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Monday, 8 June 2015

Family fun in Easter Island - once we got past the roadblocks!

Easter Island - a tiny remote dot in the middle of the Pacific Island where we came up against protesting residents and roadblocks, and eventually were allowed to adore the towering Moai statues.

Top of our list of things we wanted to do on Easter Island was, of course, to go to the quarry where the statues were carved and many are still in situ, having never made it to their proposed destination, either because the cult of the statues was abandoned before the statue was finished, or because the statue smashed before being finished. So, we set off to make the short 20 minute drive along the length of the island to get to the quarry. But we didn't get there. We had not gone halfway when .. we never could have envisaged this ...roadblocks! The Rapanui were protesting their independence against Chile and had closed all the sites, blocked all the roads, and generally put a stop to everything! Argh!!!!!!

We tried all the routes out of Hanga Roa, all were blocked off. There was no way of gaining access to any of the historical sites of the island. None. We saw it from the protestors' point of view of course - they wanted to take back control over their tourism and their heritage from Chile. We assume it's just a one day protest, right?

Cutting down the trees - not to roll statues on, but to stop tourists seeing them.

But it wasn't only for one day. There were rumours that nobody would be able to get near the statues for weeks...The next days were spent in increasingly desperate attempts to get near to these sights and sites which we had come so far to see. Roadblocks again. There was no getting to the quarry, again, and no getting to Anakena in the north of the island, again. No getting anywhere. Some of the local Chilean tour guides who have been here before and seen it all before say the protestors might keep it up for days. Weeks.. We waited at roadblocks for ages, chatting to a bunch of other tourists, everyone frustrated. The guys manning the roadblocks just say they are waiting for news from Chile before they are going to stand down. Some conflicting information about reports on the radio of the "President of the Rapa Nui Parliament" announcing that the protestors that they should lift the blockades, but the guys here are having none of it.

Easter Island - a tiny rocky island in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean

So we try another route later in the day. We get to the junction to Anakena (which would also take us to Aviki) and the roadblock is now only manned mostly by kids. No rope across the road - let's go. So I drive forwards, and we think we have achieved escape velocity and are very excited. But a few miles down the way - another roadblock, immediately outside someone's house. This is very easy for them to man. They aren't going to give up any time now. Turn around. Meet a cyclist who we saw at a roadblock earlier who said he had managed to get into the quarry! It was open! He took the bike off the roads to get round the roadblocks and made it into the quarry. There was no one else there - no kidding. Can we do this?

Drive back into town to get supplies for tomorrow and I pop into a few car hire and tour places and ask about a local guide to take us around the road blocks. No dice. This is hopeless. We can't the 6 of us cycle from Hango Roa to the quarry. No way.

We try again for the quarry the next day. We were now desperate to see what we came for - our time was running out, only two days more here before we would have to fly out.

The next day again we set off along the road, we don't see disappointed tourists returning in the other direction, which is almost hopeful. We have decided to try a gesture of making friends today - we come armed with beers, oranges and biscuits. We get to the roadblock. It is clear in front of us! I drive right up to the rope, and a young lady appears (first of either of these qualities to appear among the protestors).  "Que pasa?" I say, and she replies "tickets?" "Si!" I say, excitedly, we have those! We show them to her, we watch as she carefully rips them in half, and then she returns she stubs to me and we drive forwards over the lowered rope. We have made it!!!!

We can't believe it! And I still don't believe it until we are actually inside the quarry, which is not long after. We are so thrilled to be here! So happy, so excited, and ultimately, so incredibly relieved!   We celebrate by each drinking a can of the beer we didn't need to offer and eating the oranges and biscuits!

And now, at last, we can appreciate the Moai here in the quarry where these extraordinary huge great statues were carved from the rocks in a process that took as much as two years per statue, and then they were moved from here to places all around the island. And the reason to visit the quarry now is because there are quite a number of Moai still here - who never made it to their intended destinations for one reason or another. If a Moai fell over in the process of bringing it down from the top of the quarry it was just left there, folornly abandoned. So there are many Moai in the quarry -  in fact there are 397 of them here to be precise.

