Earth Song: Milford Sound, Lake Ohau and Mt Cook

Saturday 30th November
We said goodbye to 10 people at Queenstown and as the coach departed it felt rather empty as we began our journey to Milford Sound. Our first stop at lunch was to the small town of Te Anau which was our last opportunity to have contact with the outside world before entering the Fiordland National Park.

I hadn’t really read or seen any pictures about this part of the trip so didn’t have any real expectations except for the fact I knew it was meant to be spectacular mostly untouched scenery. Before entering the national park Craig made us close our eyes and put some atmospheric music on and then told us to open our eyes. The atmospheric soundtrack continued and combined with the low hanging cloud the scenery took on a mystical quality. Even with the summits covered in cloud the views from the coach were indescribably wonderful and we weren’t sure whether to look out of the left or right side such was the fear you’d blink and miss something amazing.

Our first stop was to the Mirror Lakes so named because on a settled day the lakes reflect the views of the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately the conditions couldn’t have been any less ideal. There was a slight breeze creating ripples, there was a bit of rain and the mountains were surrounded by mist anyway. Still it was a nice location, just perhaps not perfect picture weather.

After stopping at Monkey creek to get some pictures of the Upper Hollyford valley we continued travelling through the beautiful scenery and were given a brief description about how a valley is formed (by a river) and how a Fiord is formed (by glacier).

We got to the Homer Tunnel where a temporary entrance had been built because the original had been destroyed in a fairly recent avalanche. We stopped to get a few final pictures of the Hollyford valley before it started to rain/snow. Unfortunately the tunnel was only one lane and there appeared to be a problem with the lights so we were waiting some time. Eventually the lights did change and to the tune of Mission Impossible we entered the 1200m long tunnel. Next Star Wars was played and as the music ended we emerged to views of the spectacular Cleddau Valley.

We arrived at the wharf for cruises around Milford Sound. The weather was starting to improve and whilst there was still quite a bit of cloud the mountains still looked dominating. From a distance in particular it was obvious how much they towered over cruise ships of a similar size to ours.

The rain had made the main waterfalls particularly impressive. The rain had also created smaller waterfalls that would not have been there in drier weather and water appeared to be sluicing directly from the rocky cliffs. We went close to a number of waterfalls and having already broken one camera I was careful to make sure I was inside when we approached. I could see people on deck taking pictures up until the final seconds and then rushing away before the bow was swamped in spray.

The guide explained the water of Milford Sound is mainly fed by the Tasman Sea however due to regular rainfalls rain water washes sediment down from the cliffs which creates a darker fresh water layer above the warmer sea water. This creates conditions that allow deep sea water species to thrive despite in reality not being far from the surface. The guide also explained the area had been shaped by earthquake activity but that the region was overdue an earthquake by approximately 200 years.

The journey through the sound was over 2 hours and apart from the seeing the waterfalls and mighty peak of Mitre Peak we also sailed close to a New Zealand Fur Seal colony that were lazing on some rocks. We had also been told to look out for a rare breed of small penguin and amazingly saw three of the little birds despite the fact most would have begun their migration away from the region.

We were spending the evening at a chalet near to Milford Sound and that night we had a roast lamb meal at a nearby restaurant. If the weather had been nicer a walk home along the river may have been pleasant but it was cold and wet so we all boarded the coach when it was time to leave. Late nights, early starts and action packed days with no real naps were beginning to take their toll on my eyes and after a shower to heat up fell asleep.

Sunday 1st December
On leaving the accommodation our first stop was to ‘The Chasm’ which we’d had to skip the previous day as a result of the delays caused by the malfunctioning traffic lights to the Homer Tunnel. This area was in a forest location and had been created by a earthquake and the erosion of boulders as the Cleddau river plunged down waterfalls and forced its way through the narrow chasm.

On leaving the Fiordland National Park we stopped at The Anau and I saw a Kiwi Experience bus. This was a hop on hop off bus company so I wondered whether anyone from my first trip would be on it and I wondered how Phil and Simon were getting on. Then I heard my name and like something out of the “Truman Show” there they suddenly were with 2 of the girls from the trip. I’d had my haircut since seeing them all but we only had a few minutes to catch up before they had to board the bus to Milford Sound.

We then made our way back towards Queenstown briefly stopping at a town on the outskirts for lunch before making our way through the Gibbston Valley. The Gibbston Valley is the southern wine region of New Zealand and we were told how the sometimes harsh and unpredictable climate is combatted to protect the grapes.

We then travelled through the old mining district of Cromwell though we didn’t stop to see any of the remains of the old settlements. We did however pass Lake Dunston where part of the settlement of Cromwell had been located before the historic area was removed so a dam could be built. The region is now used for fruit growing including cherries and as with the wineries the owners have to combat the weather that doesn’t suit the fruit. We carried on to ‘Jone’s fruit store’ where I had a fresh kiwi fruit mixed with frozen yogurt ice cream.

We’d been told today would mostly be spent travelling but we were now on the final leg towards Lake Ohau crossing over the Lindis Pass in the process. During this stage we saw a wild fire slowly being controlled by a helicopter but it still looked pretty destructive and were told the story of Shrek the Sheep. Shrek was a sheep that went missing for a number of years and his wool grew very long. When he was found he became a New Zealand celebrity.

We were now in the Mackenzie District, named after a man that stole sheep at ran a farm in the area before he was caught. When we got to Lake Ohau the cloud of Milford Sound was a memory and we were presented with a fine view of Mt Cooks flat topped summit. A few of us walked down to the lake to get a better look of Australasia’s highest point.

Returning to the lodge we had dinner and a few games of pool. I was on the winning team for all three but can’t take much credit for the first as it was really down to Mike. However in the second and third matches Shane and I united as the Northern Hemisphere against the Southern Hemisphere. First in a match against Dee and Mike and then against Dee and Jacob. Despite a gallant effort, especially from Dee, Shane and I were in inspirational form especially once we’d had an opportunity to sing along to our war song “Fairy Tale of New York”.

By now the sun was finally beginning to set so I went back down to the lake to get some more pictures. Despite my main camera still being out of action I was pleased that my old camera was just about managing to do what I wanted it to capture.

We’d been told the night sky was particularly good for star gazing and that it was protected from further possible light pollution development. I’ve been to a number of places that have provided a dazzling amount of stars and this more than matched them and probably even beat Iceland. It really was something else to look at. I always enjoy looking up at the stars, it helps to ground me and makes me appreciate how small our planet is. I also always have that kid like hope that a shooting star (or a UFO – joke) will fly by.

Monday 2nd December
The sun was shining and as it was a clear day the beginning of our final day as a group was spent on a short drive to the Mt Cook National Park. From Mt Cook Village we went on a short walk to Kea Point which provided good views of Mt Cook, the Hooker Valley, and ice faces of other surrounding mountains. We’d been told to listen out for bits of ice breaking off the mountain due to the ice melting as the season moved towards Summer and as we waited to get on the bus we heard what sounded like thunder. We turned to see what looked like a small waterfall tumbling down the mountain side but what was actually ice.

Getting back on the bus we travelled more through Mackenzie country before reaching Lake Pukaki which was a particularly interesting turquoise colour. The reason for the unique colour of the water was ‘rock flour’ created when the basin was gouged out by the glacier moving across the surface leaving sediment in the melted glacial water in the process.

We stopped at the village of Lake Tekapu, on the shore of the lake with the same name for lunch and again had the opportunity to take pictures of a lake with snow capped mountains in the background. This village also had a church called the ‘Church of the Good Shepherd’. This was a fairly modern and unspectacular Church built in 1935 but its location has meant it’s become the most photographed church in New Zealand. There was also a statue of a border collie to signify how important the breed of dog has been to sheep farming and the Mackenzie economy.

Whilst we were in an area where farming is still so important we visited a sheep farm. Here we were shown sheep shearing and saw the border collie in action herding up the sheep. Next we had the opportunity to feed them and some held a very cute little lamb. I’m not sure how I expected the sheep to react when I stretched out my hand to feed it but I had certainly not expected it to try and start feasting on my hand like it did. There was a sheep called Mary that provided some amusement and it kept calling to us whilst we were given scones with jam and cream.

Our final stop before our return to Christchurch was Geraldine though this was just for the coach to be filled with petrol and we didn’t explore. Leaving Mackenzie country behind we crossed new Zealand’s longest bridge and we attempted to hold our breath the whole length to the sound of Chariots on Fire. There were no prizes except possible death so I gave up but two made it to the end.

As we crossed in to the Canterbury Plains we had another game of guessing the soundtrack this time to movies and then all of a sudden it was announced we were arriving at the Jail House. The tour was officially over. After checking in the majority of us arranged to meet up for dinner and that was a nice way to bring the journey to a close rather than a sudden stop which is what normally happens.

To everyone on the trip, it was an intense action packed 14 days, with something new to see and do everyday but it’s the people that make it extra memorable. I wish you all the best in your future travels and I’m sure our paths will cross again.


It’s My Life: Fox Glacier and Queenstown

Wednesday 27th November
We drove through the centre of Christchurch and saw what remained of the Cathedral and the Central Business District on our way to pick up a new person.

Our first stop outside of Christchurch was a small settlement called Arthur’s Pass the highest altitude settlement in New Zealand and close to the pass of the same name. There was a Kea (a bird that looked like a fat parrot) walking around the village and he/she was the source of some amusement.

After leaving we went to a view point to look down on the new Otira viaduct built to replace the old route parallel to it. There were more Kea flying and walking around and two appeared to be feasting on the roof of the bus. At one point I had considered travelling the Tranz Alpine route by train so it was a bonus when I realised we would be travelling through on the coach though the cloud meant it wasn’t quite a postcard scene.

We carried on our journey and at lunch arrived in Hokitika where we saw a green jade factory. I asked the local camera shop if they had any advise with regards to my camera but was told I’d be lucky to find an engineer on the whole west coast of New Zealand. The manager overheard this comment and tried to help by cleaning the contacts with a cotton bud but as I feared the problem was more terminal than this simple solution.

Having located some food and found the beach was closed I headed back towards the centre of the town to visit the wildlife exhibition where if I was lucky I’d be able to see some kiwi birds in a dark room enclosure. It was only a small exhibition but they fitted in lots of different types of marine life including turtles and various fish. They also had New Zealand frogs and some lizards that are unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Entering the kiwi enclosure I had to wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark. After a few seconds I sensed movement on the opposite side so headed over and arrived to see a dark shape disappear behind a hut.

Luckily the kiwi came back out and came right up to the glass I was behind so I got a very good look at it. It was bigger than I had expected and I watched as it slowly lumbered along as it searched for food along the ground. I have to admit its appearance made me smile not just the way it walked and the long beak but it appeared to have a ridiculous grin on its face.

We also made a brief stop at Hari Hari where the Australian Guy Menzies landed/crashed following the first solo trans-Tasman flight.

Carrying on our journey we passed through Franz Josef and past the glacier of the same name but the cloud meant it was difficult to make out the valley. We crossed a bridge over a river and were told that much of the water was melted ice from the Fox Glacier giving it a milky looking texture. Shortly after we arrived in the village of Fox our stop for the night.

After dumping our bags some of us reboarded the coach to go for a short walk around Lake Matheson which is apparently known as the famous ‘mirror lake’. It wasn’t that clear an evening but the views were still nice though ripples on the lake meant I didn’t really notice it being any more reflective than other lakes I’ve seen.

After dinner some of us went on another short walk through a nearby forest in a search for glow worms. Craig told us all to walk in single file in the dark advising that our eyes would adjust to the light. I was fairly near the front and as we made our way along our eyes slowly adjusted but we still had to be careful on steps and when crossing a small bridge.

There were a number of glow worms clustered together in small patches and eventually we came to a stop. Craig explained that we had stopped at at tree where the roots had come out of the ground and that is what the glow worms hung off. The traps they made were not as long as in the caves because there was more risk of breeze but it was still good to see them. After a brief explanation about the life of a glow worm we headed back along the path now using torches making the return much quicker.

