'll be out of range till the end of January - it's all tents and patchy phone connections as we head into the wilds of Fjordland. But I'll have much more to tell you then - so au revoir for now!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Edinburgh of the south

I've been spending a very happy few days in Dunedin, where a bunch of Scottish emigrants set up shop in 1848 - presumably because the changeable weather and tearing winds made them feel at home! In all seriousness, it's a lovely little city, designed to mimic Edinburgh (even the name is the Gaelic version), right down to its street names. As a result, the architecture is chock-full of lovely stone buildings, with St Paul's Cathedral particularly pretty, made of creamy Oamaru stone and with an airy vaulted ceiling inside.

In addition, they've got a solid art collection (including my new favourites Rita Angus and C F Goldie), plus some seriously avant-garde temporary exhibitions - a photographer of hidden America, Taryn Simon, I thought was great; another chap, whose oeuvre seems to consist of words painted on cardboard, not so much. Plus there's a gorgeous National Trust-like manor house from 1904 called Olveston, which was willed to the city by its final owner in the Seventies. After the city had been forcibly dissuaded from turning it into flats for students, conservationists set about restoring it and now take guided tours round this perfectly preserved Arts & Crafts country house - lovely.

But lovely as it is, it couldn't compete with the Royal Albatrosses on the Otago Peninsula. I took a nature tour down there the other evening - it's the only mainland-based breeding area in the world - and we saw dozens gliding in on the updrafts, coming in to land. It was an experience I'll never have anywhere else, and I feel very privileged - as I did to see the incredibly rare and shy Yellow-Eyed Penguins, a little later on the same tour. The company I went with have exclusive access to a private beach, where the farmer who owns it has planted penguin-friendly grasses for them to nest in on the headland, and as a result the population has stabilised where elsewhere they are nearly extinct. We hunkered down in hides and saw parents and chicks, plus adults surfing in to land before beginning the long hop up the hillside (up to 100m) to their homes.

And in between all this I've been having a wonderfully sociable time, hanging out with the ladies in my dorm (Ruthie, the 64-year-old free spirit, Sarah, a Canadian who's about to start teacher training at Otago University, and German Anna, who's just finished six months as an au pair and is now kicking over the traces) and doing stuff like the brewery tour with them (highlight: tasting six varieties of ale!). Plus I've been made to feel incredibly welcome by a friend of a friend and her husband, and it was very special to be part of a family for an evening, just spending time in someone's home. Thera, if you're reading this, thank you!

So after such a great time, I'm all set up for the next adventure - remote and wild Stewart Island, which is free from predators so New Zealand's defenceless flightless birds can thrive there! More when I get back...

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The calm after the storm

Thankfully I had time to recover after the white-knuckle ride, with the next few days being more about the scenery than the thrills!  We headed mountainwards, to visit Lake Tekapo - which is a wonderful turquoise colour thanks to the microscopic rock particles in it, which react with the glacial meltwater and the sunshine to make this beautiful, startling colour.  And after that it was Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain and - as ever - amazing to look at.  

Sadly the weather was a bit against us, with the clouds covering much of the mountains around us, but we did a 3-hour alpine walk that more than made up for it.  It had everything from grey shingle to green marshland, rock climbing to rock hopping over streams and bogs, mountain views and lakeside paths...  Journey's end was Lake Hooker, a glacial lake with actual icebergs in it, right at the foot of the mountain.  In winter, apparently, there are avalanches, and even in summer, as now, the ice came right down to the water.  The only things that bothered me were the swingbridges - flimsy suspension bridges strung over roaring rapids.  I felt like Indiana Jones, but not as brave.  And without the bullwhip.