And they were amazing! Lying everywhere among the grass, huge stone heads gazing out towards the stony land. Some at crazy angles, all apparently with bodies underneath the heads. An astonishing number of the heads all around us, all still waiting to be taken to Ahus, which they will now never get to. We look at many many of the hundreds of Moai at the quarry, in various stages of carvedness. Amazing. It is really amazing. We find the Moai who has the carving of Cook's ship on his stomach, and we find the only kneeling Moai - perfectly framed with the 15 standing Moai of Tongariki in the background down by the sea. We wander among them, fairly dazed to be here, and very happy. At one point we meet a tour guide from yesterday who had chatted to us and explained the protestors' views, not that he had agreed with what they were doing he said. He was delighted we were here and we greeted each other like long lost friends!

We wondered around in the hot sun, and at one time in a cool shower of rain, marvelling at these extraordinary relics of a dead culture. Having finally had our fill we walked to the crater of the volcano, after various path losing exploits, and walked part way around the island's only lake, among the Moai who had been carved from the rocks on this side. It was so peaceful here, with almost no one else there, and we could be so close to the carved heads - amazing.

The next day our plan was to try to get to Orongo on the other side of the island, which is where the ritual of the Birdman cult was practised. We drove along this road which had also been roadblocked, but no more! We made it to Orongo. Cave paintings were not on the agenda because the path had collapsed but we saw the place where the Birdmen competitors had to climb down the near vertical cliffs, into the shark infested water, swim out 2km to the tiny Motus, edged with steep rocky sides pummelled by breaking waves, find the first eggs of the season laid by the sooty tern, pop the egg into a basket on their head assigned for that purpose, and then swim back through the shark-rich waters, climb back up the cliffs, and be crowned Birdman for the year, and so the riches of the island would be bestowed to their tribe. Such a fascinating cult, and such a dramatic scene, which we saw in perfect sun. I couldn't take a photo which did justice to the startling drop to the deep blue sea and these rocky inhospitable islands.

We then walked to the top of the crater - it was vast. Filled with reedy water, the islands only other source of "fresh" water. Then those of us who weren't on the edge of exhaustion from the sun and the rigours of the day went to see the Moai at Tongariki one last time. The weather was cloudy on our part of the island but it was wonderful full sun at Tongariki. We got through the roadblock this time by the lady tearing our halved tickets into quarters! Lucky they hadn't torn them at Orongo, as you are only supposed to get to the quarry one time and Orongo one time otherwise there wouldn't have been anything left of the tickets for her to tear (Tongariki is on the same road as the quarry).

The Moai were amazing. We sat, we contemplated, we stared, we took photos, we marvelled. We reluctantly dragged ourselves away.

On the way home we made a small detour to see the Moai with 4 hands carved - why, no one knows. A joke, possibly. Or maybe it was something about twins I speculated.

On our last evening we went to the sea to see the sunset over the Tahai Moai. There were a lot of clouds so we weren't anticipating a great show, but it was fabulous! There were a lot of people watching, but why not. We all lay around on the grass, walked to get the Moai in front of the most coloured stretches of sky, and gazed and gazed at these stone wonders.

And then it was our last morning. We went back to see our frist ever Moai - the one just by the sea in the town of Hanga Roa. What an incredible place, what magical wonders this island contains. How very glad I am to have seen them. So remote, so far. Unimaginable that we will ever make it back to see them again.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Five go mad in French Polynesia!

French Polynesia - a tropical paradise of close encounters with rays and sharks. Saw where Cook landed and understood why the men of the ship the Bounty mutineered in the hope of staying here forever.

