Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Coming To America

The flight from Rarotonga to Los Angeles was a pretty nasty one. It didn’t leave until nearly 23:00 and then had a stop at Pape’ete in Tahiti. We had to leave the plane for an hour and sit in a, admittedly quite nice, transit lounge. Back on the plane our hopes of stretching out were scuppered by the arrival of someone in the third seat in our row. Damnit. The rest of my flight consisted of the usual uncomfortable shifting about. I discovered I could drop off if I lay down with my head in Gemma’s lap, but the circulation in my leg would be cut off and I’d be unable to feel it until I pumped my foot for about 20 minutes. I gave up.

Quite sensibly we had predicted what we’d be like after the flight. Although we’d arranged to go stay with Gemma’s cousin, we had booked into a Travellodge at LAX for our first night in the USA. We didn’t think it was fair to land on Gemma’s family all smelly and worn out and just wanting to go to bed. We rang Rachel (the aforementioned cousin) and arranged to be picked up the next day. Our first day in the USA wasn’t too exciting. We uploaded some photos to flickr, had dinner at the Denny’s restaurant attached to the hotel, channel surfed and slept.

In the morning Rachel came to pick us up and take us to her home in Yorba Linda, Orange County. We had an excellent couple of days just vegging out with the family and their lovely dog, Mitzi. We had a day out at Newport Beach, which I believe is the setting for The O.C. TV show. After a meal in a ‘50’s style diner, finished off with a pumpkin flavoured milkshake (super-nice by the way), we walked along another beach which was part of a state reserve. The beach was pretty cool, with some rock-pools full of anenomes and hermit crabs. As an added bonus we got a nice sunset thrown in. It was great to meet everyone and to have a chilled few days, as if the pacific islands hadn’t been chilled enough!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Back to Raro

Flying out of Aitutaki we caught glimpses of the lagoon and I could imagine how amazing it would look on a clear day. Arriving back in Rarotonga the weather wasn't much better there with cloud and wind. I guess it is cyclone season after all. We had booked an over-budget place in Muri as everything in our budget was booked up. We specifically chose Muri as the beach looked lovely and picturesque with a few small white sanded islands out on the lagoon. We had visions of us spending our days here snorkelling and kayaking out to them. Nature had other plans. The weather was consistently ominous with clouds hanging over, a wind blowing and occasional rain. Instead we lazed around in our lovely unit which had a view of the sea, reading on the sun bed outside when it wasn't raining and listening to local radio with local music (ukulele based) and coverage of Miss Pacific! It wasn't quite what I'd planned but I enjoyed it anyway. The unit was very homely and even had a separate living area. That is novel after living out of a van and one bedroomed places for months. I really appreciated the couch to lay on! It's sad really. When you travel it is the little things that really count, like clean clothes and settees!

The lagoon which had looked so blue and inviting didn't look so the couple of days we were there, being swirled up by the wind. However, as kayaks and snorkels were included in the price we decided to make the use of them. Annoyingly there weren't any masks and snorkels left, but we dragged a kayak into the sea. I forgot how bossy Tim is in a kayak. All my dreams of gliding, relaxingly through the calm inviting sea were dashed with every order barked and every wave that broke over the kayak drenching me in cold water. It felt like we were kayaking at home, it was so cold. I think I have said it before but snorkelling and kayaking haven't been very successful this trip. Whenever we plan to do it something gets in the way, e.g. jellyfish season, weather etc. (although we have managed to get a bit of snorkelling).

The morning we checked out of our Muri accommodation (which we had to leave as it was booked up and plus we couldn't really afford it anyway) we hired a car for a few days. It was a little red one (I know I'm such a girl) and it felt so weird to drive after having driven the van in NZ. I felt like I was driving a dodgem car; really close to the ground. It was an automatic again. I'm a bit worried that I'm going to have forgotten how to use gears!

We drove over to our new accommodation near where we were when we first arrived. It was across the road from another lovely beach. With the weather still iffy we drove round the island not caring when it rained because we had a new car/toy. So the rest of the time was spent doing this, reading, going to “our”café in town (I have a new obsession for grapefruit juice) and enticing fish with old bread. The cloud finally parted one day and in true British style I raced to the beach across the road from us, laid out in it and then went home surprised at how burnt I was. I looked ridiculous with a bow shape from my bikini on my back! That night we went in search of live music in town. We didn't find any, but had a really nice night anyway sitting at a bar overlooking the sea and 'the World', the cruise ship. Then having really nice fish and chips overlooking the harbour as we nosily watched the people disembark onto the harbour from 'the World'.