After that, we headed into Oamaru, the whitestone city.  Much of the historic district is built from a local whitestone, which is apparently soft when freshly quarried before hardening into a marble-like effect. This was meat and drink to the Victorians, naturally, who carved it into grand whitestone columns and pilasters, with leaf decorations on every free surface.  Even the local paper is housed in one of these grand buildings - Independent, eat your heart out!  Sadly we weren't there for long enough to explore Slightly Foxed, a second-hand bookstore downtown that looked like a treasure trove.  Though perhaps it's just as well, given that my luggage already weighs a ton.  

And now I'm in Dunedin for a few days, having hopped off the bus to explore a bit more on my own.  I'll be heading out to Otago Peninsula tomorrow to see the albatrosses and yellow-eyed penguins, and soon after that heading down to Stewart Island to go kiwi-spotting (the birds this time, not the people!).  With any luck the weather will pick up again - now I know why Crowded House (NZ band) wrote "Four Seasons in One Day".  I'll let you know how the twitching goes (and the brewery tour - it's not all clean living out here!).

Water torture

I've stopped at Dunedin to catch my breath after the first few days of my backpacker bus adventure, and it's been action all the way!  There were 32 of us on board, 26 of whom had been together since Auckland.  Stepping on the bus was a little intimidating, but a couple of hours in I'd got a few names and faces sorted out, and after a wet night under canvas we were all bonding like nobody's business.  And the bonding continued the following morning, when we went white-water rafting down Rangitata Gorge...

This was an extraordinary experience.  We were squeezed into wetsuits and thermal clothes, and then bussed down to the river and divided into four rafts.  On mine were Matt (terrified of water, poor chap - he was talked into it by his mates), Lina from Sweden, Ros from the UK, Jimmy, our Flying Kiwi guide, and Ben, the rafting guide.  Off we headed onto beautiful calm water, and were given lessons in what to do once the water got choppy (hold on and get down, and paddle for your life were the main instructions).  And the first two rapids were cool - water in the face, bounced around, getting the blood flowing...  However, these were only Grades I and II, and there was more to come.

The next one was Grade III, and we hit a wave wrong and the three of us on the left-hand side of the boat went into the water (me, Matt - now scarred for life - and Lina).  And that was OK, once you clawed your way to the surface - we were all wearing life jackets and helmets, and all you had to do was float on your back with your feet facing forward until someone could come by and haul you onto the raft again.  Easy as.  But the Grade Vs were yet to come...

The first one was a cinch - we stopped beforehand and were given the choice as to whether or not to continue, and it was only 60m long and frankly didn't look as bad as the Grade III, so we headed back onto the raft and went through it beautifully, without a single mishap.  At the next stop, Lina and Matt got out, but I stayed on, figuring that I'd already been in the water once, so how bad could it be?  Very, I discovered, as I bounced out at the top of the 350m Grade V rapids and went down on my arse, sans boat, for the rest of them.  Bloody terrifying - particularly the waterfall, which I could see coming!  No one was able to throw me a safety rope until the end, by which time I was a sorry state - all snot and hyperventilation, though the rush of wellbeing once I was on dry land again was incomparable.  I think the appeal of these adrenalin activities is not so much the activities themselves, as the enormous relief once they're over and you're alive!  People were very impressed with my calmness - I even held onto the paddle, for heavens' sake - and I'm glad I've done it, but I will never do it again.  And just for your viewing pleasure, here are a few of the photos - the rest are on Flickr (I'm in the green helmet, heading into the water).  God bless dry land!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


I've just spent another lovely few days in Akaroa, a beautiful harbour town near Christchurch, reached via a precipitous road over the volcanic mountains hereabouts. This was very nearly French territory way back when, after a French sea captain bought the land from a local Maori tribe, and hurried home to gather up emigrants to populate it. Sadly for him, before he returned with his 50 odd settlers, the British had signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori, which effectively gave them control over both islands, and moreover it turned out that the local tribesmen had in any case sold the land eight times over. After coming all that way, however, they decided to stay and Akaroa became a French town in all but name.