We had three weeks in French Polynesia in our journey across the Pacific from New Zealand. Tahiti and her islands is the other name for French Polynesia and as a description it makes more sense as there are in fact 183 islands in Polynesia, we discovered. We landed in Tahiti, as all international airlines do, but I had chosen that we would stay on her islands, specifically on the island of Moorea, and what a great choice we made. Moorea is a jewel of a tropical island - a lush fertile interior with great mountains from which pour vast waterfalls which feed the life which explodes everywhere in great palm trees, avocado trees, oranges, pineapples, lemons and papayas which grow everywhere in huge abundance. Moorea reaches into the sea with perfect white sand beaches giving onto an ever-calm lagoon at the edge of which is a great surf break which in some places produces perfect barrel waves almost every day of the year. There is one road on the island - the road which rings its 40 mile circumference, much of which has cycle lanes in each direction. There is no traffic to speak of, no traffic lights at all, and no high rise buildings. It almost defines tropical paradise.

The view from the lookout from Moorea over the lagoon back towards Tahiti.

Moorea is the nearest island to Tahiti and is easily accessible by a short ferry ride on a big channel-crossing type of ferry across the blue sea and under the blue sky.  It would have been lovely to have explored some of the other island of Polynesia, but they are all much much further away from Tahiti, and hence much much more expensive to get to - you need to fly to them, there are no ferry boats to any island other than Moorea. Because that is the big obstacle with visiting, and then travelling around, French Polynesia - the cost! If I thought New Zealand was expensive to get to, French Polynesia is even more so, and then the cost of accommodation is higher, and the choice less, while food is more expensive, so much of it being imported from France, and the wine is much more expensive, all of it being imported from France. But Moorea was borderline affordable for us to get to, given our RTW tickets, and was almost affordable to stay in.

We discovered that Moorea has two public beaches. Only two partly because a lot of the island gives directly onto coral rather than beach, and also because a lot of the prime beach area that does exist is owned by the few big hotel chains which are here - there is a big development of overwater bungalows from the Hilton chain, another from Sofitel, and a third from Intercontinental. This is one of the main features of the island - that most of the tourists come to these few big hotel chains, and so all their activities are organised by the hotel, often within the hotel complex. Fortunately the hotels are very sensitive developments - small low-rise bungalows. But because the tourists are mostly within these complexes there is very little information about the resources outside the hotels because it is expected that as a tourist you will be guided to the activities by the hotels. As independent travellers therefore it took us a little longer to work out where the best things of the island are and how to make the most of them. But certainly the first step to doing this was to discover the public beaches.

The two public beaches of the island are beautiful stretches of white sand, dotted with palm trees, scattered with picnic tables, and are usually home to a food van (often a really good wood-fired pizza van) on them, and the great thing about the public beaches, rather than the hotel beaches, is that this is where the locals go. And they really go there. Unlike in Bali where very very few of the local population can swim, and where it is a very rare sight to see a local enjoying the beaches for any purpose other than for children to play, or for fishing. You are very aware that in Moorea the locals have a deep bond with the sea - like the Maoris these locals came originally from Asia and crossed the Pacific in canoes, in many voyages, over many centuries, and their connection with the sea is deep and close. As in New Zealand where we found that wherever you found a Kiwi, Maori or not, it was not long before you found them jumping off a wharf and surfing in the sea. So in Moorea every chance they had the locals would be on the beaches enjoying themselves - big family groupings would come with beers, and picnics and boom boxes, and they would settle down for a long afternoon of playing in the water, swimming, snorkelling, canoeing, playing music, drinking beers in the water, and really enjoying life.

And so we too went to the public beaches and had a wonderful time. The kids' favourite beach, by far, was a beach with a rope swing swung over a tree - I can't count the hours they spent queuing with local kids to each take turns and do dramatic twists, and plummets into the warm tropical sea.

One time we went to the beach and it suddenly rained when we were in the water. The effect was amazing. The sea was an incredible turquoise blue, and so so warm, and the rain was bouncing off the utterly calm lagoon while the mountains on the land had disappeared into cloud and all you could see all around you was the utter calm blue turquoise of the lagoon framed at seemingly the world's end by the white splashes of the surf break. Just incredible.