On our final day I got more of the snorkelling I had been waiting for. First we went out from the beach across the road from us. It was OK with quite a few fish but no coral really. I had read that the best place for snorkelling on the island was opposite 'Fruits of Raratonga', a shop on the South of the Island. As soon as we stuck our heads under the water we saw loads of fish (and we were only in the shallows) They were quite big ones too and were quite bold, coming up to us. We saw loads of butterfly and Angel fish and my friends the Trigger fish too. We also saw lots of other lovely colourful ones but I don't know their names. It was a satisfying snorkel and feeling elated from that we drove to Muri beach to get some in that we didn't manage to when we were there. Again it was not to be though as although the weather was lovely, a canoeing competition was being held, and we didn't fancy getting in their way. It didn't matter though, we felt happy enough with what we had done.

In the afternoon we headed out in the car again for a photography mission. Our first stop was a small botanical gardens, stopping in the garden's cafe first. I had a lemon meringue cheesecake which was gorgeous. Again, the simple things, but cheese cake and lemon meringue pie are my favourites so I was probably a bit too pleased about this combination! After a walk around the gardens we got back into our oven and trundled round again. In the end we decided to give up on the photography as it was a bit difficult to stop in some places to get photos. Instead we headed for Trader Jacks, a bar by the sea.

Our time in The Cooks has come to an end now. I have loved it here. It is so laid back and friendly, so beautiful. I have enjoyed the South Pacific a lot and would definitely come back. (Although I would go back to everywhere we have been) I feel like it has an honest charm about it.

We are currently waiting for our flight to leave. As usual we are about 7 hours too early! I have had my wish granted though and finally got that garland that has been eluding us. Tim and I were the only ones sitting in the small airport, other than a little girl who put her garlands around our neck. I think they look better than they feel though as they are very strong smelling and sticky round your neck. Tim pointed out all the insects crawling round it too and I decided that maybe I didn't want a garland after all.

Aitutaki Lagoon

The plane to Aitutaki was a tiny one and we boarded it feeling quite excited by our excursion. The flight was only a 40 minute one and we were looking forward to looking out at the end of it over the apparently beautiful lagoon which is what draws most visitors to Aitataki. Unfortunately, all we could see out of the plane was thick cloud and we groaned as the pilot announced heavy rain. Never mind, we still felt excited about being there. We were greeted off the plane with a man with lots of umbrellas and a bus to take us to the airport. As soon as we were on the bus we were at arrivals. They were obviously very scared about anyone getting wet. The bus took us round the back so we missed the welcome to Aitutaki entrance with someone handing out garlands. We have yet to receive a garland despite seeing lots of people wearing them. We are trying not to sulk about it. The obligatory ukelele player was singing his welcomes and despite the torrential rain everyone around me seemed in good spirits.

Our accommodation was a thatched hut overhanging a white sandy beach with (of course) clear blue sea. In a break in the rain we made a dash down the road to find somewhere to eat. We didn’t find anywhere and the rain caught us out. We slunk back to Puffy’s, an empty, open sided restaurant next to our accommodation and sat looking like sorry, soggy and lonely individuals munching on our fish and chips with the rain lashing around us outside. We hoped the rain would abate for the next day.

Our hopes weren’t granted and the next day the wind and rain continued. We got taken around the island on an “island tour”which took about half an hour. The island is smaller than Rarotonga. There are no dogs on the island and I asked the lady why. She looked to the heavens and gave a small smile and said everyone asks that. (That’s because in the accommodation in the information it says, “ask someone why there are no dogs on Aaitutaki!” I expected her to relay a magical story related to her ancestors, but she merely said “because they are dangerous. They bite people.” Feeling conned with this explanation we continued with our tour, on the way back stocking up at the “supermarket” which is like a corner shop at home.

The next day the weather had improved very slightly so we hired the moped which was free for a day with our package. The girl showed me how it worked and watched unsure as I wobbled, stop, starting around the lawn. With her back turned as she returned to her desk I jetted around like a pro. Honest. I told Tim I was ready and he clambered on the back looking slightly nervous. As I wobbled off down the road he ordered me to stop, let him off and come back to get him when I could ride it! I could ride it when he wasn’t on it. It’s a bit difficult when there’s a heavy weight on the back.