Thursday 28th November
The reoccurring theme of early starts continued for those of us who were doing one of the Fox Glacier hikes. I had always planned to do the heli hike especially after seeing the glacier hikers in Iceland but as I knew there was the pending cost of the camera repair I began to have second thoughts and considered the cheaper options. Luckily I’d had a final change of heart in Arthur’s Pass – YOLO – “you only live once”. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky but we were still warned the flight could be cancelled. It wasn’t – in fact conditions were so perfect Mike our coach driver booked on.

In total there were 3 helicopters and I was to be in the second with a group of 6 with Jacob, Shane, Ainslie, Summer and Emma. I was in the middle seat but still managed to get a fairly good look of the scenery below. We landed and waddled down to the others were crouching and where the crampons were stored. The next chopper came in and we were told to keep our backs to it because we were soon pelted by loose ice.

With the crampons on it was much easier to walk, though all of us decided to use a hiking stick for a bit of extra stability. The glacier is constantly changing during the warmer months as it melts so the route taken by guides changes regularly. Both had been working as guides for a number of years and tried to give us an indication of how much ice had melted in the past 3 years.

Our first stop was a small ice cave which seemed impressive enough at the time but really this was just an appetiser because in the next one we were actually able to fit inside. We had to clamber down to reach the cave and getting up was a bit tricky but luckily the crampons held firm on to the ledges and no one slipped.

The surrounding mountain range was stunning and it was amazing how the ice just went right through the middle. After hiking along the top of the ice we came to a cave that we had to crawl through and I managed this particularly badly so ended up with very wet trousers. As it was hot they dried fairly quickly but I wondered how the others hadn’t ended up in such a state.

Next we went down in to an ice canyon; the ice towered over above us and this section really did feel like part of an expedition some of the great explorers would have encountered though I’m sure theirs were on an even grander scale.

Once we were out we started our hike back to the helicopter pick up and passed one of the glacier waterfalls. I have to admit in my opinion whilst the water was cold and refreshing it didn’t taste as nice as I had anticipated compared to say the Buxton spring water.

We had to wait a few minutes for the helicopters to return to pick us up and I was signalled to sit on the window side behind the pilot. Once we were in the air he suddenly started to perform a action that created a fair amount of g force. For a second I did wonder If we were about to crash in to the hill side but then realised it was because he had seen a rare breed of mountain goat. It was also particularly evident from above how much the glacier had retreated.

Back on the coach and our first stop was to the scenic Knights Point and which had a fine view of a crop of rocks just off the coast out to sea. It no doubt helped that the sun was shining and wet Kaikoura began to feel a memory.

We travelled along the Haast Pass Highway and our next stop was to the mighty sounding Thunder Creek falls. Some coach tours I’ve been on have had to have stops in the middle of no where at soulless service stations. Not in New Zealand. The drivers seem spoilt for choice for where they can pull over for a 15 minute break. Each stop uniquely spectacular and these water falls were no different, water crashing down in to the Haast river below.

We had a brief stop in the small village of Makarora where some decided to get an ice cream before we continued our journey past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Maxine, our coach was struggling with an over heated engine and some of the hill climbs were painfully slow so with Queenstown below us we pulled over for another brief stop.

That night we went to Winnie’s for dinner where we were given so much garlic bread, chips and pizza even I was defeated. Just before leaving Winnie’s Greg, Shane and I had a quick skittle shot which sounded nicer than it was before we moved on to Ice Bar. This was the first time I’ve been to one of these bars despite wanting to do so for quite a while. We were given thick coats to wear and a pair of gloves which all seemed a bit extreme but on entering understood why. Everything was ice, the bar, the glasses and even the tables and seats. I had a cocktail called Happy Feet, named after the unfortunate penguin that got lost off the New Zealand coast and for which New Zealander’s raised lots of money to return it to Antarctica only for it to be eaten by a shark or whale a week after it was ‘free’.

After the cocktails a few of us had a flavoured vodka shot where the vodka was poured in to the top and you had to suck on a straw. We also had a couple of normal vodka shots and the alcohol was certainly beginning to flow. We left and returned to Winnie’s as they were offering prizes for winning various competitions. Shane and I performed a faultless version of a fish caught on a hook being reeled in and soon others took to the dance floor.

However after more skittle shots and a shot of black sambuca a highly controversial result in the limbo saw us all walk out in disgust. The guy that won should have lost in the penultimate round and the whole competition had seemed totally rigged in his favour.

Leaving we went to Buffalo which was utterly rammed. The early start was beginning to catch up with me and after performing my signature dance move for a bit, along with some of the ‘classic’ moves created at Pier Pressure in Aberystwyth I called it a night. I’d probably been asleep a couple of hours before Greg and Mitch returned in the process making our room the post going out hang out.

Friday 29th November
During the night my work colleagues had told me rain was predicted for Friday and I just hoped it would hold off long enough in order for me to undertake as many of the activities I had lined up for the day as possible. The first was the Shotover river Jet boat and because I’d decided to skip breakfast I went to the infamous Ferg Burger/Bakery for a much craved for bacon and egg roll before check in.

We arrived at the Shotover river which had once yielded the local population gold and caused Queenstown to grow in the late 1800s. The river is now cruised dramatically by speed boats which travel close to the rocky edges, rocky outcrops over shallow waters and perform 360 degree spins at speed. I was in a boat with Jesus, Shane, Greg, and the Streaky Bay girls.

I was sitting on the left side and each time we headed for the side of the overhanging rocks and branches I instinctively ducked. The guide/driver provided lots of interesting information whilst also being highly skilled at controlling the boat as there must have only been millimetres in judgement at some points.

My next activity was the canyon swing and whilst the clouds were beginning to build up at settle it didn’t seem to windy and was ‘safe’ to jump. I’d briefly seen Jacobs picture of him sitting on a tricycle and as this reminded me of a Simpson episode where Homer has to ride a tiny bike I decided i would do the same (Victoria said she had the same image when I told her how I’d opted to fall). I had also wanted to do a jump backwards as I’d already gone forwards when doing the bungy so prepared myself for two jumps. When I arrived I was put off by the cost of a second jump and photo packs especially as I still had hang gliding to come. I therefore decided to make my one jump memorable and asked if I could do the tricycle backwards.

Slightly lost for words as apparently I was only the second person ever to request that style of jump as it was particularly dramatic they started to hook me up. Sitting on my tricycle they pushed me to the edge and with a final shove pushed me off. Apparently my face was a picture as I disappeared over the edge and I was hardly surprised when I was told. Not knowing where I was falling was a weird sensation and I was in such shock I didn’t let out a sound until somewhat hilariously after I came to a stop I howled out youuuu orrrrns. During the fall I had performed a number of backward somersaults/flips and I clung to the bike handles knowing it would smack me in the face if I let go.

Being raised was more nerve racking than the drop because i had time to think and the machine appeared to be making various bolt breaking sounds and the cable shook dramatically. I looked down and wondered what my chances would be. Not good I figured as this was the highest canyon swing in the world. Soon I was at the top and having a laugh with the guides. The group declared the name of the jump should be “the Johnny Jump” and when it was pointed out to me I wasn’t actually the first I retorted with ‘but James Cook wasn’t first to discover New Zealand but history gave him the credit’.

I think that’s the first activity since my first sky dive in Switzerland that has given me a proper adrenaline kick and I was still buzzing by the time I got back to town. We decided to get a Ferg Burger and being overwhelmed by choice I got the Bengal Chicken because I was beginning to crave a curry and this seemed as close I’d get. I wasn’t disappointed and I can only hope that like Hell’s Pizza they decide to open a branch in London when I get back.

By now it was raining and I was told the hang gliding that morning had been cancelled and I didn’t rate my chances of the afternoon session going ahead. It was also to cloudy to make it worth getting the Gondola to the top of the hill and despite being a friday all of a sudden Queenstown looked a bit deserted. I’m not sure what most did but Greg Mitch and I stayed in until the time the group had agreed to meet for dinner. Mitch rather spectacularly crashed out because despite shouting his name and clapping my hands over his head he didn’t stir until the 8th or 9th attempt.

After eating we found an Irish Bar with a live band playing mostly modern Irish folk songs and after a request from Shane and I they agreed to play Fairy Tale of New York. We returned to Buffalo but we’d arrived earlier than the night before and it was mostly us and a group with one guy that was trying to claim the dance floor. The day had taken it’s toll and as I’ve failed to have a transiberian style nap in New Zealand I was in the second wave to leave and if hadn’t been the last night for so many I’d have gone much earlier.

Saturday 30th November
The departure time was changed from 7.15 to 9.15 and the extra sleep was much needed and as we left Queenstown I reflected on the fact it had met all expectations and could totally understand why it is such a popular place for backpackers to visit.

November Rain: Nelson to Christchurch

Sunday 24th November
The approach to the South Island through the Marlborough Sounds was truly beautiful and so I made my way to the top deck. It looked calm from the comfort of our private lounge but I was nearly knocked off my feet by the wind. Once mother nature realised I was to heavy she attempted to take my bag off my shoulder and very nearly succeeded before giving up entirety. The scene then became rather peaceful before the ship turned and the wind started up again causing me to seek shelter below.

Once we were back on the bus we travelled through some lovely scenery before we stopped at the Forest Winery where we were given a brief history and introduction. Whilst I am not really in to my wines I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the ones I opted to try but at over $28 NZ dollars per bottle I opted against buying anything.

After this we had a football match Australia and New Zealand (Alex, Hayden, Jacob, Mitch and Mike) vs the Rest of the World (Timo of the Netherlands, Greg of the USA, Shane of the Republic of Ireland, Liz of Columbia and of course myself). I have no idea who won but being from the Netherlands Timo “Jordi Cruyff” had all the skills and if we lost it was an injustice.

After leaving the winery we eventually arrived in Nelson. Two groups went sky diving but because my acrobatic flight had been cancelled I had a free afternoon where I tried to sort a few internet chores as we finally had free WiFi. I’d also realised my hair cut had caused me to burn quite badly – even though I’d put suncream on my face I’d clearly missed an area my hair once protected so I went in search of after sun cream containing aloe vera.

That evening we had a couple of beers at the hotel and a BBQ feast put together by our tour guide Craig and watched the DVDs of those that had sky dived. I have to admit I got quite envious watching them but I’ve been twice and the first time is still my most memorable because of the nervous anticipation which sadly can never really be re-created.

Monday 25th November
There was a now distant time when late starts and afternoon naps were a running theme in my walkabout journey but sadly for my eyes this hasn’t been the case in NZ. It was another early start today as we had to get a mini bus then a boat taxi to Torrent Bay. Here we would do another long day walk before being picked up at Onetahuti.

Boarding the boat we were towed by tractor to the sea. First we were taken to split apple rock – a large granite rock that had split in two. The boat had to stop a few feet from the beach so we had to get wet by walking through the sea which wasn’t the ‘positively barmy 28 degrees celsius’ on this occasion and felt rather cold.

As we were only a small group of 6 we decided to stick together knowing we all had to be in Onetahuti by 3.30pm and started walking at 10.10am knowing the guides had advised about 2 hours 30 for the first half.

It wasn’t like a British Coastal walk where you are on the edge of a cliff, open to the elements and battered by what ever elements the sky can think of. This was a lovely secluded bush forest (but without poisonous snakes, spiders and ants) which rolled down to meet the beach below.

We crossed over a swing bridge over the falls river which gave some good views and there was the occasional break in the trees giving us fine views of the turquoise water below.

We had a good pace going without anyone including me looking like they were about to collapse and after an hour and a half as we approached a sign realised we were well ahead of time. I therefore suggested taking a detour down to Sandfly Bay below and the others agreed that we might as well as the sign only said 5 minutes.

It was a lot steeper than we expected and a lot of clambering over rocks was required and I did start to doubt if it was worth the energy as we’d have to clamber back up eventually. We made it down and opted to have an early 30 minute lunch to give us energy to get back up. The bay had a number of big boulders that we were able to sit on and was it pleasant enough without being truly spectacular.