Other days we drove our teeny little car (there are no other types of cars on the island) across to Cook's Bay - a great inlet of sea where Captain Cook allegedly first landed - and across to Oponohu Bay where Captain Cook actually first landed. This is another great inlet of sea and, as they both are, fringed with the countless bounty of the tropics - huge palm trees, pineapples, lemons, avocados and so on, as well as of course the huge bread fruit which the ship the Bounty had come here to find. One can only imagine what those sailors thought and felt when they first saw these sights so foreign to English eyes. No wonder when the sailors on the Bounty were faced with the brutality of ship life under Captain Bligh or the life of plenty in Polynesia they chose the latter, even though they knew if they were captured the result would be almost certain death.

Above the two inlets of the island, Cook's Bay and Oponohu Bay is the mountain that the film Bali Hai is named after, and the one drive not to a beach we made on the island was to the inland viewspot called The Belvedere which looks down on all these beautiful sights.

One week we stayed at "Mark's Place" and decided to do without a rental car while there to save money, as Mark's Place had bikes they let us use for free. Now we felt even more like locals - we couldn't make it halfway around the island to the one big supermarket, so instead we had to use the local shops. Most especially I would take advantage of this being French Polynesia and cycle the few minutes before breakfast to the local patisserie van to buy us fresh baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolats each day. The other advantage of not having a car was that we were dependent on far transport on the very friendly staff at Mark's Place, and they gave us a lift to several places. The first was the dolphin show at the Intercontinental - a terrific show because you don't pay and there are no other spectators. What you are watching is three or four hotel guests who are paying, silly money as it happens, to be in the water with the dolphin stroking it and having photos taken cradling it, and then the fun bit is you get to watch the dolphins do their amazing jumps and spins. Mark's Place also gave us a lift, and showed us where to go, which we would almost certainly never have found for ourselves, to do the most amazing thing there is to do on Moorea, which we went back to time and time again, swimming with the sharks and the rays.

This happens at a beach next to a hotel and restaurant called Les Tippaniers, and at the beach you can choose to either rent kayaks or little motor boats which fit five people. On our first visit we chose double and triple kayaks, and it was lovely to be cruising through the water on a kayak again, in the turquoise lagoon, and soon we were across the channel and heading towards where a boat was stationed and the kayak lady had said that was where the rays were. So we drew up alongside, dropped anchor, sorted out snorkels etc, and then were in the water, and suddenly OH MY GOD!!!!! Loads of incredibly huge and beautiful rays floating all around, and LOADS of incredibly scary looking sharks zipping around in the water too! OMG it was AMAZING! The guides who fed them had rays all over them and were stroking and touching them, so me and Poppy got up close to some of them and had a stroke or two - wow, incredibly soft. Amazing. And the sharks were so streamlined and so freaky sliding gracefully through the water, back and forth, back and forth. While the rays and their big eyes floated along and around and about. Wow!!!! We all loved it! When my mum arrived on Mooorea we went back twice more to the sharks and rays, this time in one of the little motor boats, which I let Joe and Poppy each have a turn driving, which delighted them.

Twice after seeing the sharks and rays we had lunch in the beachside restaurant there, Restaurant Les Tippaniers and had a delicious lunch with an amazing view - right over the lagoon with its incredible turquoise colours, framed by palm trees, and holding the secret of rays and sharks within its waters. Wow. Pretty special.

Another morning we set out from Mark's Place in kayaks to hope to see dolphins in the lagoon. We paddled out onto the water. It was cloudy and overcast - the most it has ever been here- but this was fortunate as it was past dawn (about 8.30am), and on any normal day it would be getting pretty intolerably hot by now. It was beautiful though. Smooth blue and silver water stretching out in front of us until it was entirely disrupted by the great surf break. And looking back into land, the dark green velvet mountains of Moorea rose from the middle of the island, leaving just the edge for the people and the small houses, and pristine churches.

