Monday, 3 December 2012

Middle Earth and Beyond

While in Rotorua, we made a booking for a special tour on our way northward—a guided exploration of Hobbiton! (Did I mention being Tolkien fans?) So, we drove up to Matamata and spent an amazing couple of hours at the farm where they have completely rebuilt the movie set of the Shire that was used for both the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies. We were so impressed with the phenomenal attention to detail throughout the valley! I loved that there was a little hobbit-sized earthenware mug balanced on a log by the wood shed, as if the busy hobbit had just forgotten it there that morning! They have a team of gardeners constantly working on keeping everything as beautiful as possible. They've also expanded the Green Dragon into a completely functional restaurant and pub where they are already taking bookings for upcoming events. (Can you imagine having a significant birthday celebration in full hobbit style?)

Bag End

The Green Dragon

Following our lunch at the Shire’s Rest Café, we returned to the road heading northeast to the Coromandel Peninsula. What a drive that was! If you want magnificent scenery with mountains, valleys, rain-forests, and ocean vistas, you have to take the roads that come with them! We are talking mountain switchbacks here, people! I’m sure that those who travel the Himalayas and Andes will scoff at me, but this was plenty of driving adventure for me! My son alternated between hiding behind his book (thankfully not being prone to motion sickness) and muttering about being really glad he was too young to drive! We both appreciated the stunning scenery, mind you! We just appreciated it better from the scenic lookouts where we could stop and view for a while.

Our second day in the Coromandel we alternated our driving with some walks to get close up and see the details of some amazing sights. The first was Cathedral Cove. The hike took a little over ¾ of an hour each way, depending on where you detoured and how long you stopped to catch your breath. Our one detour was to the stunning little Gemstone Bay, in which even on our overcast day, the rocks and waters shone with myriad colours (not completely apparent in the photo, but you do what you can):

Once we got to Cathedral Cove itself, we enjoyed not only the cove, but also the hollow passage under the rock on the north side, through which you can see the same vista that greeted the Pevensie children on their return to Narnia in the movie Prince Caspian!

The other walk we took was much shorter—a whole five minutes from the side of the road! We did expect it to be longer, but there was the end of the path, and the beautiful Waiau Falls right in front of us, when we had hardly started walking!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Thermally Amazing!

Our journey also included a different type of giant, as we next drove towards Lake Taupo, an approximately 30km by 30km interior lake that fills the caldera of the enormous Mt. Taupo, the largest eruption of which was about 26,500 years ago and affected sunsets, etc. all over the world. These pictures are overlooking from the south and then from the eastern lakeshore on two consecutive days.

The volcano in the background is Mt. Tongariro, the one that decided to do housecleaning last week! We stayed one night in the town of Taupo, and then undertook a walk along the Waikato River to see the impressive Huka Falls before we departed for Rotorua. It was a longer walk than we realised, with a lot more hills involved, but it was so worthwhile!

Rotorua is a thermally active region, much of which is underlain by bodies of volcanically heated water, resulting in hot springs, mud pools and geysers throughout the area. As such, it has become a very popular destination both for those who would live with that warmth (there are several Maori villages that have been established here for centuries) and tourists. We took advantage of geological, cultural, and entertainment activities in a very action-packed two days in the area. On the first evening we went to the Rotorua Museum, which had first been an 1800’s bath and treatment spa. The treatments ranged from soaking in lovely, hot, sulphurous baths, to some really horrific applications of electricity! Also at the museum was an amazing exhibition of the winning entries in the recent WOW! Wearable Art competition that took place recently in Wellington, New Zealand. I was truly impressed with the astounding creations on display!

First thing the next morning, we went to Wai-o-tapu, where steaming craters, mud pools and volcanic pools can be seen, and a geyser is triggered to erupt every day at 10:15am. While all of these features are very impressive, my personal favourite had to be the mud pools!