We carried on the walk and reached Bark Bay (the start of the Tonga Island Marine reserve) at about 12.30 so we’d walked further and had a big break in less time than estimated. The beach was a bit busier as it seemed to be the start for the kayaks but we’d already decided we’d only go in the sea at the end so after a brief stop carried on walking.

We got to a crossroads which showed Onetahuti in both directions but as one path was slightly back where we’d come we chose the other even if the sign did suggest it was an extra 0.5km.

The section after Bark Bay was shorter but much steeper. After a discussion about walking technique I tried pushing up from the glutes and this worked a set up muscles that were unprepared and soon we were all in need of a bit of Rocky.

After about 20 minutes a couple passed us and told us it was only 5 more minutes which gave us added motivation. We passed a short lived granite quarry and from that point it was mostly flat and downhill to Onetahuti and we arrived about an hour earlier.

It was pleasant to sit on the beach but the clouds were coming over and whilst it didn’t rain it was cold though I still braved a paddle in the sea. I think we were all slightly relieved when the boat to pick us up finally arrived. As I started to board a wave caught the boat and whilst it was all slow motion I couldn’t step up on to the lowered platform in time so ended up collapsing on to it as the boat knocked my legs from under me. It must have looked hilarious and I felt rather stupid but at least i hadn’t rolled back in to the sea. The life jacket provided some warmth and soon we were speeding off to find the seals.

The tide was high so we were told we’d have more chance of spotting them as they’d have less places to hide. It wasn’t long before we saw one on a rock and then another clambering out of the sea. They weren’t in a playful mood though so a decision was made to head for home.

That evening I was feeling hungry but when the meal arrived it was one of those appearance over quantity meals. I’m sure someone had spent a few minutes ensuring it was all presented nicely but I couldn’t have cared less and longed for the portion sizes of Mongolia.

Tuesday 26th November
It was raining when we started yet another early start and I decided not to get off the coach at our first break in Blenheim because there was nothing I could think of doing that could justify me getting drenched.

Just outside Kaikoura we saw the Point Kean Seal Colony and these were more active than the couple I’d seen the day before. Whilst it was lovely to see the New Zealand fur seals the rain meant the whole scene looked very gloomy and the small town of Kaikoura had a depressing look about it when we arrived.

Craig remained optimistic the dolphin swim would go ahead and I hoped my bad track record with dolphin encounters would end. In my whole time at Aberystwyth I failed to see even a dolphin despite there being a pod of over 100 in the area. I even twice got the special marine research boat from New Quay however my only wild life experience was a sea gull using me as a public toilet on one of the trips. South Africa yielded nothing of dolphins though I did see a Great White Shark leap out of the water to eat a bird. Australia provided nothing but a splash I missed and Iceland was at least able to provide a harbour porpoise.

I went to get some food from a cafe and put my swimming trunks under my jeans and made my way to the coach. The tour was cancelled which looking at the rough sea didn’t seem a huge surprise. The seal swimming and whale watching tours hadn’t been cancelled so having a choice I went for the seal swimming. I waited in the shop and eventually the organisers appeared. Cancelled. I felt a bit sorry for Craig at this point. As the trip organiser it must have been frustrating that the companies were leaving the decision to cancel until the time of departure and not making any effort to contact him.

I understood the reasons, it probably wouldn’t have been a great idea to swim with wild animals in bad conditions and although that was really my main reason for visiting New Zealand I’ll just have to find somewhere else. The whale watching tour was going ahead so I joined that. At least I thought i might finally see a dolphin.

We boarded the boat and we stormed out in to the ocean. The guide told us the region was popular with whales because there was a deep under water valley not far from the coast (or something like that – the constant rocking made it hard to concentrate). I was fairly near the front and the boat rocked from side to side and it was near impossible to see the horizon because of the waves that crashed over the bow. I haven’t suffered sea sickness since I was young and visited an Island called Lundy though my Whitsunday experience had almost put me off boats for life. That experience was certainly being relived though at least I knew this would last minutes not days.

We finally stopped and were allowed on deck as we had got to the area where the sperm whale had last been sighted. I grabbed my camera and waited for the David Attenborough moment. I had brought a new lens especially for taking pictures of animals from a distance and whilst I was getting a thorough soaking I didn’t care as my excitement rose. I was standing at the front of the boat with a view of the left and right side. I sensed my curse was about to be broken and felt a little less disappointed about the cancelled swim.

I took a picture of a seagull and checked the settings where ready. An announcement was made that the whale was about to surface due to the sounds it was making and i waited with anticipation. All of a sudden there was spray on the starboard side and there it was a huge Sperm Whale. I took a picture, saw it was a bit dark and changed the settings slightly then the whale lifted Its tail and splashed it in the water. Snap snap snap. Viewing them all back they were all dark. Then I noticed to my horror the error message “lens not attached”. The lens was quite clearly attached but my attempts to keep the camera and lens dry had failed. The camera or lens was dead.

I went inside to try and revive it, cradling it like a sick baby. The whale stayed up for about 15 minutes and I bitterly realised that in hindsight I could have stayed in the dry until it had been sighted. There had been no need to worry it would be a blink and you miss it moment. I suppose I should have at least taken a picture on my camera but I wasn’t in the mood.

Next they said there were some dolphins and I have to admit that some excitement rose when I saw them playing at the front of the boat and finally seeing them totally lived up to my expectations but I was gutted that I couldn’t get a picture. We also went past a seal colony, as many as we’d seen earlier in the day but far closer. Again more bitterness that I couldn’t take a picture.

The guy next to me started being sick and I looked out of the window and focussed on not being sick myself. I can’t lie it was a pretty miserable boat ride and likely to be more costly than the fee I’d paid. Getting on land it felt like I was still at sea. I spent the next couple of hours hoping the camera had miraculously healed itself each time without any joy.

I remained fairly philosophical about what had happened. It can probably be fixed and at least it wasn’t lost and the memory card was OK. I also discovered later on that I had packed my spare compact camera which I thought I’d left in Auckland. I became even more aware of the bigger picture in life when we got to our next destination – Christchurch.

I remember the day of the Earthquake on 22nd February 2011. Not only was I living with someone from New Zealand at the time but I had a number of friends that were from or visiting the country. I don’t remember if it was pre planned but that evening we went to Hell’s Pizza (see previous blog) for the all you could eat and they had a collection for the victims.

We were staying outside of the main city but just being in the area was a sobering experience, knowing many of those who served us had probably been there and been affected in some way. Mitch Greg and I had reunited our wolf pack and went in search for the Hell’s Pizza before deciding on KFC. It seemed there were no plans to go out and so our room became the hang out room but everyone had an early night as yes yet again it was another early start.

Wednesday 27th November
I hadn’t rushed to breakfast because despite them being our only included meal they had been very underwhelming. Arriving at breakfast I could see beans, bacon, sausages and egg. My excitement rose. A cooked breakfast. Woohoo. “Are you with Topdeck?”…”uuum yes” I replied – I guess the giveaway was the cookie monster t shirt which meant I looked like someone on a 20 to 30something coach tour rather than on some upmarket business trip. “Sorry you’re only allowed the continental breakfast and toast”. The toaster wasn’t even working.

I’ll make sure the next blog has a happier theme after all It’s better to dance in the rain than to wait for the storm to pass.

Eye of the Tiger – Taupo, Tongariro and Wellington

Thursday 21st November
After leaving the village we made our way to the Huka Waterfalls on the Waikato river. The word Hukanui in Maori means Great Body of Spray and whilst it was a fairly small waterfall compared to some I’ve seen it was certainly producing its fair share. Unfortunately just as we got to the lookout viewing platform it started to rain so after a few quick pictures I had to run to get back on the bus.

Our next stop was to Taupo on the shore of the lake with the same name to get some food. I’d made the decision just before this that I would do the Bungy option available despite being told there was allegedly a link between detached retinas and the activity. I therefore decided not to eat anything and instead walked to the water front. I also walked past a barbers and looked at my watch…did I have time?  I saw Steph and Zeena and asking how long we had until the coach left i realised i had 12 minutes. I didn’t need to worry as it actually only took about 5 minutes for me to get my hair cut/shaved off. The decision had been made on the various train journeys because longish hair had been hard to manage and didn’t look good if uncared for.

I had chosen to do the bungy at Lake Taupo because there was a possibility of touching the water or even going right under the water (this would have the added benefit of washing my face of small bits of hair which had not been brushed off.

The location was stunning and I was surprised that I was actually able to take it all in even though I was about to throw myself off a 47 metre high platform. The nerves briefly surfaced when the first person jumped and all I heard was a blood curdling scream but the adrenaline soon kicked in again.

Eventually it was my turn. The final checks were undertaken and walking like a penguin I waddled towards the edge of the platform. 1…2…3…”Yoooouuuu Orrrrrrnnnnnsss!” As I plunged through the air I wasn’t really aware at the time that I’d gone over but my feet rather than head were leading the way. This meant that when I was flung back up in the air I performed a backward somersault action.

As I was leaving I saw some TNT magazines and so I quickly ran back in and on to the bridge asking someone to get a picture of me holding the certificate. Those on the coach didn’t understand the significance but as it was intended as bit of a private ‘joke’ there was little point in explaining the situation and I just had to accept they probably thought I was being a bit weird

Back on the coach we travelled through/past the Tongariro National Park which includes Mt Ngauruhoe more commonly known as Mount Doom following its star appearance in Lord of the Rings. We could see smoke rising from the various vents reminding us that the 3 volcanoes were still fully active.

The next morning we would be walking through the heart of it.

Friday 22nd November
We were up early as we needed a big breakfast before commencing the 19km hike which we were told would take anything between 6 to 8 hours.
The walk started off fairly steadily and we did the first 4km to Soda Springs in under an hour. This lulled me in to a false sense of security that we’d easily be able to do it in the 6 hours. It was shortly after this that the gentle slopes were replaced by steeper climbs and soon much slower progress was made especially as I’d never been through such dramatic volcanic scenery on foot so kept taking pictures.

Eventually after about 3 hours we were close to the Red Crater and I tried to convince a couple of people to do the Tongariro summit as a 1 hour 30 minute side trip. The clouds however seemed to be approaching so a group decision was made to push on which I admit I was later relieved about as I naïvely thought the downward section was going to be much quicker than it took.

The colours of the rock that made up the red crater made it look particularly spectacular and we were lucky to see it before it was covered in cloud. We carried on and could see the Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes in the distance but there was still one more summit left to climb so I put Eye of the Tiger on which not only motivated us a bit but caused a number of people we didn’t know to laugh and to walk with us. The water of the lakes were a beautiful blue and green and this was eventually where we decided to have lunch.

As previously mentioned I thought the downward section would be easier but this wasn’t really the case and it didn’t really help that the rain had started to settle in. We weren’t even half way and it was getting to the stage where whilst I hadn’t really been pushing myself I was certainly starting to feel the burn. The rain cleared up in time for us to see the smoke rising from the crater and a lake in the distance which we assumed was Lake Taupo.

We got to the Ketetahi Hut at about 13.45 and we were still about 1 hour 30 minutes from the car park. I was towards the back of the group as I didn’t really want to push to get the 15.00 pick up instead feeling it would be easier to get the 16.00 and take it easy. We had lost Mitch and Greg as they had climbed to the top of ‘Mount Doom’ but they caught us up and decided to run in order to catch the bus. This was fine by me as it would ensure the shower was free by the time I got back.

The final stretch was through a forest and due to the rain a small stream had grown wider and was flowing very quickly and we therefore had to carefully stand on the rocks and hold on to trees in order to ensure we didn’t fall in. The path seemed never ending but ended somewhat abruptly at the carpark. It was 15.12 so i’d done the walk in about 6 hours 45 minutes. Whilst I could have gone quicker and taken less pictures I’d paid for the day and wanted to make the most of it. The final steps were tiring but at the same time it was a shame when it was actually over.