We paddled straight out and found a buoy that Mark had told me about and tied up to it. We were very near the huge waves of the surfbreak now, but in an entirely safe spot and in the absence of dolphins we watched a bunch of amazing human surfers doing sensational tricks on the incredible barrel waves. Then suddenly I spotted two dolphin fins rising and falling. Wow! A surfer who just arrived to tie up suggested we paddle over to them and so we did. We then spent quite a while paddling around and getting very near to two dolphins, then three, then four. The last sighting of four dolphins that we had was the most amazing - they all rose and fell into the water, and we could hear them exhale through their blowhole, inhale, and then dive back into the water. They were completely beautiful, and we were there just us watching them. No one else, and no motors, nothing but the gentle sound of our paddles, and the roaring crash of the nearby waves. Wow. Just wow.

It would be wonderful to come back to French Polynesia and explore more of these incredible islands. But I think we would have to win the lottery to be able to afford it, and as we don't even do the lottery, I guess that's fairly unlikely. Shame, but at least we made it there once. Everyone should get there once.

Monday, 9 March 2015

New Zealand - the world's adventure playground!

To me, New Zealand is like Switzerland. Like a very big Switzerland with miles of beautiful coastline all around it. But it is nothing like Switzerland I hear you cry - Switzerland is a small, very rich, land-locked country right in the middle of Europe and full of Germans. Whereas New Zealand isn't. Any of these things. True, but what they share is that both are well run countries where things just work. Where roads are constantly maintained, where you don't see beggars on the streets or eyesore developments. Where the natural environment is celebrated over all else, where wildlife is protected and nurtured, where there are miles and miles of empty roads to curve and wind your way up and down mountains, and where children play outdoors and go to school on their own. But New Zealand has the added advantage that, in the land where everything is "as sweet as", the vibe isn't like that of most of Switzerland, only of that tiny most perfect of all parts of perfect Switzerland - Ticino, Italian Switzerland. Where the Swiss natural beauty and super efficient infrastructure meets Italian laidback style, and the combination is just heaven. This is what I found in New Zealand. And the wine here is better too.

We arrived in New Zealand just two days before Christmas, and my mum arrived at the same time to join us. Danny's sister, Tamsin, with her partner and two kids lives here in the town of Whakatane, so I had rented a house near them and we were to spend Christmas and New Year in the "sunshine capital of New Zealand" in the company of relations we so rarely get to see. It was a rare treat. The house was great with an amazing location - the garden melded seamlessly into the beach, and what a beach - Ohope has won a poll as New Zealand's most loved beach, and it's easy to see why. A stunning vast bay stretches out up to a headland in one direction, which we walked around one day to find the secret beach beyond, and then in the other direction it's just a great sweep of beach all the way to the blue mountains and cliffs of the East Cape. The surf crashes in on the sand of the beach constantly and out to sea are the beautiful sights of Whale Island (when you see pictures of it you will see why it has that name) and White Island which is home to the South Pacific's most active volcano, and often puffs away quite dramatically.

With my mum we took a trip to Hell's Gate, a centre of enormous volcanic activity which Bernard Shaw when he had visited the area had named it after the gates of hell. It had been an important place for Maoris, now it was a swingeing $120 entry for all of us, but it was worth it. We were rewarded with boiling pools of black mud, spouting jets of steam, hot hot lakes and waterfalls we were allowed to touch with our hands, and finally a very hot mud bath for the feet. Such a strange strange place and landscape.

Then all too soon it was time for my mum to go on to Australia for a holiday with her sister, and for us to leave this lovely house and start our camper van adventure around New Zealand. About which I was very scared. When reading the following, do please remember, dear reader, that I had never slept a single night in a camper van before in my life. I still haven't slept a single night in a tent, and frankly I intend to keep it that way if at all possible. Don't judge me. Alright, judge me if you like, I don't care, I still don't want to sleep in a tent!