Today, of course, it's all a bit more touristy - the French flag flies over fish restaurants, and all the street names are in French, but that's about as far as it goes. However (and I think I'm spotting a theme here) it's as charming as all the other small towns in New Zealand, with gorgeous views, cute harbour, gentle walks and plenty of photo opportunities. Plus trips out onto the water to interact with Hector's dolphins, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. The first day I was due to go out dolphin swimming the trip was cancelled because of a gale - and with the waves reaching six foot in the harbour itself, never mind in the open water, and the water iron grey and frankly uninviting, I was rather relieved. I spent the day in the tiny local cinema instead, chatting about sci-fi films with the enthusiastic owner and in between times watching subtitled movies in a lovely 12-seater, sipping fresh coffee and generally feeling that all was well with the world.

And in any case the next day dawned fresh and fine and we headed out in our wetsuits (no photo opportunities here) to look for dolphins. Sadly they were still a bit unsettled by the storm, and more interested in feeding than playing, but we still managed to get into the water with a pod of three, who circled us for a short while before swimming off to find someone more interesting! Even so, I feel very privileged to have swum less than 5ft away from a dolphin, and because they didn't stay long we got a partial refund as well, which I thought was very generous considering it's entirely up to the dolphins what they do!

And now I'm about to join my backpacker bus for a trip round both islands. I'm hoping that because it's all very rugged (camping out and cooking over a fire and so on) the clientele will be a bit older and more staid, but we shall see. Whatever happens, we've got some great stops on the way so who cares?! I'll write more when I get some internet access again, and in the meantime I hope everyone's well and surviving the snow...

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Love story

Well, it's happened - I've fallen in love with New Zealand. Up until now our relationship has been like Jane Bennet and Mr Bingley - rather shy of each other and tongue-tied - but passion has now definitely blossomed beneath the muslin (or, being a modern girl, beneath the lycra-mix T-shirt). Christchurch is charming, but it's once you get on the road that NZ's real beauty strikes you. I could try to get all lyrical about the mountains, and the long grass rippling over the hillsides like some great beast's fur in the wind, and the amazing, endless sky... but words (and photos) can't really do it justice - only something like (and I know this is a cliche) The Lord of the Rings can show it off to real advantage. Nonetheless I shall try!

My first outing was to Hanmer Springs, a tiny alpine resort with hot springs, and crisp, clean air, nestled in the mountains. The springs themselves are quite commercialised (at least in comparison with Dalhousie Hot Springs in the Simpson desert), but since this is NZ that still means they're not too crowded. I spent a very happy few hours soaking myself in sulphur springs (and more filtered pools too) at 38C or 41C, and looking up at the mountains towering around me. It must be wonderful in winter, with snow on the ground.

The next day I spent on foot, exploring some of the area's many walking tracks. With some difficulty I got to the top of Conical Hill to see the amazing views (I have a long way to go before I'm at NZ levels of fitness; still, I've got a few months to get there!), and then through a forest of newly planted Douglas fir, with the only sounds being a distant saw and my only companions the bumblebees doing their thing in the sunshine. And there were some beautiful woodland tracks too, dappled and cool, with springs trickling nearby. Wonderful.

In fact, the only downside to the trip was the bus journey home, which - despite every precaution - I spent in fiery, desperate need for the loo. Old age, eh? Who needs it? Like my dodgy knee and the shin splints, it's one of the growing list of jokes that Mother Nature is playing on me! Anyway, bodily decrepitude aside, I'm overjoyed to be here, and looking forward to the next trip, to Akaroa on the coast, where (weather permitting) I'll be swimming with dolphins...

Thursday, 7 January 2010

New beginnings

I may not sound very coherent on this one - I've just finished The Children's Book, A S Byatt's epic saga of the Edwardian age, and three families torn apart by the First World War, and it's devastatingly good. But having blown my nose and generally mopped myself up, I wanted to write about my first days in New Zealand, before I head off to Hanmer hot springs tomorrow!