Our next stop was at Whakarewarewa, a Maori village where the members of the village have devoted their energies to educating visitors about what it means to live a thermally based, Maori lifestyle. Some of them performed several traditional songs and athletic demonstrations including a beautiful love-song about two of the village’s ancestors. Another lady walked around the village with us, telling us the history of the area, guiding us around the thermal areas in the village (including more geysers, and the specialised cooking facilities!) and helping us to understand how their lives are affected by their location. The village stores are open to the public, so we happily enjoyed some really excellent pies (Hangi) that had been volcanically prepared, at the local café.

In the afternoon, we turned to the tourist playground side of Rotorua. First, my son wanted to find out how it would feel to experience free-falling without having to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. So, he tried a free-fall simulator where they suit you up with a sort of bat-wing  type of flight suit to maximise lift, before having you lay out on a net over a huge fan—when the fan starts, up you go! Apparently it was amazing!
Next, we went together to ride a gondola up the side of a mountain (I have no pictures, so here's the link: before taking three trips on dry luge tracks down the slopes of said mountain! I say “dry” only to indicate that there is no ice like the luges we are used to in Canada. This one was certainly wet in the sense that the heavens opened and we got completely drenched! (Not that that stopped us for going on all three of our turns—we just shivered and grinned on the chair lift on the way back up between tries, much like the mad tourists that we undoubtedly were at the moment). Our final adventure activity for the afternoon was rolling down a grassy hill in a giant plastic ball! They were kind enough to put in much warmer water than the rainstorm had already provided, and had us wear swimsuits. Much better! It was actually hilarious fun!

At the end of all this craziness, we wrapped ourselves up in dry towels and drove back to our campsite for a lovely dip in the thermal hot pool to warm up! It was divine!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

New Zealand!

We have quite a lot of family in Auckland, New Zealand: Two of my first cousins married New Zealanders (Kiwis), and another cousin and an aunt have also emigrated here. So, naturally, Auckland is the place for us to start our time in New Zealand! We arrived in early November, just in time to find out that a new cousin had just been born that morning! We received a great welcome from everyone, and a wonderful treat from my aunt—she let us have her flat as a base, while she went to stay with my cousin! After so much time staying in close company with others, it was absolutely amazing to have a bit of time with our own space.
The first several days were a lovely blur of visits back and forth between cousins’ houses, getting to know one another again after many years, meeting spouses and children, and cuddling the two brand new babies—one newborn and the other just born in September. It was great! We also went for trips to the Auckland Museum (where we saw a fabulous Maori cultural performance, as well as some first-rate exhibits), a country drive to a local woodworking shop, a tour along the bays around which Auckland is built, and a guided tour of Rangitoto Island. As New Zealand’s most recently formed volcanic island, Rangitoto is only about 600 years old, and a raw accumulation of A ’a basalt.

What a foreign landscape that makes! The black, porous rocks look for all the world like freshly churned earth, but when you touch it, it is hard and almost glassy in texture, not soft and malleable as it appears from a distance. The illusion of earthiness is perpetuated by the Pohutukawa trees, which happily seed themselves in the nutrient rich basalt fields, break the rocks down into soils, and create entire islands of ecosystems in an otherwise barren landscape.

Here's the view back to Auckland from Rangitoto
One of the activities we wanted to try in New Zealand was driving around the countryside on our own, checking out different towns and activities on our way. Our cousins had done precisely this on previous occasions, so they gave us lots of recommendations for a great adventure. Combining their recommendations with some things we had read about in advance, we started off for six days of travel, staying in cabins at the camping holiday parks that cover the North Island (and the South island, but we don’t have the time to go that far this trip), and driving the car my cousin so generously lent me.

Our first stop was Waitomo in the western hill country, which has been carved out into a true karst landscape, as the approximately 30 million year-old limestone has been eroded by both over- and above-ground streams, creating hills, vales, caves and sinkholes:

The caves were what drew us to Waitomo, as we had reservations to go tubing through one cave system, known for its population of glow worms, then walking through another system the following morning. Here are photos from inside the cave (I don’t know if that is one of us or a member of our group tubing there) and of the cave’s exit point in the lush forest we walked through before and after. It was really cold in there! The water doesn’t change significantly from its 12°C norm all year round! The glow worms were incredible, though! So were the rock formations! We got to see more of them the next day when we went for a guided tour through Aranui cave:

As both of us are fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the more recent movies that have been made about the adventures in Middle Earth, we decided to check out some of the locations here in New Zealand where much (if not all) of the filming was done. Our next stop was a temporary one in the middle of Tongariro National Park, where we went to the area where the Mordor sequences in the last Lord of the Rings movie were filmed. That was on the flanks of Mount Ruapehu. That was a totally different basalt landscape! Unlike the almost fluffy appearance of Rangitoto, this was a smooth basalt that didn’t break up easily, but rather depended on the slow growth of lichens to create a place for other life-forms to flourish. There were large unbroken stretches of blackness, interspersed with tundra-like stunted trees and low brush on the lower slopes. There was still snow on the mountain, and heavy mist that day, so we were limited in how far up we could go, but it was easy to see why the movie director, Peter Jackson, chose this location for Frodo and Sam’s arduous journey through Mordor.

After we left the park, we continued along its borders to the north, so we were able to see the base of two other volcanoes, Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe. These were also sights of filming for the movies, as the Plains of Golgoroth scenes were filmed at the base of Mt. Tongariro, and Mt. Ngauruhoe was used as Mt. Doom. We couldn’t see the peaks of any of the volcanoes, as the clouds were too low, but the sight of even the lower reaches was awe-inspiring. It turns out that a certain level of nervousness in the presence of these giants is well warranted, as Mt. Tongariro has erupted since our visit last week, pouring out ash and gases. I don’t know if further activity is expected.

Inland and Up North!

After our side trip to Stradbroke Island, we had a few days in Brisbane with our cousin, in which she took us to see some special treats of the area. One day, she drove us inland to the city of Toowoomba. The hope had been to show us the stunning view back through the mountain pass toward Brisbane. Unfortunately, that week, there had been an ongoing bush fire for several days, and the smoke was so thick, there was no sightseeing to be had. We compensated very effectively by going to the Cobb & Co. Museum. What a great time we had there! They had exhibits on all the transport systems of late 1800's Australia on display, from horse-drawn phaetons and stage coaches to the first automobiles, a natural history section, a display of Aborigine dance gear from the islands at the very northern tip of Australia, and an entire section devoted to teaching people arts and handicrafts from woodworking, stone carving, and iron working to silver smithing, stained glass work, felting and millinery. On weekends, they offer workshops at the museum so that the public can learn techniques directly from the artisans who make their livings doing these crafts. The next day, we went to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where we got to see not only the koalas at all stages of life, but also kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, emus, wombats, cassowaries, and an array of different birds and lizards. I can’t quite get used to the parrots and lorikeets flying around wild in Australia. It’s amazing to see them. I’ve included a shot of some Rainbow Lorikeets we saw up close at the Koala Sanctuary.
This is a bush turkey.

The birds in the sand are mynas having a dust bath--they landed so hard and fast, we thought they'd been hurt!

On our last day in Brisbane before our second Australian travel adventure, my son stayed at the house to complete a correspondence assignment while I went walking with our cousin through the Botanical Gardens and downtown of the city. Here are some of the ubiquitous Australian White Ibis in their nest at the gardens.
Our second travel adventure in Australia started out with an overnight train journey northward to Prosperpine, then a connection to Airlie beach, the town from which we would set off on two days sailing on a catamaran amongst the Whitsunday Islands!

What an experience! We met our sailing group in the late afternoon, and set out for the isles with a good wind in our sails. Our boat was the On Ice, sailed by the ISail Whitsundays company. It was just beautiful; the crew were super-friendly; the rest of the passengers were fun, interesting people from around the world; and, our initial impression that we would have a great time was completely confirmed over the two days! On the first morning, we woke up early to walk up through a forest reserve on Whitehaven Island to the hilltop from which I took this photo of the beach we would explore later in the day—talk about paradise!
 When we did go to the beach, we wore summer-weight wet suits to protect us from jellyfish, so we were able to swim longer than we would have otherwise. We also got to try stand-up paddle boarding! I was happily paddling along when I saw two large stingrays swim under me! I was very glad not to be swimming then, so of course that was when I fell backwards off the board! I never hurried to get out of the water so fast!
That evening, we were introduced to coral reef snorkelling at the head of Hook Island in Manta Ray Bay. WOW! There were so many different types of fish, and so many colours of coral! It was incredible! Then, just as I was getting out of the water, some others pointed out a dark shadow going past, and told me it was two manta rays hunting! Sure enough, whole arcs of fish started leaping out of the water to avoid the rays—what a sight! That night we moored in a quiet bay near Dolphin Point, where we were treated to a fabulous dinner while watching this beautiful sunset:

The next morning, we were just getting started when dolphins appeared off the port bow of our boat! How lucky were we to have these incredible wild animals appearing on demand at the places that were named for them? Very lucky, we were told—it hardly ever happens! After a little more snorkelling, and paddling about in a transparent canoe, through which we could see all kinds of fish going about their business, we moved off to our final stop before our return to Airlie Beach: a little sand island of which I can’t remember the name.  What was important was that we had one last chance to snorkel there—and we saw Sea Turtles! I saw one just hanging out at the bottom between some coral, then two more once I had climbed out of the water, into the dingy—they were just swimming along on the surface! We had one more wildlife sighting on our way back to port, when a solitary dolphin surfaced right by the boat as we sailed past!

Our time in Australia was brought to a lovely close with a few more days in Brisbane, in which we had two special treats: One was a pair of tickets to a play called Lipstick Dreams (which was absolutely hilarious!); the other was an invitation for lunch at the home of our cousin’s close friends, followed by a trip to the big Brisbane-Adelaide soccer match for my son (with the father and their kids) and a lovely tour around northern Brisbane for me (with our cousin and the mother of the family). What a great ending for our visit! As excited as we were to continue our trip, it was hard to leave. 

Thursday, 15 November 2012


We had just over a month in South Africa, which we left in the midst of a thunderstorm so large, it simultaneously affected both Durban and Johannesburg (we know—our first connector flight was from Durban to Joburg, and we had to fly through the storm at both locations!) Our next stop is in Australia, where we were from mid October to early November. Like our stay in South Africa, we have a home-base there, at the home of my mum’s cousin in Brisbane. We had a great visit with her! We also had two excursions. The first was to Stradbroke Island, on the other side of Moreton Bay from the city of Brisbane—what a great place to relax and get over the jet lag! We had our first experience of staying at a hostel, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We stayed at Manta Lodge, which is on the outskirts of Point Lookout, one of three larger communities on Stradbroke. The main emphasis there is on scuba diving, but they helped us find companies that would take us sea kayaking and riding on a 4WD tour of the island. The day we went sea kayaking, the conditions were a little rough, and we weren’t the only beginners in the group, so the guide decided to take us along the bay at Amity Point, then into the mangroves at the entrance to the river there. Were we glad! It turns out that kayaking against a current is hard work! The sea sections definitely provided us with some challenges, and a workout, but we did get to see stingrays scooting along the sand below us, which was pretty cool! Once into the mangroves, we got out and snorkelled for a bit in the lovely, clear water provided by the incoming tide. That was another new experience for both of us, and really fun! I saw a few Sea Breen, and my son swam right through an entire school of minnows! We also both got the opportunity to learn not to try to breathe in with your nose—it messes up the seal on your mask!!!  Once we were paddling again, we also saw a turtle swimming past and a fish that may have been a Whiting. Slowly paddling along between the mangroves in the dappled sunshine was a wonderfully relaxing way to spend some time while the tide turned before we headed back out to the bay!