With the hang of it, I collected Tim and we sailed off down the road....with old and young locals whizzing past us on their mopeds. We had a great day pootling round the island, waving at locals and admiring the scenery. The island has a very long airstrip with a road running parallel to it. It was quite windy when we travelled down this seemingly never ending straight road. I was concentrating on not being blown off the bike and trying to breathe through the wind whilst Tim was no doubt clinging on for dear life when he suddenly shouted, “this is just like in Top Gun!” (You know the bit where TomCruise is riding his motorbike at full speed next to the runway with his love interest hanging on the back) Oh yeah, it was uncanny, except I was Tom Cruise and Tim was love interest!

After our day of Top Gun action we went to a local bar, The Crusher bar. When I say local it was local. Approaching it we could see it wasn’t very busy but the people that were there, of which there was about 7 or 8 were all seated around one table. As we walked in their heads whipped round to see who these strangers were. The barman shook our hand before he served us and then invited us to join the table. I felt so uncomfortable at first. Imagine the scene. 7 or 8 people all seated around who know each other well, bandying jokes and conversation about... and 2 people who obviously know nobody, grinning away like idiots whilst occasionally shifting uncomfortably in their seats and talking to each other furtively about anything they can so as not to look too uncomfortable. It felt a bit like walking into a small villages pub at home where everyone knew each other and everyone else that wasn’t there. It turned out to be a nice evening though and we were made to feel welcome. A few of them were ex pats from New Zealand or Australia but had been there for years. Tim recognised the man sitting next to me. It was Don Silk. We had read an article about him in the plane on the way over to Aitutaki. He is something of a local character and had just written a book. He was a really lovely bloke with interesting stories including one about how he and his mate bought a brothel. The two managers were there who had just taken it over and one of them was explaining how he wants it to be a local bar for local people. I felt a bit paranoid at this point, but I don’t think he was hinting that we weren’t welcome. At least I don’t think he was. We left the bar promising to return the next evening for a night which the manager promised is the most happening night where everyone lets go. Apparently Fridays is the beginning of a long weekend for most islanders and we were told that alcohol is their way of letting go. We were told repeatedly that that was the island way. I kept thinking that’s the way of a lot of the world.

The next day we went on a lagoon cruise. As I said earlier, the lagoon of Aitutaki is the main reason most people visit. It is reputedly one of the best in the world. The weather still looked ominous with cloud hanging over and wind, but the lagoon was really beautiful with amazingly blue, clear sea. We sailed out on to it and after awhile stopped at a reef for snorkelling. I know I keep saying it and it is probably getting a little boring hearing it but the water was so clear!. The coral wasn’t great, but we saw lots of lovely fish, including trigger fish which I love. They are really bright and pretty and have comical faces.

After the snorkelling we headed to One foot island where we spent a relaxing few hours. Our guide explained the traditional roots of the name, but I won’t go into it here. The island was stunning. After a lovely lunch of B.BQ fish we walked out into the sea on the massive sand bar. It looked like people were walking on water. The water was so clear and all around, the sandbar stretched into different shades of blue sea. We had our passport stamped at the “post office” after which we headed to another lovely island for a short while.

A lovely day was rounded off nicely with an Island night. Again, this was included in our package. Island nights are regular occurrences in the Cooks and attended by locals and tourists alike. We joined another English couple and an Austrian couple and helped ourselves to the generous buffet which had been prepared. We couldn’t identify most things. I had quite a lot of salad that night. There was something which looked like raw liver which was in fact banana pudding so I decided to try that. Everyone looked at me expectantly as I tentatively tried some. It was OK, quite rubbery but it did taste of bananas.

After the meal, drumming started. I am a sucker for drumming and this was great. It was really intoxicating. They played for a while before the dancers came out, complete with traditional robes. The girls costume consisted of coconut bras, grass skirts and flower garlands. The men wore grass skirts, and leg warmer things. The dancing was great too, moving to the drums and the uplifting singing. There were really young dancers too who seemed to love it and it was great to see that that was the case. Before they had come on they could not be set apart from much of the world’s youth really in adidas joggers etc. Apparently adults are happy that the tradition is kept alive still and I could see why.

I get the feeling that people in the South Pacific like a bit of cross dressing. (Remember Fiji) as some men came out dressed as women and did the female dance to much laughter. Tim was happy because he got a kiss of off one of them!