I picked up the camper van from Auckland airport (which meant a 4 hour drive up there, and a 4 hour drive back...) and it was great fun! Just like it looked in the pictures, a great big bright purple and green affair with a sweet little kitchen and gas stove, folding contraptions to create a double bed at the bottom, and a double bed at the top, and a toilet about which the least said the better. The only good thing to say about it is that we resolved never to use it, and kept to our resolve. It felt quite big to drive but after a few gos around the carpark with it (partly to get used to its size, and partly because I couldn't find the exit..) I felt confident enough to take it on actual roads. Then I found it had a great stereo system which my phone plugged into with its full spotify playlist available offline and I was off!

For our first two nights we stayed at the Ohope Sand and Surf campsite, in order that we start ourselves off easy with somewhere nearby Tamsin and family, and where we know where the shops are etc. In retrospect this was a mistake. This was the first campsite I had ever, ever, stayed in. And it was so much more horrible than I had thought it would be! It was not only the shower block being so far away, and being as it was, it was above all that we were utterly cheek by jowl with thousands of other campers, with all their plastic tents and other unmentionables. Also, although we had borrowed a tent for Joe to sleep in, we had Poppy and Rosie sleeping above us in the top double bed. Never again, it was bad enough trying to get to sleep with the camper van to ourselves, but with them wriggling around up top it was awful. We bought a tent for them the very next day.

In fact, fortunately, that campsite was not a sign of things to come, because it was by far the busiest of any we subsequently stayed in, and although it had a great location near the beach, our site was quite a walk past other people's washing lines and other assorted squalor to the beach, because the site was so big. It was a "Top 10" holiday park, which meant it was full of activities for kids, and so was full of screaming kids. No more of these holiday park type campsites I resolved. Which all in all was a bit of a shame for the kids because of course they absolutely loved it. There were trampolines galore, swimming pools and slides, massive jumping pillows, facepainting etc etc in short, everything a kid desires. Hey ho, we pay for this trip not them! They will like small intimate campsites in the middle of nature too, I justified to myself, and in fact they did.

Our next stop was at  the best campsite ever - De Bretts Taupo Spa Resort, so called because it had on site not just the usual trampolines and jumping pillows, but also hot pools to die for - hot pools with hot slides into them! And a hot water playground for kids to play in. It was amazing! Like Aqualand but with hot water!

OMGGGGGG! It was so awesome! There was the hot pool which was lovely, with an amazing lie back jacuzzi bit. Then the very hot pool with spouts to massage your back which was super amazing. Then the cooler pools which you had to go in when you got too hot. Then there were the slides.... The orange one was purely terrifying - all enclosed, dark, and hot. I never went in it by choice after Joe got me in there the first time under false pretences - "this is the most fun one" Yeah right. Then the blue one, which was long and quite scary. Then the dragon slide, which was just great - so so fun! There was also the warm water playground which was so fun for Rosie. We went between all the pools, and the slides having great fun. The only downer was that Rosie wasn't big enough to do the slides, until Joe suddenly decided she was and so we let her on and none of the staff stopped her - she loved them too! Hooray! We all had the most terrific fun.

Then on to Napier, a pretty Art Deco town in the Hawkes Bay wine region, here we indulged in our first winery - Crab Farm Wines. It was just next to the pleasant campsite, which was right next to the beach, and so Danny and I went over to the winery leaving kids trampolining for Britain in the campsite and had a glass or two of wine. Is it just holiday effect, and having escaped the children for 30 minutes? Or did the wine truly taste absolutely delicious?

From Napier we drove hundreds of km in one day down to Wellington where we spent a couple of nights at a ghastly motel campsite just outside town. But if the campsite was ghastly, Wellington was nice. Joe's 13th birthday evening was spent in a great pizza restaurant on the lovely quay, looking out to sea, and just outside a fabulous playground.