The day for our tour around the island was the day that a storm was building up over the island. A massive wind had been blowing all night, and it didn’t let up too much during the day. As a result, our viewings had more to do with extreme scenery brought about by the wind than about wildlife sightings. The extreme scenery sure was impressive, though! We saw Brown Lake in the interior of the island—it got its name (and rich brown colour) from the tee-tree oil released from the roots of trees along the shore. We saw the Pacific Ocean in its wind-whipped glory as we drove northwards up the main beach on the east side of the island. Apparently, on calmer days, one can see whales, dolphins, turtles, and manta rays, but nothing was visible between the crashing waves that day. Once we reached the much more sheltered Flinder’s Beach on the northeast shore, we paused for a lovely barbeque in the shade of some beachside trees in the company of a pair of kookaburras that sat close by, conveniently posing for photographs! As we sat there, eating our steaks with salads, pineapple, and pickled beets from a beautifully set table on the sand, I thought that this was a wonderfully civilised experience! After lunch we walked the beach for a while before driving through Amity Point where we had our one wildlife viewing—a wild koala climbing out on a limb over the road in search of juicier leaves on his gum tree!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Oribi Gorge!

Our base of operations—as it was—for our time in South Africa was Port Shepstone, where my grandparents have lived for some years. We rented a holiday house just off the beach and went out from there for our trips to game parks, etc. as well as day trips nearby. A couple of our day trips were to Oribi Gorge, especially to Lake Eland park. Our first trip there was for a horseback game-viewing safari. My son and I saddled up and went for our tour around the park with a young couple and our guide. It was my son’s first horseback riding experience, and my first in many years—there are muscles that attested to that reality for a few days afterward, I assure you! The highlight of the day was certainly when we left the path for a while to view a mixed herd of blesbok and eland (the largest antelope in South Africa). They are impressive animals! My son got to find out up-close-and-personal when the rest of the horses started moving on, but his wanted to stay and graze. I guess the eland objected to this infringement on their turf, though, as three of them came up and started to chase him off! Thankfully, the horse decided to agree with my son’s assessment that it was time to get out of there!

We went back to the gorge for another adventure on the advice of my sister, who had been on the zip-line there the year before. This time, all four of us went, and had a great time swooping over the magnificent tree-lined gullies, and open water of the fourteen-line system from top-to-bottom of a section of Oribi Gorge. My mum and son were the least certain that it was a good idea when we started out, so it was with justifiable pride that they purchased the “I did it!” T-shirts available after the crew had driven us back up the substantial hillside and returned us to our car. The two guides who had accompanied us on the ride were a great support throughout, giving tips on when best to apply brakes (or not), and encouraging our flagging courage when we were facing particularly steep drops.

Mountains and Battlefields

Having experienced the coast, we drove inland, past Pietermaritzburg, to the Drakensburg Mountains. Our plan was to stay at Kamberg park, and walk up to see the impressive San paintings in the caves the following morning. Sadly, the weather decided otherwise for us. For most of our stay, the mountains were shrouded in mist, and even rain, so the climb was not an option. Fortunately, there was a back-up plan. Many of the small businesses in that section of Kwa-Zulu Natal have joined efforts to create a kind of perpetual studio tour, so you can acquire a map, and then drive around to the shops and studios of different artisans, with coffee stops and accommodations also indicated on your map. We took full advantage of this option, and enjoyed several stops along the way. As it was rather chilly, the refreshment stops with hot food were especially appreciated!

Once out of the mountains, we continued north toward Newcastle, where my dad’s cousin has run a game farm for many years. We had a fabulous visit, getting to know members of our family we hadn’t seen in decades (and in some cases, never before).

A highlight of that stay was a guided tour of three of the critical battles of Kwa-Zulu Natal of the 1800s. The first battlefield was at Bleod Rivier (Blood River) where there was an incredible standoff between a small group of Boer (farmers of Dutch extraction—later to be known as Afrikaaners) fighting men and the fighting forces of the Zulu nation. Our guide was brilliant in his description of the forces involved—psychological as well as physical—as these two groups encountered one another in the wee hours of a January morning after camping out practically beside one another in a dense fog all night before. It is truly astounding that the battle went in favour of the Boers in their laager formation (circle of covered wagons with fighting fences to prevent incursion) instead of the mighty Zulu force that surrounded them, but it happened! The river was renamed after that battle to account for the change of its colour due to the massive loss of Zulu blood into the stream that day.