We were the last to leave the island night and Tim and I suggested to our group that we head to Crushers. They agreed and we headed off down the road past the goats and drunk drivers (it’s not illegal there!) We arrived to lots of vehicles outside so it looked like the banging night we’d been assured was happening. However, on walking in we were confused as to who all the vehicles belonged to as the bar wasn’t busy at all. The D.J was in one corner and a few people were squashed up against the bar, but that was it. We saw our new friends from the night before who looked quite happy to see us and with friends too! We all started to dance to the bad music which was quite painful, but eventually more people joined us. I think the locals were bemused by all our dancing as we looked like we were bad dancers at a wedding. We were equally bemused with them too as some of them looked like they thought they were gangsters. We couldn’t believe it when the bar and D.J shut up at midnight on the dot. It had only got going at about 11 pm. Everyone was very obedient at leaving straight away too (except us lot who sat on a bench outside so we could finish our drinks).

All in all we enjoyed Aitutaki and were glad we went. It is a very beautiful place. It was a shame about the weather, but you can’t control that. We enjoyed ourselves with some help from some local characters.

Back to the Future

We arrived in The Cook Islands before we left Fiji. No we hadn't met Michael J Fox or his wild eyed inventor friend who had built us a time travelling car: We had crossed the date line. Bizarrely, even though the flight was only a 3 hour one we were now 22 hours behind Fiji. Entering the airport we were greeted with more ukulele playing and singing and people milling around waiting for family and friends wearing garlands and flower head dresses. It is just so South Pacific in the South Pacific!

We were met by the owner of Raratonga backpackers along with a few others and were all crammed into a van and taken to our accommodation. This was set back from the beach up a hill overlooking lots of tropical trees with a view of the sea in the distance.

We spent a few days here, using it as a base from which to explore Rarotonga, the principle island of The Cook Islands. Cook Islanders are Polynesians, a Maori people related to the New Zealand Maori and the Maohi of the Society islands in French Polynesia. The Cook Islands have strong links with New Zealand and so there is a Western veneer to The Cooks. The indigenous people's language is Cook Islands Maori. However, most people speak English (as a second language) Despite western elements, South pacific culture is evident in the attitude, clothes and floral head dresses etc that are worn. “Raro” as the locals call Rarotonga is only 34km circumference and we circumnavigated the island by accident when we used the bus service to go into town the first day. We went in using the clockwise bus and returning “home” we caught the clockwise bus again meaning we went round the island in about half an hour. I love the fact that they only have 2 bus routes. Clockwise and anti-clockwise. I think bus drivers must go the same international school of bus drivers though. Ours seemed a bit grumpy and got more and more indignant when people failed to ring the bell to request their stop. He had a poor little old American lady and 2 school children looking quite scared when he glared at them as they got off at each of their stops and he barked, “ring the bell. You have to ring the bell if you want to stop, then I know when you want to get off” We made sure we rang that bell when it was our turn to get off. We escaped his wrath.

The island is lovely, circled by a turquoise lagoon. One day we walked up a track through some of the dense forest which covers the mountains which rise up from the centre of Raro for a vantage point over it and were awarded with a stunning view over the small town nestled between the and out to sea over the lagoon. The rest of the time was spent reading and relaxing which seems to be a pattern since we've been in the Pacific. It is such a laid back way of life here that it can't be helped! Everything runs on Island time; laid back. When in Rome and all that! We ventured to the “police station” one day which was a big portacabin, to get my Cook Islands drivers license. This consisted of handing over $10 and getting my photo taken. I returned 20 minutes later to find my License ready with my name Gemma C LoMgman printed on it. I pointed out that my name is Gemma C LoNgman, but he just shrugged and said it doesn't matter so I walked off with my new name and realised that it enables me to drive a moped as well as a car. This would mean that I wouldn't have to take the Scooter test if I wanted to hire one. Apparently the test is really easy though. First you have to ride your hired moped to the police station! Then you have the test which consists of riding down the road turning and coming back. One bloke said he saw him write pass before he'd even gone anywhere!

We had only booked into our hostel for 4 nights and on our extensive travels round the island had found Muri beach where we hoped to move to. We caught the bus to Muri which has quite a lot of accommodation. Walking a long the beach we hoped even more to move there as it was beautiful with a few little islands dotted out on the turquoise lagoon. However, it wasn't to be. We trudged round and everything was full or too expensive. Dejected we headed back to our hostel and decided to try a last option (which was closed when we tried it) in the morning.

