There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something.

WEEK 12

NEW ZEALAND
Aotearoa

by Simon

We had to spend one night in Auckland at both the start and end of our trip to the North Island. I’d visited Auckland as part of a post-graduation trip in 1998, and hadn’t exactly loved the place. I was keen to see if this impression was unfair, but a quick stroll along the deserted streets and past the 1960s blocks of the city centre made me think that it wasn’t. In the evening we went out to Auckland’s answer to Shoreditch, Ponsonby Road, which was only marginally less deserted (but who would go out on a Friday night – also the start of the bank holiday weekend for New Zealand Day – after all). We did find a couple of bars on K Road, and on our return through Auckland an excellent restaurant.

John Radford sculpture at Western Park, Auckland photo: John Radford’s sculpture at Western Park.

From Auckland we took the bus to Rotorua. Xavi was very keen to visit the Hobbiton movie set – a bargain at just under £40 each for a two hour tour. This was pretty meaningless to me – I had been unable to stay awake during my one attempt to watch a Lord of the Rings series film, and hadn’t tried again – but it was clearly very, very exciting for a lot of people. The highlight of the tour was the “free” drink at the Green Dragon pub, where we were permitted to linger for about 15 minutes before being loaded back onto our coach and invited to spend yet more money at the souvenir shop, a temptation I found strangely easy to resist. [Note from Xavier: it was actually brilliant.]

at Hobbiton!

Rotorua is also at the centre of an active volcanic zone and we visited a number of geothermal attractions, including the ambitiously named (and even more ambitiously priced) ‘Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland‘. This has some moderately interesting geothermal features including boiling mud pools, weird-coloured crater lakes, and numerous strange smells. The alleged highlight is the Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts promptly at 10:15 each day, with help from from a bag of soap. After another night in our rather strange hostel, it was back to Auckland.

at Wai-O-Tapu

Lady Knox geiser

In summary we thought the North Island lacked the breathtaking scenery of the South Island but was even more breathtakingly expensive. Good thing then that our next stop is famously cheap French Polynesia.

Moorea

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Kia ora!

WEEK 11

NEW ZEALAND
Aotearoa

by Simon

Map: Oceania

After two great weeks in Australia, we arrived in New Zealand’s South Island, landing in Christchurch just after midnight. Our first couple of hours in the country were a little underwhelming: first, we had to declare our walking boots to customs as a biosecurity risk, then the elderly taxi driver who drove us to our hotel made a racist comment about people “in a turban” overcharging, and finally the night shift receptionist at the hotel greeted us with the warmth and charm expected of a US immigration officer. Welcome to New Zealand.

Christchurch has not recovered from the earthquakes that devastated it in 2011 and 2012. Whole blocks in the centre have been demolished and the sites cleared, but many buildings remain fenced off and empty, an eerie sight. There are, however, construction works all around the centre, as well as signs of regeneration, like Re:START, an outdoor shopping area made entirely of shipping containers transformed into shops and cafés.

Christchurch NZ

Christchurch NZ

After a day seeing what was left of the city we departed early the following morning on the TranzAlpine across to the west coast, heading to Franz Josef glacier. We passed stunningly beautiful scenery on the way that seemed straight from a film set – as, indeed, it is. Franz Josef glacier is unusual for descending almost to sea level, ending in a rainforest. Once settled in, we hiked around said rainforest and up to the edge of the glacier – which has retreated rapidly in recent years and it is now not safe to get too close to it, but it remains an impressive sight. The surrounding countryside brought back distant memories of geography lessons.

TranzAlpine

at Franz Joseph Glacier

Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

Our next stop was Queenstown. Actually there were numerous lengthy stops before the bus finally arrived in Queenstown, almost nine hours later. Despite more beautiful scenery (which after a few days here I almost stopped noticing), this was a painful trip: after a driver switch mid way, the new driver, when counting the passengers, saw that some were trying to sleep and said loudly “Comatose heh? We’ll do something about that!“, and then proceeded to talk over the loudspeaker nonstop for the entire trip, covering such fascinating subjects as his favourite type of apricot. After some other similar bus journeys I came to think that severe verbal diarrhoea must be a required qualification for bus drivers in New Zealand.