For our day out in Wellington we went first to the cable car station and had run riding the short ride to the top of Wellington. Then a quick (belated) lunch in the cable car cafe with stunning views down to town. Then a lovely walk down into town through the botanic gardens, via quick zip wires for kids in a playground, past an amazing hydrangas display, monkey puzzles, and hundreds of other beautiful flora. Down in town we had an appointment with the museum to see the giant squid. We went into the Wellington museum which was a very good museum, with loads of interactive displays for the kids, about a fairly dull subject, the history of the small uneventful city of Wellington. And no giant squid. It turns out that was in the other museum! Te papa. So over to there we skipped and saw the giant squid, and a whole host of other marine life in stuffed or plastic form. We could have spent longer, but the hot day wouldn't last forever and we needed to get back in order to cook dinner, take down a tent, and prepare for us and the girls to sleep in the top deck of Lucy tonight, all before it got dark, because tomorrow was to be a very early start.

Next day we took the Interislander ferry to South Island - what an absolutely beautiful ferry crossing. We arrived in Picton to a hot day after such a cold morning getting tents down and packing up from 6am, and then such a windy and cold time outside on deck, and found that Picton is so very pretty. Little white sailing boats dotting the bright blue sea, pretty wooded hills all around, with island cliffs rising out from the sea with boats appearing around the far sides. A very short drive to the campsite I had booked, Waikawa Holiday Park, to find that it is small, quiet, in the middle of fields with hills behind, just a few minutes walk to the beautiful sea, and very cheap at only $54 (£26)  for 2 nights for all of us, the camper and the tents.

We woke up the next morning to realise what a truly lovely campsite this is - quiet, birdsong all around, views to the sea and the islands of the Sounds, and backed by hills with native bush. Beautiful. If only I slept better in our camper.... We have taken to calling her Lucy (because the campervan brand name is Jucy) and are growing very fond of her - but my fondness for her is only in the daytimes as far as I am concerned!

Next day at 9am we were off on a catarmaran speeding through the completely beautiful Queen Charlotte Sounds in full gorgeous sun going past beautiful view after beautiful view with the bright blue sparkling sea all around. We arrived at Ship Cove where Captain Cook first met the Maoris of New Zealand and traded with them. The nature reserve extends right across this area and so the cove will have hardly changed in sight since then, a remarkable place to stand and take in the history. We then walked the 15km on a clear track through miles of native bush with occasional beautiful sea views to keep us going.

Next day the walk along the "Snout" track from Picton to Queen Charlotte Lookout and beyond to the end of the Snout was even more enjoyable. This was a beautiful beautiful walk with stunning views for most of the way, and the views at the very end of the Snout are truly spectacular. Absolutely glorious weather, clear blue sky, just a few clouds to make the view even better, islands covered in beautiful variegated bush woodland, and the bright blue sparkling sea all around, dotted with boats. Truly stunning.

Next we had an appointment with the Abel Tasman national park. To get there we took the beautiful coastal road, which wound up and down cliffs giving the most superb views of the Sounds, beaches and secluded coves. We stayed at a dusty campsite in Maherau which was entirely full despite its dust, and next day set off to take a water taxi to Anchorage Bay from which we were going to walk back. The water taxi is attached to a tractor for driving the boat out during low tide - great fun! It was a little boat, about 12 people, and we joggled about as the tractor, with enormous wheels, drove out onto the sand and through the giant pools on the beach, until the boat reversed into the water and then was launched. We were off! We went first south several minutes to see the phenomenon of Split Apple Rock - a giant rock in the sea split into two. And then up north past a whole host of bays to Anchorage Bay. Were were really going to walk back all this way!!!

Yes apparently we were. The sign said 12.2 km, but it was in fact further to our campsite, more like 13.5km, and we all managed it with almost no whining. If you discount the fact that I had to spend most of the way playing absurd alphabet games with Rosie and Poppy, and then slightly more interesting games of Where am I Hiding with Joe and Poppy while Rosie complained. If you also ignore my whining about the constant Lack of Views!! A coastal walk in Britain tends to take you along the coast, with views almost all of the way. The walks here seem to specialise in walks along dusty tracks that you could do in flip flops (although some people do them in boots, no idea why, maybe they help counter the dust at least) entirely through native bush, with about 3 chances every five miles for a view at the most exquisite turquoise bays, sparkling seas with islands beyond. It was enjoyable enough, with some lovely native bush, obviously, and at times a nice small path. And when you dropped down to the beaches you were rewarded with truly stunning bays - golden sand, turquoise sea. Very busy though! Lots of people on all the beaches, as well as a bunch on the path, clanking along in their climbing boots. Hashtag could have done it in flip flops. Hey ho.