Returning to the hotel I decided to make use of the free sauna (the decision had been made about half way on the hike), had a shower and joined the others for a BBQ style meal. I was exhausted and probably wasn’t the only one and once it got to 20.30 I was ready to head to bed

Saturday 23rd November
Despite an attempt to go to bed early I couldn’t really sleep and because we had a big drive to Wellington next morning we had to be up by about 5.40am. This felt horrendous after my lack of sleep and after the walk from the day before.

It was Timo’s birthday so the coach had been decorated and we all sang.
We went past a number of small towns one of which tried to attract tourists with a giant carrot but other than that the journey was a sleepy blur.

We arrived in Wellington around 11am and went on a small tour of the capital to see some of the main sites to make a decision about what we could do later that day. We were also taken to the top of Mt Victoria where there were some nice views of the city and bay. I’d already made plans to meet up with Hayden and Emma and by the time we checked in I was slightly late and I’d foolishly let my mobile battery drain. Luckily I was able to charge it and to let them know the address so they could pick me up.

Our first proper stop was to the cable car where we got the train to the top to see the botanical gardens and the carter observatory. After a brief walk around we went to our first pub and Hayden told me about the micro breweries that were starting up. I had forgotten to put suncream on during the final day in Rotorua and whilst I sat drinking my larger with a hint of ginger it was pointed out to me by a local how red my forehead was.

We returned to the bottom and walked around the harbour where locals were jumping in to an area of water. One guy climbed to the top, got there and clearly had second thoughts whilst everyone below waited in anticipation. Next we carried on to the main beach where I was told the sand is shipped in each year.

After this we looped round on to the main high street and as it was a very hot day we found another bar. After leaving something at the Opera House caught Hayden’s eye and on investigation it turned out the comedian David Strassman was performing that evening and there were still tickets available for the 21.15 show. I had planned to meet up with the others but I knew this would be more fun than a few beers.

We got some food at another pub where I saw England being destroyed by Australia in the cricket and returned back to the theatre.

Whilst the name hadn’t sounded familiar once I saw David Strassman stage on stage with the puppets Chuck and Teddy i realised I had seen him on TV before. I haven’t seen a show like it and it was so clever the way he was able to interact with the audience both as himself and as the puppets. The stage had also been arranged so the puppets could move in independence from him and part of the humour was that his subconscious (the puppet personalities) were trying to seize control of the conscious.

The encore was split in to two parts, the first was the puppets singing Bohemian Rhapsody and the second was the promotion of an app where you could ask Teddy or Chuck what would happen in the future. I have no idea if this really exists but for the purpose of the show it was a funny way to end it.

The show finished at midnight and whilst I text the others I didn’t get a response and was so tired I didn’t mind heading back to bed.

Sunday 24th November
Yet another early start as we needed to ensure we got the ferry from Wellington to the South Island. Whilst writing this blog we also spent the time playing a game on the iPad where you had to either act or describe various subjects e.g accents which created some amusement. I was meant to be flying a stunt plane that afternoon but unfortunately the company had double booked and weren’t available. This was a bit disappointing but I’m sure I’ll have the chance again.

After about 2 hours we began the approach to the South Island through the sounds…The South Island adventure was about to begin!

Don’t Stop Me Now: Return to Rotorua

Monday 18th November
The day didn’t get off to the best of starts because during the night I had been in contact with my dad about the moneycorp card issue. Not only was it still not possible for me to load the moneycorp card but because I hadn’t really been using my new credit card I’d forgotten the pin to that which only really left the expensive debit card.

I waved the coach off from the hostel in Rotorua and an hour later boarded my own to Auckland which was almost totally empty. After a quick stop in Matamata, the closest town to where they filmed the Hobbit and where the information centre had been built in the shape of a hobbit house i was on my way again back to Auckland.

By the time I got to the ferry terminal I was about 30 minutes later than estimated however luckily Peter was still able to pick me up at the other end. Arriving back at the house we chilled out with a beer and Peggy showed me her pictures of her journey on the Transiberion railway in the 1970s.

Tuesday 19th November
In the morning I was finally able to speak to Halifax and they agreed to send the statement moneycorp required so I am hopeful the situation will be resolved soon. Peter had a job in Auckland so he was able to take me in directly. I therefore had a bit of time to book myself a hostel in Auckland and to finally get a new pair of walking shoes and a pair of sandals/jandals/thongs.

After using a bit of free WiFi in McDonald’s I went to the hotel pick up point. For a while it looked like I was going to be the only guy but a few more turned up. Some of the group had met a couple of days earlier and the rest of us had only just arrived so initially it was a bit difficult to integrate. The coach wasn’t full and it felt a bit quiet but as usual after the first stop (again in Matamata) there was a bit of movement and people began to settle.

During the next couple of hours Craig our coach driver sent round the list of activities for the next couple of days, tried to teach us a song to perform that evening (I believe it was ‘Run Rabbit Run in Maori) and made us do introductions at the front of the bus. I also spent the time chatting to those in the surrounding seats, two Americans (Greg and Jesus), an Australian (Summer) and two others.

It didn’t feel like long before we were in Rotorua and at the place to go Zorbing, though for copyright reasons they were known as Ogo. I had already decided before leaving I wanted to try this in New Zealand and that I wanted to do the zig zag course in the water ball.

I was second to go and whilst I tried to run and stand up as long as possible I lasted less than 5 seconds, as I tumbled down the hill and after a number of summersaults in a few seconds I eventually decided the easiest way was to sit whilst I rolled down. Eventually I was able to recover my composure and started to stand and then run before the above process was repeated for about a minute. I actually really enjoyed it, it wasn’t as adrenaline fueled compared to some activities I’ve done but it was fun all the same if a bit short.

Back on the bus and Craig continued to teach us ‘Oma Rabbiti’ and after a couple more practice’s we’d mastered the lyrics and timings without the need for words. Shortly after we arrived at the Maori Marae. The girls entered first because in Maori culture they were deemed more precious than men so it showed we were coming in peace.

We were led to the meeting house (which would later be where we would sleep) where the chief of the tribe welcomed us and sang a song before we rose and sang the song we had learnt. Next we undertook the Hongi greeting, the gentle pressing of noses and after this we were considered part of the family.

We had some food and were then given the opportunity to ask a member of the tribe some questions. I found this particularly interesting because we learnt the way the Maori heal involved energy and sounded similar to Reiki.

After the session I saw him speaking to one of those on the bus and got involved in the conversation. We ended up speaking for a further hour or more about various topics including the fact that the land is still seized from the tribes by the government for development. However to me this really sounded similar to the UK where the government is persisting with the new High Speed Train despite the protests or even fracking where the government has appeared to put an American Energy Corporations above their own local environment and populations wishes. Even the tribe representative agreed it wasn’t really persecution because they were offered payment (even if not the true worth).

We certainly lost track of time and when I got back to the main hall it seemed everyone was already asleep.

Wednesday 20th November
Most of us had an early start as we had a day of activities. I had opted to do White Water rafting however because the World Championship practice’s were taking place later that day we had to leave particularly early.

We arrived at the centre and after the usual physical battle of putting on the wet suit Mitch, Jacob, Timo Summer and I were sitting in the boat with our life jackets on and oars in our hands. Our guide gave us some key commands to practice – row forward, row back and crucially “get down”. This was the one to remember when we went down the waterfall. Also more ominously we were also advised what to do if we fell out…

The boat was taken to the river on the back of a truck but we decided to run as it wasn’t far. Mitch and Timo being tallest were at the front, Summer and I following their strokes in the middle and Jacob and the guide at the back. We were so busy focussing on the commands and strokes that we didn’t notice the guide telling us to row full speed head on in to the bank (which we did).

The rapids themselves weren’t as wild as I had expected but I guess we were tossed around a bit. The main event however were the waterfalls we would be going down. As we approached the first we got in to our positions and I gripped on tightly. As we disappeared over the edge we were soon swamped by the water but we had all stayed in.

When we got to the biggest we felt fully experienced however we could see someone in one of the other boats had fallen out. This one did feel more exhilarating. As we went over it felt like the boat was tipping on to its side and as we were near enough vertical I could feel myself lifting up so gripped tighter than I had before. It was all over in seconds but looking at the photographs the boat was totally submerged by the waterfall.

In order to celebrate our victory over mother nature, Summer and I were told to get in the front and the other guys were told to row in to the waterfall. If I wasn’t already wet enough, I was now completely drenched but it was good fun. As none of us had fallen out we were told to jump out which we did though I struggled to pull myself back in and needed a helping hand before we got to the final waterfall though I got in to position in time.

Once we had were at the bottom we all had another go in the front going head first in a waterfall but soon the adventure was over and it still wasn’t 10:00. We got back to Rotorua and as the rooms weren’t ready went to get a snack.

I had the afternoon to check out the town and discovered a Hell’s Pizza when walking with Amy and Mardi. This was particularly exciting for me because other than Santa Maria it had been my favourite pizza place in London before it closed. I went in and told the staff I’d been to the branch in Shepherds Bush in London and whilst I wish I could say they were as interested as me they clearly weren’t.

I explored the rest of the area on my own and walked around the lake up to what I thought would be Sulphur Point but what ended up being much further on. It was quite interesting to see the steam rising from the shore and as I wanted to know a bit more about the history I called in to the local museum and walked around the Government Gardens.

In the museum I was in time to watch a 20 minute video on how a volcanic eruption in the late 1800s destroyed a tribes settlement and some natural basth terraces that were considered the 8th wonder of the world. The eruption was blamed on a Maori legend and the greed of the tribe after they had started charging tourists visiting the area. The video included sounds and vibrations which caused two small children to be taken out in tears and their crying added to the realism of the catastrophic tragedy.

After the video I went on a guided tour and the history of the building was explained. The bath house was funded by the government but it never made the money expected nor was the building fully completed before it closed. The sulphur in the water and the lack of ventilation had meant that the building was difficult to maintain. At one point when it was reopened it was used as a nightclub and many of the original statues were damaged in this period.

We were taken to where the baths were located, to where the furnaces and pipes feeding the baths were located (one was still there and the damage caused by the sulphuric water was evident) and the roof terrace. The guide also explained that in 2011 the building was finally completed to the original plans.

The guide also took us to an exhibition on the local tribe who had donated various artefacts to tell their story and it included a moving tribute to their role in both wars. We were also shown information regarding the number of recent earthquakes and I was shocked to realise there had been 5 in Rotorua in the past week alone. We also saw the live webcams for the various active volcanoes 3 of which were in the Tongariro national park which we would be staying at. I noticed all these were code green but I wasn’t sure how much notice they would have if there were any eruptions.

Returning back to the hotel I joined Amy and Mardi in the bar before everyone on the trip headed to an Irish Bar. I bailed fairly early but it had been a good way for us all to get to know each other.

Thursday 21st November
Before leaving Rotorua we had the opportunity to visit the main attraction in the area the “Whakarewarewa Thermal village”. Here we were taken around the living village Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao (the gathering place of the army of Wahiao).

We entered using the bridge constructed over the river in 1885 (prior to this visitors were carried) and once in almost immediately saw steaming pools. We were shown the steam box hangi that is used to cook food in the ground and a member of another group asked if the food still tasted fresh despite the areas location. Our local guide said they couldn’t comment as that is the only taste they were used to which was a rather fair point.

We also saw some of the local baths (for the tribe) and whilst we couldn’t go in we were allowed to touch the water entering it. The water is meant to have healing properties and whilst it is not for me to say either way it certainly felt a bit oily and different.

Next we were taken to an area where we could see the two geysers (Pohutu and Prince of Wales Feathers) but sadly neither erupted during out stay. We also saw the local church where due to the geothermal activity bodies are placed in tombs above the ground and the Whare Tipuna (meeting house).

Finally we saw a traditional culture show which was very similar to the one I’d seen a couple of days previously and at least 3 of the performers were the same but this didn’t make it any less enjoyable. There was a slight variation because during the final section we had to take part in a routine.

As I found my way to the exit I quickly headed for the mud bath but it seemed that area wasn’t as well attended to as the baths and was a bit overgrown. The mud bubbled below but it was a bit underwhelming though I’m not really sure what else I expected.