The second and third battlefields were from conflicts between the British and the Zulu almost a century later. These were at Isandlwana and Rourke’s Drift. In the first, the British were routed completely due to an incredible combination of really poor leadership of the British troops (the general in charge managed to disappear for the duration of the battle—hmmmmm), superior strategy on the part of the Zulu commanders (they knew exactly where and when to attack and made excellent use of the terrain), and sheer unfortunate luck for many of those on the ground (messages got lost or misinterpreted, supplies ran out, etc.). The battle at Rourke’s Drift was a continuation of the one at Isandlwana, the following day, and like the one at Bloed Rivier, was an amazing feat of survival for a small force holed up at a farm, protected as much by prayer and circumstance as any military brilliance.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Wow! What a day!

We were at iMfolozi game reserve in Kwazulu-Natal , South Africa. We got there the first night just before supper, and in the following 25 hours, we saw the most incredible array of animals! We saw Cape Buffalos as we rounded the first turn inside the gate; then we saw Impala, Baboons, a White Rhinoceros, two Waterbuck, and some Vervet Monkeys, all before we even checked in to the camp! We stayed at Mpila Camp where we got to stay in a little chalet for five people that has a thatched roof and full kitchen facilities. We were excited to see that there were tracks of a large antelope and some kind of predator in the ground near the chalet—maybe we would see animals right in the camp!

For dinner our first night here, we had barbecued lamb chops with fresh salad. The sun went down so quickly, that at 6:30 in the evening, my dad was out there cooking in the dark! We were happily enjoying our meal when I looked up to see a Spotted Hyaena looking in the window at us from the patio! That explained the predator prints. We had heard that they could steal meat right off the braai (Afrikaans word for BBQ), but we were startled to see him check us out, and then saunter over to our braai looking for treats! The next night, we cooked indoors!

We woke up with the sun the next morning, and were on the road within half an hour of the gate opening. What things we saw! We started off slow with some of the Impala we had seen the night before, but this time they were accompanied by several Wildebeest. We had heard that there was a Leopard sighting yesterday on one loop, so we went there. We never did see the Leopard, but we saw over 40 White Rhinoceros!!!!!
Before we were done our day’s game viewing, we had also seen Giraffes, Elephants and several different antelopes! The Elephants were right beside the road, and one crossed behind us as soon as we moved onward. He was a young fellow—probably in his last year with the maternal herd, and full of adolescent angst. Despite the fact that none of the others even acknowledged our presence, he got right upset that we were there, flapping his ears, trumpeting, and kicking rocks at our car! We got out of his range as fast as possible!

More Game-Viewing Adventures!

After our stay at Mpila in Imfolozi, we had a couple of nights at Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe Park followed by a stay in St. Lucia with drives into iSimangaliso Wetland Reserve. At Hluhluwe, we saw more elephant, lots of Nyala, baboons, white rhinos, zebra and giraffes. We had an incredible grasslands viewing experience on our way back to camp before dusk one evening! We were coming down a hill into an impressive expanse of tall grass, when we started seeing impala, zebra, then rhinos and finally a whole herd of giraffe—complete with babies! We thought this was all impressive enough, but then rounded a curve and drove through a herd of about 100 head of cape buffalo! They just went on, and on, and on! We also saw impressive reptile sightings at Hluhluwe—we saw young crocodiles sunning themselves on rocks in a stream; we saw four-foot long leguwan lizards; and on a tree at a rest stop, we saw a pair of blue-headed lizards with stunning colours!
At St. Lucia, we went on a boat tour up the estuary and saw all kinds of hippopotami along with the biggest crocodiles I’ve ever seen! My mum got to be really good at spotting the crocs swimming along the reeds when they only have their eyes and a few bumps on their backs exposed. The first time she spotted one, it gave us all a bit of a shock—it was way closer than we thought, and nobody had noticed! The guides on the boat were great company, so we had fun swapping stories about the different types of wildlife and climatic conditions we have on our separate parts of the world. Another experience we had in that area was a visit to the butterfly house set up by one of the nearby villages. They have a full butterfly nursery and education centre, which we enjoyed. They also have a lovely tea shop where you get the best scones served out in the fresh air, under the trees, which we enjoyed just as much!