In the morning our last option was full too so we decided to leave Raratonga all together and go to Aitutaki, the next principal island of the Cooks. We had looked at options of going there the day before and it seemed the best way to do it was on a package with accommodation and flights included. We headed into town and by 1.30 were on a bus (with a bus driver who was much more cheerful) headed for the airport.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bye Bye Pacific

Checking out of Beachcomber we walked across the road to Island Car Rentals and hired a car for our three remaining days on Rarotonga. The car was a super cute little Nissan March, although it was a little bit rattly. I think being so low to the ground after the van we had in New Zealand threw Gemma a bit. We went up to the airport to get our tickets revalidated for our journey to the USA. They tried to charge us for the revalidation again but we moaned so much that she waived the fee. Indignant about it, I went in to town and resent my complaint to Air New Zealand.

We’d managed to book another place, Puiakura Reef Lodges, for our remaining time, again via Although cheaper and a little bit shabbier than Beachcomber the room was nice enough with a separate bedroom and living/kitchen areas.

We charged around the South of the island in the car for some of the morning and early afternoon. The tide was wrong for snorkelling so we had a walk on the beach, taking along a couple of blocks of fish food that we’d picked up earlier on. The lagoon in front of Puiakura Reef Lodges is probably about midway to the width that it gets to on the island. We waded out into the beautifully clear water, chucking our fish food blocks in. We did manage to entice a couple of fish in to eat the food, but not many. Two dogs jumped in next to us and swam across the water to where they could stand up on the reef then proceeded to chase the fish that they saw darting around. I could have watched them for hours.

We were suddenly awoken at 01:00 by the arrival of a new group of people to the hotel. They continued loudly talking and laughing for at least another hour, with no consideration that anyone else might be staying there and wanting to sleep. Why is it that whenever there is a group of more than three women together they turn into cackling harpies? I lost my rag and yelled, ‘Shut up!’ at the top of my voice. I don’t know whether they heard or not but about a minute later they all filed off to their rooms. That screwed my sleep up for the rest of the night. I sat stewing about it and contemplated going to the car and blasting the horn at 05:00 but realised that would be petty of me.

When I finally dragged my sorry tired self out of bed we hopped in the car and set off anti-clockwise. Gemma had read about Whigmore’s waterfall, supposedly a beautiful spot. Maybe once upon a time but the falls didn’t appear to be running when we arrived. Instead there was a stagnant pool and some slime covered rocks. I think that the island may use the waterfall as a water source now, which could explain the lack of falling water. The non-falling falls are up a road that sits next to an abandoned Sheraton resort complex. I read somewhere that the deal fell through part-way through building the complex leaving the Cook Islands government in quite serious debt. We stopped in town for a coffee and to sort one or two things out, before returning to Kavera.

The tide was on it’s way out when we got to the beach. We’d brought some bread and stood in the shallows breaking off chunks and throwing them out into the water. This time we attracted many more fish and were able to persuade them to come quite close. The triggerfish in particular were bold in their pursuit of a meal. Unfortunately, as the sun came out, I began feeling a little ill, so I left Gemma to the beach whilst I had a lie down.

I felt refreshed after my little nap and so in the evening we drove into town. Gemma had read in the guidebook that several bars have live music on. We couldn’t really find evidence of any hip and happening nightlife. We had a couple of beers at Trader Jacks and fish and chips from the shop at the harbour. Whilst eating we watched a tender plying passengers back and forth from The World, the large cruise ship anchored just off Avarua.

In the morning we awoke to the blue skies and sun that we’d been longing for. Our first stop was the beach across the road from our accommodation for some snorkelling in the lagoon. We found a spot with a wide cut-out in the limestone. We did see a few fish, but nothing spectacular. We decided to hop in the car and make for one of the snorkelling spots marked on our map. A small café, Fruits of Rarotonga, sits opposite the beach. We were only about ankle deep before we noticed a wealth of fish. The spot was excellent. The coral wasn’t great, there were patches on the limestone reef, but the sheer number of fish was amazing. We had a very nice time drifting through the channels in the limestone and following the schools of fish.

After lunch we took advantage of the continuing good weather and had a drive round the island. There is a small botanic gardens with an attached café. We stopped for a drink, although somehow Gemma’s desire for a drink mutated into a desire for a cake when she saw the menu. All full of cake and coffee respectively we took a walk through the gardens, snapping photos of the flowers. I love the flowers of the tropics, Hibiscus and Frangipani especially.

Muri beach, where we’d stayed earlier and had bad weather, was packed. A set of outrigger canoe races was happening and a lot of people had turned out to compete, to watch and to generally soak up the sun. We continued round the island and stopped at Trader Jacks in town for a beer.

In the morning we checked out, took the car back and settled in town for a fun packed day of waiting for our 22:20 flight. Urgh.