As we boarded the coach i regretted not trying the Spa during my free time but during my two visits to the town I’d done a lot. Next stop Lake Taupo and the Tongairiro National Park.

Adiemus – Geyserland Tour

Thursday 14th November
I won’t go in to details about the flight except to say whilst I’d tried to be polite and to charm the staff at the check in desk my attempts not only proved unsuccessful but downright backfired. I’d politely asked for a window seat but when I boarded I realised I’d been given a seat right in the middle of the plane towards the back. With 2 people either side I think most would agree these seats are not ideal.

It was also a strange sensation trying to work out what the plane was doing during take off – at one point it felt like we were going backwards. Arriving in New Zealand I realised that the immigration customs declaration form was as scary looking as the one I completed 3 years on my arrival to Australia. I wondered whether the Mongolian biscuits I’d brought for my New Zealand hosts would be ok. The queue through passport control was over 1 hour 30 and seemed never ending at times.

Eventually however I was out and searching for Peggy and Claire who I realised I’d never met and had no idea what they looked like. Likewise they probably had no idea what I looked like. Anyway thankfully they had a sign and soon we were in the car on a mini tour of Auckland.

First we went to ‘one tree hill’ a piece of land left in the early 1900s to be left as a park. The name however is slightly misleading and the one tree is now just a stump as it was cut down during a protest. Next we drove over the bridge and to Mission Bay. It was lovely to be shown around by some locals that were relatives of one of my aunts.

Eventually we got to Claire and David’s house which was probably about an hour out of Auckland. It was in a very rural area and the sun was shining so we sat outside enjoying a lovely home cooked meal (fresh vegetables!) some beer and a glass of wine. Peggy’s husband Peter joined us and time went by quicker than I think all realised. Soon it was dark and I realised I had to be up in 8 hours for my first tour so we left for Peggy’s as her house was closer to the Ferry that I could get to ‘downtown’ Auckland.

Friday 15th November
I was up very early to make sure we beat the rush hour I ended up getting the Ferry an hour earlier than expected and it wasn’t difficult to find the pick up point so I just sat outside and waited. Gradually other people turned up but they were doing a longer tour. In total there were 50 people which meant at the start no one really said anything because it was all a bit overwhelming. After our first stop for the coach driver to do the paperwork I finally spoke to the person next to me.

The sun was shining brightly and we were told that the sun was unforgiving like in Australia. This is due to the pollution caused by Europe and America which has destroyed the ozone layer…so Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear you are wrong.

Our first stop was Cathedral Cove which was about a 45 minute walk from the car park. I took a minor detour to Stingray Bay in the misguided belief I would see Stingrays. I didn’t. But the bay was more secluded and  clearly only known to the locals. It was therefore less busy but very picturesque. It was quite steep climbing down and I started to wonder whether it had been the right decision considering the heat and that I still had another 35 minutes to walk before getting to Cathedral Cove

Eventually I got to Cathedral Cove and I could see why it was such a popular beach. There was a rock not far from the shore that a group had swum to and from here they were able to jump off. There was also a small cave which separated the two beaches making up the Cove. It was to walk through though the tide was in so the final bit involved a bit of wading.

Returning to our coach we were informed that we would not be able to go to Hot Water Beach until 22:00 when it was low tide. We therefore settled down for a couple of beers and fish and chips. Unfortunately it was fairly early and once the sunset it dawned on us we still had a couple more hours to wait and the temperature would only go down further.

Once it was 22:00 we headed down to the beach and it was cold. The sand was even colder and then we had to cross a small stream. I started to doubt whether the promise of hot springs under the sand would be fulfilled. I was fairly near the front and with the others announced the sand was was getting warmer then let out a yelp when we burnt our feet on one small area of sand.

We started digging and soon had our own self made hot tub. The problem was we’d dug a bit close to wear I’d burnt myself so this meant the water at one end was scolding. Despite the warnings members of the group at the far end of our pool, where the water was cooler, didn’t listen and occasionally ventured up and let out a yelp/scream.

Whilst the pool was warm the air was cold and it therefore wasn’t quite the experience we’d seen on the leaflets. Some therefore headed home early including it turned out everyone I was sharing with however I didn’t realise this until I returned back to find the door locked and everyone already asleep.

Saturday 16th November
Next morning we woke early and started the day with a walk along a disused mine tramway at Karangahake Gorge. During the walk we entered a number of tunnels and had to use torches to show us the way. There was also a number of long rope bridges that tilted erratically when ever someone stepped out of sync. The scenery was stunning but

We’d noticed during our first supermarket stop that New Zealand shops don’t do ready meals. Maybe it’s just the UK where this is popular or maybe New Zealand hasn’t caught up but the shops didn’t seem suited to solo travellers on a tight budget who don’t have space to carry large quantities of food, the means to keep the food fresh (if travelling on a bus all day), and ultimately don’t have time/are to lazy to prepare it. A small bottle of LP/Coke etc cost 3 dollars 89 where as a big bottle cost 3 dollars 29. I also asked if they sold cheap small individual cartoons of juice and was asked why the multi pack containing 8 was no good. Travellers to the UK from New Zealand have it easy in my opinion, though perhaps we’ve just become lazy and to dependent on the £3 meal deals.

My main reason for doing the Kiwi Experience bus in addition to my main Topdeck tour was to visit the Waitomo Caves. I had already arranged this before I was told by a colleague from New Zealand that I had to do Black Water rafting. I opted for the Labyrinth tour which was 3 hours and included jumping backwards off waterfalls, tubing and seeing a glow worm cavern. I also thought it included abseiling down in to the cavern however it turned out this was the slightly longer and much more expensive Abyss tour.

We put on our wet suits which seemed a physical enough challenge and made our way to a practice jump board where we got used to jumping backwards in to the water. Once that was done we entered the cave itself. We scrambled through the cave until we reached the a couple of waterfalls. Jumping off these when the water was rushing past was totally different to the practice session. After this we floated through the cave in the dark looking at the glow worms above and learnt they are actually maggots. Then there was a bit more scrambling before we reached a much larger waterfall before mor tubing.

After a while the guide told 4 of us it was shallow enough to stand up in. Jumping out I and the 3 girls quickly realised this was a practical joke and we had to swim to a ledge to get back in. One of the girls had already floated by and when she reached the next ledge I tried to keep her tube steady. In the process I was tipped out and had to scramble back in again. We were then told to turn our torches off again and to follow the glow worms above to find the exit.

Climbing up the steps my legs felt very heavy and my arms barely had any strength left to haul myself on to and over the final ledge. Eventually we were all out and after a hot shower and a hot soup I was able to assess the various additional bruises I’d picked up. It was great fun and challenging enough for me to feel I’d been tested especially as I’d not even been caving before.

That evening a couple of us shared large pizzas some of which we saved for next days lunch and had a couple of beers. A few beers and pizza was the perfect way to relax after a challenging afternoon in the wet cold caves.

Sunday 17th November
The first stop was to Ruakuri scenic reserve where we got to see the cave entrance where my tour the day before had ended. There was also a cavern to look in and a small group I was part of spent a bit to long taking photos which meant we had to miss out on a small waterfall to catch up. We didn’t want to be late on the bus because the punishment was to read a pre highlighted section of 50 Shades of Gray as one of the guys had been forced to do the day before to much amusement.

We started to smell Rotorua before we arrived in the geothermal town and it wasn’t soon before we could see the steam rising from the drains and the hot springs.

The activity I’d opted to do in the area was a tour of the Hobbiton movie set. Whilst I’m not the biggest movie fan, the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit books were two of my favourite books when I was younger and the idea of having a drink in the Green Dragon was too tempting.

The whole experience was a lot better than I had expected. I had anticipated maybe 6 or 7 houses made out of short life material and with no real depth to them (as the internal shots were obviously shot in a studio). Instead there were 44 hobbit houses, 37 houses for ‘Lord of the Rings’ making up Hobbiton and 7 that were built for the more recent (but prequel) ‘The Hobbit’. The houses were laid out as Tolkien had described them in his map, all the buildings looked totally authentic and had been built out of permanent materials. Even the small details were included – wheel barrows, spades, tables…the only thing missing were the hobbits.

We were told that Peter Jackson had chosen the area because of the mountains that made up the area and because it already included a small lake/pond. We were also told every effort was made to ensure there were no errors that die hard fans would notice. This included building a tree above bag end and replacing the apples on an oak tree with plums. Also one scene involved Frodo looking at a sunset however the sun sets in the opposite direction in New Zealand and filming therefore took place during sunrise.

Finally we arrived at the bridge passed the mill where there was a noticeboard with various notices you would find outside a newsagents but obviously for Hobbits. Crossing over the bridge we arrived at the fully functioning Green Dragon pub which was built after filming as the original temporary building was burnt down in filming when Frodo has his premonition of Hobbiton being destroyed. Here I tried the specially local brewed pale ale, stout and apple cider.

Returning back to the hostel we had a few minutes to get ready before leaving for the Tamaki Maori cultural experience. The bus driver made us perform various fun actions such as pretending our bus was a waka and taught our chosen chief how he should act in the arrival ceremony.

Arriving at the camp we saw the traditional routine carried out to determine if the visitors were friend or foe and once accepted we entered the village. This was very hands on and we were shown various traditional games and activities. I was part of a group picked to be taught and to perform the Haka. Having seen this so many times being performed in the Rugby it was a special experience and even though it was difficult to remember the exact routine it still felt very powerful.

Next we watched our freshly cooked food be raised from the ground and then saw a stage show where all the activities we’d tried were performed correctly. Finally we had our big feast. The food, especially the vegetables, having been cooked underground left a natural smokey/earthy taste and stocking up on free food when I had the chance I had two helpings. The desert was pavlova and the chief joked that this had been invented in New Zealand to be enjoyed by Australians and the world. I also decided to drink the local tribes alcoholic cocktail drink which tasted of kiwi fruit.

on our return back to the hostel the driver encouraged us to have a sing song and we performed an absolutely legendary version of Bohemian Rhapsody from start to finish. Returning back to the hostel we had a few drinks at the bar before I said my goodbyes. I was heading back to Auckland whilst the others would carry on to the south Island.

There had been 50 people on the bus, far too many to know in a few days and it wasn’t really until my final day that the group stopped being cliquey but it had been fun a few days. But I’ve learnt to put myself out there, not necessarily to force a conversation, but to at least say hello. After all we’re all here to explore the same country whilst having a good time…

Fake Plastic Trees – Kuala Lumpur

Monday 11th November
I made sure I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare because the last thing I wanted to do was to encounter any unexpected problems resulting in me losing one of my nights of much needed luxury in Kuala Lumpur.

Arriving at the airport a middle aged man from South Africa started a conversation with me because I suppose I looked like someone he’d have more chance of engaging with compared to our fellow passengers. This is not meant to sound disrespectful as I was actually surprised at how well English was understood in tourist areas and that most important signs were bilingual. Russia take note. London probably should as well…

He was slowly stressing out because he had a connecting flight and our flight was delayed by an hour. For me the delay just meant a little bit longer until I could have some proper down time. I could give an account of our 4 hours talking but it’s mostly forgotten and I think in hindsight I was probably talking in my sleep by the time we finally boarded after 2am.

I’d run out of jumpers in China which was a huge blessing because I was forced in to wearing a t shirt which i was grateful for when I landed at 9am in KL it was a very humid 29°c. I’d opted against rage against the train when I realised it would ‘only’ cost £6 more to get a taxi so by about 10.30am I was at the hotel. My room wasn’t ready but I left my bags and explored the surrounding area to find an ATM.

When I returned the room was ready and they asked if they could bring my bags up. It’s safe to say I’m not used to that level of service and when I saw the room the first thing I did was flop on the bed double bed which didn’t have any mould stains. Next I had a shower and noted the door actually closed.

First I text Victoria for some tips on how to spend my first day and reflected on the fact that by Thursday afternoon I would finally be in a timezone that was ahead! With some ideas in my head I set back out in to the welcoming warmth.

I did a tour of the city to familiarise myself with the key areas though I somewhat hilariously fell asleep thereby defeating the point in it. I did however wake up when the bus stopped to get pictures of the Royal Palace and later the KL Communications Tower.