Queenstown is a centre for outdoor activities (such as the original bungy jump) but it was far too cold and wet to do anything like that. [Note from Xavier: yes, we definitely didn’t bungy jump because of the weather. Seriously.]

source: Queenstown NZ channel, YouTube.

The area is also a wine producing region, so we visited instead one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries, where Xavier got to see what all the wine he drinks in a year looks like when in one place. [Note from Xavier: Simon thinks he is joking.]

Gibbston Valley Wines

wine tasting in Queenstown

On the road again, we drove a hire car to Te Anau on our way to the Fjordland at the far southwest, to visit spectacular Milford Sound. We stopped a few times along the way, including for a breathtaking (literally) uphill hike at The Divide through more rainforest, to barren mountaintops shrouded in clouds.

Queenstown and Te Anau

on the way to Milford Sound

The Divide NZ

The Divide NZ

on the way to Milford Sound

At Milford Sound the mountains drop directly over 1,500m to the water below, and when it’s been raining (as it had been in biblical fashion when we visited) hundreds of temporary waterfalls crash down along the vertical walls – and in some cases, where caught by the strong wind, vanish mid-air. We took a boat tour of the fjord, all the way to the Tasman Sea and back. The fjord is vast yet its entrance is very well hidden from the open ocean – so well that Cook bypassed it twice on his journeys along the coast. We were lucky enough to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water very close to our boat, and a herd of sleepy seals on the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. Also in the fjord was super yatch Serene, allegedly owned by Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler, which had made the local news.

Milford Sound

in Milford Sound

Milford Sound

the Serene at Milford Sound

New Zealand is one of the most expensive places we have come on this trip, which has entailed certain economising. Xavier has taken to this with unrestrained enthusiasm, particularly the need to stay in backpackers hostels (for Queenstown he suggested about twenty alternative places, all “just a little” more expensive) and prepare some of our own food (“but there must be good cheap restaurants” – with Michelin stars, presumably).

Next, New Zealand’s North Island. Watch this space!

Here Be Dragons

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Down Under.

WEEKS 9 and 10

AUSTRALIA

by Xavier

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.
— Bill Bryson, Down Under.

map: Oceania

It has been almost seven years since both Simon and I were in Australia at the same time. We were very excited about stopping by as we cross Oceania from West to East, especially since we have some very good friends living there. Sadly, due to the nature of our trip and the fact that Australia is noticeably more expensive these days, we could only allow ourselves a brief stay so we really wanted to make the most of it.

Our first stop was Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. It was my first visit too, the third for Simon. We stayed for five nights, in a nice apartment in the middle of Richmond we rented via Airbnb, very well located and easy to get around from – our host, Daniel, was lovely and gave us lots of ideas for things to see and do. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t as hot as we had anticipated (it had reached over 40°C some days back) so we could be out and about in the Melbourne sun.

Melbourne

On the slight (and arguable) downside, any illusion of keeping to the reasonably healthy lifestyle we had acquired in Asia, where wine is not very good and expensive, or good and very expensive, so we mostly abstained, went out of the window practically the moment we touched down in Australia. It didn’t help (or rather it did) to find a superbly stocked bottle shop (sic.) just around the corner from the apartment. No dry January for us!

When not deciding between the Riesling and the Cabernet Sauvignon, we set out to explore some of Melbourne’s more interesting areas, like the exuberant Botanical Gardens, St Kilda and its very lively beach (there was a beach volleyball tournament going on, as well as a lot of kite surfers), and trendy Fitzroy (think a sunnier, more suburban version of London’s Hoxton)

Melbourne: Botanical Gardens

Melbourne: St Kilda

Melbourne: Fitzroy

We also managed to find ourselves in the middle of two of the biggest events in the city’s calendar: the Midsumma festival and – most amazingly – the Australian Open, where we got to see Rafael Nadal play his first match of the tournament (sadly he didn’t make it to the final this time), it was awesome.

Melbourne: Midsumma 2015

Melbourne: Australian Open 2015

Melbourne, in short, was a blast. The days just flew by, and suddenly it was time to move on.