Next stop Punakaiki, home of the famous "pancake rocks", which are purely terrific. It had been very well organised - a good example of making an area wheelchair accessible. A perfect walk around the edge of the coast with fabulous views of the pancake stack rocks. We realised that last night, with the stormy conditions, there would probably have been fabulous smashings and crashings of waves, but it would also have been terrifically cold, wet, and miserable. As it was we heard the boom of the sea, saw the great waves smash into the weird rock formations, and saw rainbows of spray thrown high up into the air from the comfort of a lovely sunny day. Still a great crashing sea, and great rocks, and also blue sky.

The views along the coast all around are spectacular. Incredible bays and rock stacks with great surf seas powering into them. Absolutely stunning. And meanwhile on the non-sea side of the road there real rainforest reaching right down to the road. And then the very verge of the road is populated with beautiful English-looking wild flowers - dandelions, cow parsley etc. So pretty. When the road goes past a house the road verge is a mass of colour - of blue agapanthus, white agapanthus, and bright orange canna lilies. Truly beautiful beautiful scenery and landscape.

We headed for a campsite we had seen a sign to by Point Elizabeth near the town of Greymouth which we thought might have a good sea aspect. The campsite at the tiny village of Rapahoe turned out to be even more incredible than we had thought. There is only a hedge with a small walkway through the bower of leaves between us and the most incredible sweep of bay, with the most extraordinary surf seas. Wow. Truly spectacular.

On the way back up to the top of South Island to take the ferry back to North Island we made two wonderful stops, firstly at Cable Bay - a bay where at low tide there are miles of mud flats around "islands" before a pedestrian dam, but at low tide the green sea sweeps in making the most incredible views. We stayed at a beautiful campsite there, but only for one night because unfortunately it was also midge city - unbearable numbers of sand flies constantly attacking all of us, and  especially Poppy. Our second stop was at the incredibly beautiful almost luminous green water of the Pelorus river where we swam in the extraordinarily clear water, and found that it was the scene in the Hobbit where the hobbits escape from the Orcs by hiding in barrels. Indeed, this particular stretch of this particular river was where Peter Jackson came as a holidaying 11 year old and was so bowled over by its beauty that when he came to think of film locations for The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films it was this scene that inspired him to think of New Zealand. I can exactly see why.

Then we returned to picturesque Picton and this time did a walk to the completely beautiful Bob's Bay - the sea was an incredible turquoise blue/ green, with water so clear that you could see your shadow along the bottom of the sea as you swam, and the view of the lush multi layered native bush was gorgeous.

Of course we never saw the underbelly of New Zealand. We did listen to a lot of talk radio and the main problems there being aired were of a lack of affordable social housing in Auckland and a PPI budget overrun for a convention centre. Not exactly sounding like a society going to wrack and ruin. But my sister-in-law heads up the A&E department of Whakatane she sees more of the social problems than we do - things like Maori tribe members with extraordinary names like Anthrax Hog (name changed on grounds of medical confidentiality, but the original is neither more nor less absurd) smashing up their motorbikes, again, and needing to be sewn up once more. What we saw, with the 40% Maori population of Whakatane, was a society far far more integrated and inclusive of their native minority than is the case in Australia. The comparison between the two countries in this regard is stark.

But in the meantime as far as we are concerned the biggest problem with New Zealand is that what keeps Switzerland perfect is of course that it is so goddamn expensive to be there, but what keeps New Zealand perfect is that it is of course so goddamn expensive to get there! So, it is with much regret that I have to accept that when our family budget could stretch to us returning to this beautiful beautiful place, I just don't know.

Ah New Zealand. So close to heaven, but so far away from everywhere else!