Eventually I got off properly to explore the bird park. This was an absolutely huge free flight aviary – possibly the biggest in the world – where there were so money birds just walking and flying around many of which appeared as interested in me as I was in them. Sadly apart from pigeons, chickens and ducks I’m not much good at knowing the difference but the signs were in English and the place was rather tranquil.

Once I’d left I followed the main road down to Merdeka Square (independence square) which is also the historical area containing many of the old colonial buildings the centre of which is the old style village green that was once used for cricket. The highlight though is the giant Malayan flag which symbolises the event when the union flag was lowered in the square for the last time and the country was formally independent.

Boarding the bus again as it was getting dark I had the idea of going to the KL tower to get a birds eye view of the city. Unlike with the shard the top is fully open to the elements and I therefore had to sign a deceleration to confirm I wasn’t going to jump off.

It was quite expensive and perhaps in hindsight it would have been better to have had a better knowledge of what was below me but I managed to get some nice pictures of the Petronas twin towers and used the free binoculars to find my hotel.

Getting back to the ground I started the walk back to the hotel. I vaguely memorised the route as I didn’t want to look more like a tourist than I already did and despite having I later found out taken a slight detour I eventually sighted Zara and knew I was nearly home. Zara has actually become a reoccurring beacon – the same store helped me find my way home in St Petersburg.

Having worked out where I was I realised I was hungry as I hadn’t eaten since a bag of left over spicy crab crisps I had left over from China. Where to go? I was in the eating district of the Malaysian capital. I panicked – there was to much choice but having just left China I didn’t fancy another Chinese. I needed a home comfort but my decision to go to McDonalds made me feel disgusted at myself.

Tuesday 12th November
I woke fairly early as I had booked a tour to the Batu Caves, my main reason for wanting to visit the city. I hadn’t heard of these until last year when an old colleague visited and put a picture on Facebook. Almost immediately I’d added it to the list of places I wanted to see so when Kirsten found me flights via KL with a 2 night I couldn’t have been happier.

I took the decision to check out the all you can eat breakfast buffet in the hope it would keep me full up until dinner. I also ate fresh fruit for the first time since I’d sat in the business class lounge at Heathrow. It’s somewhat surprising I hadn’t developed scurvy so bad my lack of fresh food has been for the past 3 weeks.

Hunger satisfied and locked up for 12 hours I got on the mini bus where I got chatting to an American from Phoenix however then we arrived at a big depot and it became apparent we were on different tours. This was a shame because I was the only non couple person on my tour and this meant I fell asleep during the commentary like the day before.

First we went to pewter-ware demonstration centre which was fairly interesting as we got to see inside the factory. This is also the original industry that was responsible for the growth of Kuala Lumpur. We also went to a batik factory, though calling what we saw a factory felt an exaggeration. This was basically just a shop and 5 minutes in to the designated 40 I opted to get back on the air conditioned coach to have a nap.

Finally we were on our way to the caves and the truly massive statue of Murugan towered over everyone. Walking up the stairs I encountered my first monkey though luckily it decided to jump on the person in front and not me. The next I saw was eating a coconut and just after I passed chucked it down. After this they obviously decided I wasn’t a threat because they just watched me.

The 276 steps wasn’t much of a challenge in the heat compared to the Great Wall but the heat and humidity meant I was dripping by the top. Luckily the caves were cool though they still seemed to be melting which meant I had to be on alert to dodge deepish puddles and dripping water.

There were a number of temples at the top but the caves themselves were smaller than I imagined. We only had about 50 minutes to explore and I did feel we could/should have spent less time at ‘the shop’ as the caves were the main point.

it was about 2 when I arrived back at the hotel in KL so I decided to charge my camera and my own batteries before heading out a couple of hours later. I wanted to do the Petrona towers however annoyingly the towers were fully booked so I arranged a time for the following day. I also wanted to check how easy it was to find the start of my street food tour.

One thing I quickly noticed about KL is that signs would point you in one direction and then vanish. I was therefore glad I checked in advance because a journey that took 30 minutes when I knew where I was going took well over 2 hours when I didn’t. I was starting to feel fatigued at constantly feeling a bit lost and my mood hadn’t been helped when I got caught in a torrential thunderstorm. It was however fairly exciting to see the fork of lightning hit about 1 second away when I was on the monorail.

Back at the hotel I freshened up and headed back out to explore the street food. On my way I briefly considered a foot massage as I’d been told the street I was on was famous for them. Unfortunately no one had told me which ‘store’ to go for. As I walked along the strip I quickly decided there would be no massage as I was asked by what felt like over 50 girls some even shouting “happy ending” as I kept my head down and quickened the pace. Sorry feet!

I’m sure most love the street food experience but for me it was a bit overwhelming. Also I’d just arrived from China so had probably overdosed on that type of food and yet that appeared to be was all that was on offer. I’d hoped to find curry puffs as Victoria had recommended them to me but everywhere I tried only had curry rice or curry noodles. I will however say that the meal I opted for ‘king chicken special with rice’ was delicious.

Wednesday 13th November
There was no hotel breakfast this morning because I was going on a mini food tour and I wanted to save my appetite. Arriving at the location I met the others before our guide Charles turned up. First we had a refreshing sugar cane drink which was much needed because whilst it was only 11am it was already hot and humid.

Next we walked through ‘Brickfiields’ known locally as Little India. Here we saw a number of the older buildings that have not yet been brought by the developers that are no doubt eager to move in. Here we had a banana leaf chicken curry which to be honest would have been better as the main course but I wasn’t complaining!

Having left we went to a stand selling a variety of different fried chip snacks, the equivalent in the UK would be Bombay mix, and I particularly liked the slightly sweeter masala mix.

Next up I finally got my hands on a curry puff and such had been my enthusiasm I was taken round the back so I could see a batch being prepared. We also had the opportunity to enjoy a savoury doughnut and to try a lentil biscuit which was a bit dry for such a hot day.

I think the guide realised we were flagging in the humidity so he took us to another stall to get a drink. This time it was milk with ice shavings and sugar, just what we needed. Slightly rehydrated we got some more deep fried snacks but by now I was full and I didn’t really enjoy the yam filling.

Finally we got the monorail for a short trip to China town. Again i still wasn’t totally feeling the idea of another Chinese meal but I was convinced this would be Malaysian Chinese which is different. I’m glad I was because the worryingly named rats tail noodles were actually very nice but by now I had been defeated. Food had won.

Returning back to the monorail I had 35 minutes to get to the towers for my tour which I just made in time for check in. First we visited the bridge which connects the two towers and then went up to the 86th floor, however high that is. It felt high and I was able to make out a few of the key landmarks I’d visited down below. Arriving back at the hotel I realised my taxi had arrived early so I headed off to the airport even earlier than planned.

All in all I had a great time in Kuala Lumpur. The city did feel a bit artificial due to all the modern developments but it does show what can be achieved if development plans are made logically. Much as I love London Its gradual evolution must make it a nightmare for those that are new to the city with streets and lines appearing to go where ever with no real logic. Next up New Zealand (or ‘New Sea Land’ as I understand the Dutch named it!)

To the End – Beijing

Thursday 7th November
As we said goodbye to Odka and boarded our final train at around 7am I (we) knew that this stage of our journey was coming to a close. For all of us except Sara it was the beginning of something longer and before I go further I want to say this: Guys i don’t want to get all mushy about it but if the people I meet in New Zealand in a weeks time are half as decent as you I’ll still be in for a good time.

As we boarded I found out our family was being split up slightly earlier than planned and I was to be in the cabin with one of the groups we’d met the night before. I ended up spending most of my time inviting myself round to Paul, Clare, Callum and Fi’s cabin a bit like Kramer from Seinfeld. The 4th space in the 2nd cabin (Sara, Gary and Chris) was taken by a local and more shall be said about him later.

After having a nap I awoke just as we left Choir and started to cross the Gobi desert. i looked out of the window for a bit and decided to get some lunch which as before consisted of a king size super spicy Bombay Badboy pot noodle equivalent and the staple instant mash. After looking out of the window some more I realised that whilst it was amazing to be crossing the desert there wasn’t much variation to the view except the occasional herd of horses. I therefore decided to have another nap.

I awoke to hear Paul talking about going to the restaurant car, the code name for beer(s) and I couldn’t jump down from the bunk quick enough. First though we had one final chance to stretch our legs at a station as we had a long stop which we wouldn’t have again until we arrived in Beijing which was still over 20 hours away.

We must have spent a few hours in the restaurant car because the sun started to set which was pretty but I still maintain that on a good day Aberystwyth is the best. I hadn’t had much to drink because I didn’t want to be drunk for the immigration process and left to get my final dinner of mash and noodles. Soon the others returned as the restaurant car had been closed. We were at the border.

As I was getting used to one of the officials took a dislike to me, this time because I’d been sitting on my bunk which hadn’t been a problem at any previous crossing or when I’d handed my passport over to his colleague a few minutes earlier. Still I apologised and scrambled down quickly for the second time in a few hours.

There was a minor scare when I couldn’t locate my customs declaration form that I’d completed on entry to Mongolia and which I thought we’d handed over and not had returned. I decided there were worse places I could be left behind but luckily I did find it, scrunched up in my hip pouch and what I handed in must have been ok because my passport was stamped and I was allowed over the border.

Next the cabin was searched and then we were given forms to complete for entry in to China. This time I made a note to safely look after the departure form which was returned to me in case I needed it when it came to leaving. I did however start to complete the customs form only for half way through to realise I only had to do so if I had something to declare (which I didn’t).

When we reached the Chinese side of the border we were told that we had to remain on the train which was annoying for me as I had a bit of the Mongolian currency I had hoped to exchange left over. It did however mean I had plenty of time to get to know the guys I was sharing a cabin with.

We were also at the part of the process which seemed a bit surreal. I had learnt during the journey that whilst the ‘Transmonglian Railway’ is one route the track width used in Russia/Mongolia is different to China. Rather than swapping trains, the carriages are lifted in to the air sometimes with the passengers still on board and the wheels are swapped.

We entered the shed and stared at the workman from the window wondering exactly when the process would start and how it would do so with us on board. After a while Chris noticed the workers had shrunk and we realised it was actually in full swing. I wasn’t sure if the immigration process was over but once we had been lowered it was gone midnight so I decided to have a nap. This nap ended up being bed as we were not disturbed again except for some violent sounding noises from the engine.

Friday 9th November
I awoke early by mistake but knew we would be passing the great wall at some point so gathered everything I might need for the next few hours and left the cabin. Sara was there as well and together we waited. Soon people started to join us and after a few false claims including one which appeared very wall like but turned out to be a house we saw it. Or at least we felt fairly convinced we had.

Gary who was normally very active looked a bit sorry for himself and it emerged that after everyone had gone to bed he’d started to use international language (alcohol) to communicate with the Mongolian staying in his cabin. Apparently sometime after the border crossing the two of them had left the train at a station to get fresh supplies. It sounded like a great experience and both spent most of the morning trying to sleep.

A few hours later and we were on the final approach to Beijing. Passing through a number of tunnels each time we emerged from one the scenery was different and spectacular. Unfortunately the windows were dirty and no photo could do the view justice.

As it was Fi’s birthday we had decided to see a acrobat show and once we arrived in Beijing we tried to seek help from the honcho of the group I had been sharing a cabin with. She didn’t look prepared to help advise us on how to book tickets so we went to plan b. Me and Sara would try to take a ride with Gary and his guide Peter back to our hostel where we would book the tickets. Luckily we could get all fit in which it later became apparent was a huge bit of good fortune because the metro was not only stupidly busy but the nearest station was a 30 minute walk away.

We got to the hostel and Peter booked the tickets. We agreed to all meet outside the theatre at 18.45 giving us some time to wash and sort ourselves out. To get to the theatre we took a bus and the metro and it made the rush hours of London, Moscow and St Petersburg look tame but I have to admit the signs were clear and out of them all it wins. Still I was done with trains and i made the decision there and then that i would get a taxi from the hotel when i needed to leave for the airport.