Our next stop, after a short flight, was Sydney. We were kindly hosted by Anthony and Trevor – whose year-long travels around the world some time ago were the inspiration for this trip – in their beautiful house in Randwick, very close to Bondi Junction so we squeezed in quite a few trips to the Westfield shopping centre there… We had seen the boys briefly back in London only a few months ago but it was great to see them again, and their utterly lovely dogs: Emma, Bonnie, and Scooby.

Fortunately, our stay coincided with a three-day weekend because of Australia Day, and we were able to see and catch up with the rest of our friends in Sydney, including our also adventurous housemate Luke, who also happened to be in town by happy coincidence.

Sydney was amazing in many ways, one of which took the shape of a much missed musical fix for me. Having only known the building from the outside, I finally had a chance to go inside and watch a performance at the iconic Opera House and meet some of the cast afterwards, courtesy of my dear friend Alex who runs her own very successful artist management company and had come in support of one of her singers, Hannah Dahlenberg, a remarkable Queen of the Night. It was a wonderful evening.

Sydney Opera: The Magic Flute 2015

Alex was kind enough to show me around the front of House areas during an unusually long interval apparently caused my a mysterious problem backstage (at one point we bumped into the Company Manager, Allana Sheard, who just looked at Alex and exclaimed “I have no idea!“) so I could marvel at the design of the building. We paused briefly just outside the door to the auditorium towards the end of the interval when a man walked past and as he did he said to us: “The Queen of the Night… Only dogs could hear her!” before disappearing inside the auditorium, leaving both Alex and I, who had heard the Queen quite clearly, rather bemused. Alex’s husband Loz met us at the end and we walked over to a very cool pub for dinner and drinks with Simon and the boys.


source: Opera Australia channel, YouTube

I saw Alex and Loz again the following evening after more opera, this time in the park, which I’d come to see with a mutual friend: the gorgeous Lady Ramsden. Simon likes opera as much as he likes Tolkien, so he went to meet his friends instead, missing a collection of opera’s greatest hits which the huge crowd lapped up and with some very impressive singing too. Just as the last note rung out the skies opened (likely unrelated) and it just didn’t stop raining for the rest of our stay.

We also celebrated Simon’s birthday over the weekend, with a traditional barbecue at the house, generously provided by Anthony and Trevor, with Andrew manning the grill, and buddying writer Greg entertaining us all with humorous anecdotes of the kind that cannot be repeated here. Simon was so pleased he even gave a speech (he never does) on how much he was enjoying his birthday this year.

Then Australia Day came and as it was realistically the last chance to see most of our friends before everyone went back to work we decided to brave the rain and try to see as many people as possible, and so we started by heading off to Surry Hills for an indoors picnic at one of Sydney’s top beauty salons (as one does), with its owners Richard and Asim and some of their lovely friends. Richard and Asim are two of the first people I met when I moved to London in 1997 and I hadn’t seen them since I was last in Sydney seven years ago. I was very happy to see them now, but most of all I was bowled over by their amazing five year old twins Azra and Wednesday. It was a real pity that we couldn’t linger as we had to leave for our next engagement. Alex and Loz were giving a barbecue in their lovely home in Manly Vale, where we arrived just in time for some mouth watering lamb. Once again we had to make our excuses far too soon, and hurried to our next and final engagement to meet Andrew and Dean in The Rocks – Dean is a cake designer, which is a much better job title than I will ever have, and runs his own brilliant business in Sydney. We had drinks at the bar of Sydney Theatre, a super cool space on the wharf with amazing views over the harbour, and then moved on for dinner at a trendy Italian nearby, while outside the drizzle turned into a downpour. Those familiar with Sydney will realise just how much of the day we ended up spending going from one place to another, but it was all well worth it.

FRIENDS!

We would have loved to stay longer in Australia – we had even pencilled in a trip to Byron Bay when we were planning our itinerary – however it could not be this time, and we find ourselves currently traveling around some pretty amazing surroundings in New Zealand… More of that on the next update!

Milford Sound

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.