So far it's all been very gentle and dreamy. Christchurch is amazingly pretty, with faux Gothic greystone buildings at every corner, and a crystal clear river trickling through the centre of town, populated by ducks and men in boaters punting the tourists about. I've pottered through the Botanic Gardens in the blazing sunshine taking photos (apologies to those of you also following on Flickr - there will be a heap of flower pictures sometime soon!), and sampled the Arts Centre (once Canterbury College, built to look like an Oxford college, quadrangle and all, and now full of bijoux little art shops and a cinema in the cloisters; I went, of course, and saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a violently bloody Swedish thriller based on a bestselling novel - not the most appropriate to the setting, and it appeared to surprise the elderly couple sitting behind me too, but there you go!).

I've also checked out the art gallery, which is a fantastic modern building amid the stone, all wavy lines and glass frontage, and with a great collection of New Zealand artists. Plus there's Canterbury Museum, which is a little provincial - lots of kitsch dioramas of
big-breasted Maori ladies weaving cloaks and plucking moa - but very endearing, and some of the exhibits are stunning, including the wood carvings from various whare (meeting houses). And just to make me feel really at home, the hostel is lovely, very cosy and friendly, with a herb garden we're free to plunder, spotless rooms, and its own house cat and two guinea pigs, who run around the lawn during the day, squeaking at each other. Adorable. (I should perhaps mention that this is a women-only hostel; I'm not sure the blokes would be so bowled over by guinea-pigs!)

So tomorrow is Hanmer Springs, before a few days back here, and then off again. I'll keep you posted, and in the meantime, good night and sleep tight...

Friday, 1 January 2010

Road trip

Happy New Year everyone! I didn't quite spend mine on the Great Ocean Road, but it was a near-run thing. I got back from tour at 1opm last night, and once I'd unpacked and cleaned my filthy body (my trip, as ever, was like a tour of duty!) it was about time for the bells to chime. All very low-key, then, but nonetheless it was a good start to the new decade. I say this every year, but things are on the up, I'm sure of it!

The tour itself was a bit of a mixed bag. The Great Ocean Road - built by returning servicemen after the First World War to create employment - is simply spectacular, and we had wonderful weather for it too. Time after time we stopped at a lookout to see amazing limestone cliff formations, or wild surf beaches bristling with damp young things in wetsuits, or just families at play while the sun baked boardwalks all along the coast. The highlight, naturally, was the Twelve Apostles, towers of limestone balanced precariously in the sea. It's the tourist mecca of the whole drive, and rightly so. We saw them with all the crowds, but also got to wander alone down a little-known stretch of beach where you could see them towering above you.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the camping was a different kettle of fish. I was bunking in with a lovely Irish couple, Yvonne and Mark, camping novices who aren't going to be converted by this experience! The first night was OK, but the second had no showers, and we were cooking in a semi-covered kitchen with thousands of flying bugs. That night's chilli con carne had extra protein in abundance, and those of us who were helping with the cooking had to keep stopping to comb them out of our hair and retrieve them from down our clothes. I'm pretty hardened now, but that was horrifying! Afterwards we retreated to the bar (it was an odd mixture - no running water for campers, but a place for them to drown their sorrows in beer), before grabbing not many hours' shut-eye. We were a sorry bunch the following morning, for sure.

However, the Grampians was the next stop, and despite the heat this too was fantastic to look at. We visited the main tourist stops again - MacKenzie Falls, and the Pinnacles - but they were remarkably quiet. At times during our walk up to the Pinnacles, and particularly on our way down through a rocky landscape that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie we were completely alone. We finished the day with trips through the mining towns of Ararat and Ballarat, with commentary from our guide Peter (a great storyteller). And that, I guess, is my last tour in Australia. I'm sad to be going, but excited at the prospect of exploring another country, and happy that I have so many good memories. The next time I write it'll be from a different time zone - 2010 really is starting with an adventure!