The Leeds lot were second to arrive and explained they had to get a rickshaw bike ride because the walk had been longer than expected however no one could contact the kids who had last told me they were at the wrong theatre. We went to the auditorium and showed Peter a picture of them so he could give them the tickets when they arrived. Amazingly they only missed about 5 minutes which was a introduction dance routine.

Some of the acts were stunning. The contortionist in Mongolia had been good but here were 5 where the finale was the same principle as in Mongolia but to be honest even more stunning. Other acts included a ballet dancer dancing on the shoulder and head of her male dancing companion. The finale was a ball of death where not 3 but 8 motorcyclists drove around and did various stunts. The whole show only lasted an hour but what an hour.

We tried to find somewhere to eat and shunning McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza hut we found what looked a cheap Chinese fast food style restaurant. We had no idea how the restaurant worked and we ended up just pointing at various things on the menu hoping for the best. The lady serving looked increasingly frantic and we later realised this was because they closed at 10 and it was already nearly 9.45. Still who would turn away a group of 8 hungry tourists?

Soon a pot was brought out with whatever sauce we had asked for which was put on to a hob in front of us Ah. We had to cook our own dinner. We all ordered far to much and i had dumplings, spinach and tofu which were all added to the mix. It tasted alright, the others seemed to enjoy theirs more but it didn’t help that my use of chopsticks is still pathetic which meant I could barely pick up the dumplings. It was however very cheap for the amount we got.

Leaving the restaurant we started to walk back to our hostels or luxurious hotel in the case of the Leeds lot. Finally we got to a cross roads where we said our goodbyes. Me Sara and Gary continued alone and started to realise how big a city Beijing was (if we hadn’t already been aware of this fact – though Katie Melua it is not a fact there are 9 million bicycles in the city).

We were probably temporally lost for about 10 minutes including a moment we thought we were very lost when even a taxi driver didn’t seem to know the street. I won’t go in to the details as they don’t matter but luckily when I took the map by a pure stroke of luck the first road name that caught my eye was the one we were on. Whilst we had begun to take a slight detour we weren’t far off and were back about 30 minutes later.

Saturday 10th November
Sara and I both had booked personal honchos in advance however we both wanted to do the Great Wall. The group I had shared a room with had also booked a trip with their honcho to the Great Wall. We all therefore felt as we had booked through the same parent company the local company would oblige us in going together to reduce the cost.

Sara and me were quoted (approx) £70 each for a individual taxi or £35 each if shared. The other group were paying (approx) £30 each for a minibus with 3 spare seats. If we all went in theirs it brought the cost down to £18 each. However the honchos were very reluctant to let us do this even to the extent that they tried to convince me and Sara to do a city tour instead. Unlike with Elena in Moscow we’d learnt our lesson and put our foot down. It was our day out not theirs.

Eventually they agreed and my honcho was despatched which was a shame because she seemed really sweet and more relaxed than Sara’s. The honcho of the other group ignored us for most of the day.

We finally arrived at the Great Wall and after agreeing a meeting place and time started to walk up. It quickly emerged the 3 lads were fitter than me and Sara and when we got to the top we quickly realised it wasn’t going to get any easier. We started by walking a relatively short section that still took nearly an hour and in the process accidentally ventured on to a part of the wall that is unrestored and meant to be closed to the public.

It really was stunning. Some of the must see sights in the world can be a bit underwhelming but maybe It’s because we were interacting with the wall we began to appreciate just how big it was and how much effort went in to creating it.

We double backed and began the tougher longer section. Some parts were so steep we had to climb with our hands to haul ourselves up the giant steps. Every time we thought we were at the end we’d round a corner and see another watch tower in the distance. Eventually having got to the top of a section that was particularly steep and with it getting towards the time we had to be back Sara and I dropped out going further.

The others continued on but I felt pleased with what I’d seen. The walk back was mostly down so quicker and eventually after about 40 minutes we were back at the start of the wall. During this period of time I convinced Sara to get a toboggan to the bottom as It’s not everyday you can say you tobogganed down the Great Wall of China. It actually also ended up being even more fun than we expected.

We got to the bottom and both honchos looked stressed. Apparently we were an hour late and obviously the others were still at the top somewhere. We got some homemade pancakes whilst we waited for the others to get down. After 15 minutes they arrived and around this time our Honcho said he’d have to leave early and wouldn’t be with us until 21:00 as we had originally been told. This was annoying because it meant we should have kept the one designated to me instead.

Once we got back to Beijing he showed us the direction of the food market and left us to it. Ironically this was the only time in the day we’d needed him. We had no idea what to eat so took to pointing however we soon realised the traders were trying to charge us tourist prices. We wanted to be a bit adventurous but when someone tries to charge you £6 for a spider you want to give up. After eating some fried dumplings (safe) and some snake which I couldn’t swallow quickly enough we left to get some restaurant food.

First though we went to Tiananmen Square and saw that all lit up which was quite spectacular. As expected the Forbidden City was closed off but we were able to see the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the Tiananmen) with the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging from it.

By now we were hungry so went to a restaurant the honcho had recommended. I wanted to be adventurous but decided snake was enough so went for deep fried spicy pork. Sara went for duck with mustard. When it arrived it emerged it was ducks feet. I had a nibble but it had no taste and mentally I couldn’t get over the fact it was ducks feet.

We returned to the hostel and saw Gary. We all decided to get a beer and soon the other group of lads joined us as well. We literally drank the hostel dry even though we only had one beer each and I decided to call it a night.

Sunday 11th November
My flight wasn’t until 1am on Monday so I had the day to explore the city. I’d arranged to do the forbidden city with Callum and Fi however checking out took longer than expected so I was a bit late.

I arrived at Tiananmen Square and saw a queue and as i couldn’t read any of the signs and I wasn’t sure what it was for naively kept going. I met up with Callum and Fi and only realised after the queue had been a security check to enter the square. I’m not quite sure how I managed to avoid that but it certainly saved some time.

We arrived at the entrance to the Gate of Heavenly Peace and joined another security queue. We were rushed through but it seemed the locals were being held and searched more thoroughly.

The Forbidden City itself was massive and appeared totally symmetrical and it’s quite amazing they are the best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. It was however incredibly busy and there was almost to much to take in so after a couple of hours we were at the exit when we could easily have spent longer.

The exit took us to Jingshan Park which we then paid to enter to get a panorama of the city and a birds eye view of the forbidden city. From here we realised just how big it was and that we’d actually only been in a small fraction of it.

I did briefly consider visiting the Temple of Heaven Park but by the time I’d eaten I just wanted to be back at the hostel so I could start preparing for the next part of my trip. Next stop Kuala Lumpur.

All Right Now – Mongolia

Monday 4th November continued…
We were finally out of Russia. Kind of. Technically we weren’t in Mongolia either and the two attendants on our carriage were still the stern faced sterotypical Russian ladies Elena had warned us about in Moscow a week earlier.

Sometimes a country grows on you but for me and I think I can safely say the majority of us that wasn’t the case, though looking back at the pictures I certainly had some memorable moments. Russia appears to be a country of extremes both in terms of climate, scenery and attitudes. It is hardly a surprise that the older generation, e.g anyone that was over the age of 18 in 1991 will view tourists with a slight suspicion however in contrast the younger generation we encountered appeared more liberal, were enthusiastic to learn about other countries and were friendly. Unfortunately those born after 1991 are not yet working with the public which makes it a bit of an uncomfortable experience especially if you are alone.

The moment we had our first contact with a Mongolian I fell in love with the place. The immigration official smiled and asked us for our passports in English and we were all so dumb with shock due to the politeness we froze. She also asked if it was our first time as we handed over the passports. A soldier came to check the compartment and politely asked if she could enter (we wondered how she’d have reacted if we said no) and finally the customs official who took the scary looking forms we had completed did so with a friendly smile.

We had an early start and even though we thought the train got to the Mongolian Capital at 6.10am, the attendant appeared to take great pleasure in telling us it was actually 5.10am. As a result we made sure our bags were packed in advance and got to sleep about 10.30 with alarms set for 4.00am.

Tuesday 5th November
Bang bang bang. Knock knock knock. Bang bang bang. It was 3.30am. The attendant had a bigger glare than she’d had at any previous stage as she told us we had to get up (in Russian of course but we assumed that’s what she was saying). Chris said she’d made him try to go in the toilet even though he knew Sara was there and Callum thought she was going to make him ‘disappear’ when he handed her the coffee stained table cloth. I got shouted out because Gary had left the bedding outside the compartment and she thought it was me. I shook my head and shrugged my soldiers “Nyet” and the dragon retreated to her cave/compartment.

As predicted we were ready with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately as we arrived in Ulaanbaatar the Mongolian capital and started to disembark I realised a tin of Gary’s condensed milk had leaked out of our bin and left the attendants a leaving present outside the door. There was no time to clean it and the only reaction was to run away from the train before they realised.

Our honcho Odka was waiting for us and like Dimitri she had it all worked out: Bank, travel to Ger camp, have breakfast, sleep, walk, lunch, afternoon activity, dinner, relax/beer and bed. Sadly the 24 bank wasn’t fully open due to it being the birthday of Ghengis Khann the day before (so we couldn’t exchange money) but the intention was there.

We fell asleep on the bus and when we awoke we were at the Ger camp. I was sharing with Gary, Paul and Chris so we finally had a wolf pack den. After Paul had fully accustomed himself with the log fire we headed down to breakfast.

Once that was over the intention had been to sleep but the beautiful slightly snow capped location had re-energised us all and so we went for a walk. Callum and Fi went one way, Gary and Paul another. Chris walked on ahead and Sara decided to drop out leaving me and Clare to support each other. Eventually Paul and Gary caught us up and Chris came back down. Finally we made it and from our view point we could see Callum and Fi on the other mountain. A bit of Rocky was played – fast becoming the tours soundtrack and then we set up my camera to get a picture of the 5 of us and ‘the two kids’ in the background.

Coming down was faster and at times it was easier to slide. As we approached the bottom it had felt to easy and all of a sudden I was lying on my back with one leg in the air and the other causing a domino affect on poor Clare. Luckily all the layers of clothing meant I survived with nothing apart from (another) bruised ego and a bruised elbow.

Returning to the Ger we did try to get some sleep but after a while I had to use ‘the facilities’. I feel I have to mention these because they were quite central to the Ger camp experience but i would also advise the following paragraph is probably not for lunchtime reading. Basically the ‘toilet’ was a hole in the ground which was nothing unusual but the smell was particularly bad, the lock didn’t work and in the day there was little light (the electric light only worked at night). I was therefore in a hurry and didn’t realise my coat pocket was unzipped. In a sudden movement to leave I caused my mobile to drop out of the pocket and turned to see it heading for the abyss below. ‘Luckily’ it landed only half way over the hole and whilst it was gently balanced I was initially scared to breathe in case that pushed it over. The hole later tried to unsuccessfully claim FI’s glasses and Chris’s trainer in other bizarre and unlucky circumstances.

Next we went to lunch where I was particularly greedy and had the Mongolian carrot salad, Mongolian soup and Mongolian dumplings. All were delicious and the portion sizes were particularly generous. Odka said the Mongolian attitude to food is big portions and small prices. My kind of place.

After this we were told about the activities for the afternoon one of which was to visit a nomadic family. All of us except Sara also decided to go horse riding for an hour beforehand. The horses didn’t have names because they were wild but I opted to call mine Ghengis. Odka also told us the human population of Mongolia was 2.8 million and the horse population was over 4 million. 80% of the country was also not inhabited.

Apparently the horses that Gary and I had were particularly good and fast so the guide led them for most of the journey. Callum’s horse appeared to have taken a fancy to mine and they had a kiss each time they were next to each other. Sadly his horse wasn’t as quick and whilst it clearly wanted to follow and keep up with mine it eventually gave up and decided to start heading home. He tried to make it turn back but it appeared the horse had made its mind up and for a few seconds it looked like Callum might disappear over the sunset alone. Luckily after coming to a stop and looking rather sad on its own the horse turned around van rejoined us.

It was amazing to have the opportunity to travel through a country renowned for its horses on horseback and the scenes were stunning. I was surprised that the national park had quite a few buildings dotted around but we later we told these mostly belonged historic nomadic tribes that had permission from the government to live within the park.

After the horse riding we visited one of the families that live in the national park. The lady provided us with Mongolian tea various types of snacks made from cheese/curd and little biscuits. I tried it all but personally I didn’t enjoy any of the curd snacks. We had brought gifts from a local store and Clare played connect 4 with the ladies grandson (letting him win of course).

We also had the opportunity to ask some questions with Odka acting as translator. Gary asked about her thoughts on the future and the lady said she was optimistic that due to the small population money from mining the natural resources would result in more equal wealth and develop the country. Paul also asked whether she felt this would have an impact on local traditions and she agreed that the younger generation were sadly less interested in the traditional lifestyle as they moved to the cities.

By now it was getting dark and when we got back to the Ger our fire had gone out so we decided to go straight for dinner. After dinner Clare read us all one of my blogs as a bed time story and we went back to our Gers which were now warm as the fire lady had restarted the fires.

In the middle of the night the fire lady came back which made me jump and i had so many layers on I felt to hot. As a result I decided to go outside in to the snow and take some pictures of the stars and Paul who had also woken up joined me. The photos weren’t that successful but I was able to cool down and get back to sleep.

Wednesday 6th November
Next morning after breakfast we got some pictures dressed up in traditional Mongolian costumes and then boarded the bus to return to Ulaanbaatar. First though we visited a giant statue of Ghengis Khan on a horse – the largest horse statue in the world. It is hard to describe just how big the statue is but the horses head was about 3 floors off the ground and the panoramic views of the snow covered mountains from the top were spectacular.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the middle of a huge traffic jam. It appeared the Mongolian people were very friendly except it seemed when they were behind the wheel of a car. In order to keep congestion down the government had passed a law which meant drivers could only drive on certain days. Unfortunately for our driver he hadn’t realised it was Wednesday and therefore he shouldn’t have been driving. His licence was therefore taken by police and we remained stationary at the side of the road whilst he tried to resolve the situation. He must have done so in the end because after a while we were back in the traffic jam.

Eventually the traffic eased and Odka took us to a war memorial which commemorated ‘various unknown soldiers from various wars’. As we approached the final set of the 400 steps Chris put Rocky on again and me him and Paul ran. Possibly because of the cold my lungs struggled and I spent most of the time at the top coughing. From the top of the memorial we could also see the Buddhist park which was still under construction though when we’d read the leaflet we’d wrongly assumed it was already complete.

Gary was due to meet the president of the Mongolian law society because the Norwegian law society had provided sponsorship and support to their Mongolian counterparts. Odka had therefore at very short notice been able to facilitate a meeting. Unfortunately this meant they had to miss lunch. Me Callum and Fi went to a lovely vegetarian restaurant where we got a meal and a drink for under £3 each and met the others later.

After doing some other errands in town we visited the sukhbaatar square where the main government buildings were located and went back to the hotel. After finally having a shower we were back out again this time on our way to a traditional Mongolian culture show.

I found it really enjoyable to hear the traditional throat singers, to hear the traditional instruments and to see the different dancers. There was also a contortionist who was particularly amazing and her finale was holding herself up by her tongue.

After the show we met two other groups on a similar tour one of which was going to Russia. Unfortunately they probably took a dislike to us because we wished them good luck with the train attendants and we may have sounded a bit negative about our experience. Luckily after we had dinner at the hotel we saw them again and this time introduced ourselves properly. We were therefore able to provide each other with advice on what to do in Russia and Beijing respectively and how best to get around.

During our dinner we had a shot of Mongolian vodka which is meant to be nicer than Russian vodka though I wasn’t convinced and when drunk straight both tasted equally nasty. Returning to my room I reflected on the fact that stage one of my journey was almost over and by the following night I would have crossed the Chinese border. Really this is just the beginning.

The Masterplan – Lake Baikal

Saturday 2nd November
The final nights sleep on the train was pretty terrible. I’m not sure what caused this but there had been a number of changes to the timezone and i think the school kids were staying in Moscow time and staying up late as a result. it didn’t help that after 3 days of waking up at 11am or whenever we liked we now had to be up at 7am. I also think we were all relieved that it was our final morning as cabin fever was starting to set in.

Our experience with Elena had left us (me) doubting the honcho system and because I was feeling in a Karl Pilkington mood I jokingly said “I hate our Honcho already”. That all changed the moment we (I) saw Dimitrij after we’d arrived in Irkutsk and scrambled off the train. “Are you on the Vodka train?” Our hero.

Instantly things were looking up. We loaded our bags on to a bus and were on our way to Listvyanka our home for one night on Lake Baikal. We all fell asleep on the 1 hour journey but soon we were at the chalet and after 4 days we were finally able to have a proper shower (though sadly the hot water couldn’t handle the pressure).

Next we walked in to town to get some food. Dimitri knew all our needs and the order. Clean and hunger satisfied we went on a walk along the lake and to a chair lift where we got the chance to see some spectacular views of the worlds deepest lake.

We then walked back down the hill and Dimitri was able to flag down a van and agreeing a price of 10 roubles each we hitch hiked back in to town by the market. Here we were able to buy some souvenirs and some Russian street food.

We walked back to the chalet and we were finally able to connect to the outside world after 4 days. It had felt rather liberating at times but I had missed not being able to share some of my feelings with those closest to me.

6 of us had arranged to have a Russian Sauna. I vaguely remembered this from an idiot abroad and I therefore knew it would be a slightly unique experience. I’d also never been in a proper sauna before (the fitness first gyms don’t count) and every time Dimitri poured water on to the coals the heat became more intense.

Gary told us about the saunas in Norway and gave us advice on how to breathe correctly. He also told us about the championships in Norway where a Russian who won died as soon as he came out because he’d spent to long inside. This made us all laugh a little bit nervously – how long would be too long?

We were dripping and eventually after what felt an eternity 3 of us bailed to get a relaxing cup of tea. I sat with Claire and Fi and soon Callum and Chris joined us. We returned to the Sauna just in time to see Gary lying face down and Dimitri’s friend Dennis holding a birch branch in his hand. He started flogging and brushing Gary whilst dipping the branch in hot water and waving this over Gary and spraying us in the process. It didn’t look relaxing. It looked like a weird torture. Eventually it was over and after vacating the sauna a bucket of ice cold water was thrown at Gary’s back.

Soon it was my turn and I found it a lot easier to breathe with my face in to the towel. The whole experience was also lot more relaxing than I have described above. The leaves felt like they were tickling rather than thrashing, the heated water felt like a warm shower and the cold water at the end was refreshing after being baked for so long. I went outside in the middle of Siberia and stared at the stars above. I then had another cup of tea and returned to the sauna.

After we’d finished it was time for dinner. A proper Russian meal prepared by our hosts and Dimitri gave us the wonderful news breakfast wasn’t until 10am. A lie in. We all agreed that we were content and the slog of the choo choo (the word train was now banned) was a distant memory. We were however all aware within 24 hours we’d be boarding another to the Mongolian capital.

Sunday 3rd November
I didn’t sleep particularly well. Perhaps I missed the swaying of the train or it may have been because I’d seen Watford had lost to Leicester but I ended up spending an hour on Wikipedia reading about the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Soviet Union. When I then got a message from a friend to say my blog wasn’t working I did become concerned I was being monitored and that perhaps I’d written something I shouldn’t!

Eventually I must have fallen asleep because soon my alarm was going off. Why is it at night it sometimes seems so hard to get to sleep and that no position is comfortable and then in the morning such a struggle to get up and it feels like any position will do?

Anyway eventually i got up and checked the Moneycorp situation. The issue is still unresolved but at least the money is finally showing in my bank account again rather than being in limbo. We had breakfast and after a few last minute messages to friends and family we were walking down in to the village to get a 1 hour boat ride.

It may not have been the most spectacular in terms of wildlife as there were were no seals, dolphins or as Dimitri confirmed to me a loch ness monster but it was a very peaceful setting and not a cloud in the sky. We travelled along the coast and started to approach a bay. we wondered if we would reach the bay before our time was up and we had visions of it being a beautiful sandy beach. When we finally rounded the bay we discovered it was just another cliff.

Eventually we did turn back and we were back in Listvyanka. We went back to the market from the night before to get some food for a picnic. Dimitri then took us on a short coastal walk to an area we could sit down. I don’t think any of us expected to have a picnic in Siberia in autumn but it was still fairly warm. A family on the table next to us even appeared to be having a BBQ.

We walked back to the chalet and loaded our bags back on to the waiting bus and by just after 3pm we were all sleeping on our journey back to Irkutsk.

The train wasn’t until 22.20 so unlike with Elena we had plenty of time to see the town before the train. We saw a few remaining examples of the old style wooden buildings that were once common in the city before the city was destroyed by fire. Dimitri explained most of the older style buildings had been replaced during the time of the Soviet Union and that the replacements were practical but had less character.

We wondered down to the river and saw a number of statues including Tsar Alexander III responsible for commissioning the Tran Siberian Railway, Set  (the first astronaut in space) and  (the man who founded the town).

We also had plenty of time to get a drink from a coffee shop in an area of the town that had been rebuilt in the historic style, to get a proper meal before returning back to powdered food and to get rations for the train.

The bus picked us up and dropped us off at the station. Dimitri even got on to the train with us to make sure we had the correct cabins. There was no doubt that that Dimitri had nailed it. We hadn’t known what his plans were in advance but it didn’t matter we were all part of his masterplan.

The 4 berth compartments were luxurious compared to the 6 berth open compartments we had used on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk. We had: Clean windows, a rug, a table (and table cloth which Callum later  wrecked with his spilt coffee), our own bed lights, a duvet rather than a woollen blanket, a towel rack, coat pegs and a door! Even the attendant frowned slightly less and the carriage toilet contained air freshener. Luxury.

Monday 4th November
The nights sleep was probably my best since being here and by the following morning I was back in the train routine. Waking up about 11.30 I had a wash, got dressed and prepared lunch. The menu had a slight variance from the last time. Whist the dried mash potato remained a key part of the diet I couldn’t find dried soup and so this had been replaced by a cheap Russian equivalent of a pot noodle. This actually turned out to be a blessing as it was (slightly) more filling. Sadly there was no more advent calendar chocolate however i was able to find the cheap cheesy crisps before leaving.

By about 1.45pm we’d arrived at the Russia/Mongolian border. First we had to vacate the train whilst the carriage was shunted around. We stood around on the station but it was cold so we went inside. Not a lot happened except a local started trying to talk to Gary about the currency of Norway.

After about 1 hour we went outside just our carriage was shunted away but the rest of the train looked ready to go. We were standing around talking when very slowly the train started to leave “uuum guys the train is leaving” I said. “Haha yeah yeah…oh Jesus it is as well” said Chris. At which point we just all started laughing at the potentially disastrous situation we were in. I think we all knew it wasn’t really our train and seeing what we knew was our carriage standing all alone at the border just made us laugh more.

After another hour of waiting around inside we decided to stand by our carriage and by about 4pm we were finally allowed back on board. Now the customs and immigration process began. First we had to hand over our passports a couple of times one of which included staring in to the eyes of the immigration official who took an instant dislike to me because I didn’t realise she was asking me to take my glasses off. We also had to hand over our immigration and registration cards. I haven’t mentioned this process yet but basically in each new city we stayed at we had to register (and pay for the privilege) to say that’s where we were. In return we were provided with a certificate which we had to carry around with us.

I think an hour or so passed during which Gary, Fi Callum and I fell asleep and soon we were being ordered to get all our luggage down whilst every corner of the compartment was checked by a scary looking soldier. As we were now fully accustomed to the whole process wasn’t the most friendly experience. Including the stop at the station it took about 5 hours and by 6.50pm we were finally being shunted over the border to Mongolia to begin the whole process again…