Monday, November 20, 2006


Back on Rarotonga we made our way from the airport and checked into the Muri Beachcomber resort. On Aututaki we’d made some phone calls about budget accommodation but found that it was all booked up. My hunch is that a lot of backpackers that have been in Australia and New Zealand are heading home for Christmas with a break in the South Pacific along the way. Instead we used possibly the worlds most expensive Internet café (40 cents per minute!) to book Beachcomber on the site. The resort was a little more expensive than we’d like to have paid, and busy too, we could only book for two days. The unit was lovely though, and well worth the money. Kayaks and snorkelling gear were complimentary but we didn’t get to use them on the first day as the weather wasn’t great and we had chores to do. In the evening we lounged around in the lounge listening to Cook Islands radio. The station was so naff as to be really charming. They even broadcast the Miss South Pacific competition, bikini round and all. It’s a bit hard to do a beauty competition via the radio. Miss Cook Islands won it.

In the morning despite the very dark clouds looming all around us we went to get snorkelling gear from the office. Whilst they had what seemed like hundreds of pairs of fins they didn’t have a single mask and snorkel that wasn’t smashed. We asked for them to keep an eye on anyone bringing them back at check-out and to drop them in our room. At that point the tide looked a little high for snorkelling so we took out a double kayak. We didn’t stay out too long as it was a bit windy and choppy, even in the lagoon. We ate lunch at the posh Pacific resort which was next door to us to the strains of the ever present ukelele. The rest of the day was spent with our heads in our books, occasionally outside, but inside when it began to rain. Muri beach is a lovely place, but the weather just wasn’t smiling on us whilst we were there.


We awoke to a grey day, or rather I just got out of bed, having been up staring at the walls all night. I’d just read a rather academic book which had gotten my mind going, exactly the wrong thing for bed-time. We were up earlier than usual to get our things together and check out, although at that point we didn’t have anywhere to move on to. We tried ringing the backpackers on Muri beach, but they only had an expensive unit left, not so much of a problem, but we thought that we would try something else. Our fact finding mission of the previous day had been finding out how much we could get out to the other islands of the Cook Islands for. Air fares on Air Rarotonga are quite expensive, and it works out cheaper to buy a package of flight and accommodation. We gave the travel agent a ring and asked if we could go that day. Thankfully the answer was yes, so we jumped on a bus into town to sort it out. Not long afterwards we were holding some vouchers for flights to Aitutaki, the second most visited of the Cook Islands, as well as accommodation at Paradise Cove. The deal was really quite good, especially compared against the rack rates of the hotel and flights, although slightly over our rough budget.

The flight was a short 45 minute hop across the ocean, although I couldn’t see it because of cloud. As we began descent at Aitutaki the cloud got darker and the pilot announced the dreaded words, ‘Heavy Rain.’ He wasn’t lying. Just running from the plane to the minibus managed to soak us. Gemma got a look of utter dread on her face and started mumbling incoherently. I could pick the odd word and phrase out of the stream, ‘...bloody...rain...better not be like this...snorkelling...’ A short ride from the airport and we were checked in to our rather cute beach-front bungalow. From the balcony with a coconut tree growing through the middle we could see that the lagoon looked lovely despite the downpour and grey skies. ‘If it is this blue now,’ I thought, ‘imagine what it will be like in the sunshine.’

During a break in the rain we foolishly tried to walk down the road to a café,which according to the map looked just round the corner. It wasn’t just round the corner and of course the heavens opened even further giving us a proper soaking. We turned and trudged back down the road, getting wetter by the second and went to the fish & chip place, Puffy’s, next door to our accommodation. Fish & chips and a beer were extremely satisfying.

The rain continued throughout the night. Occasionally it would lessen, almost to nothing, only to become a furious torrent again. It finally sputtered out at about 05:00 to be replaced by a wind which whipped the coconut fronds back and forward. Breakfast was a tray of tropical fruit slices, shaved coconut and toast and jam. I had to race a mynah bird to the tray on the doorstep. After breakfast we waited at reception for our round the island tour, including in our package. This consisted of an hour and a half slow drive around the island, with various spots of interest pointed out. Aitutaki is where ‘Survivor: Cook Islands’, yet another dumb ‘reality’ show, was filmed. We caught an episode of it in New Zealand, drawn by Cook Islands in the title. Like most programmes of it’s genre it was hideous. Our guide pointed out the motu (small islands on the reef) that were used by the programme. By this point breaks in the cloud had appeared and we were able to see the beautiful turquoise colours of the lagoon. In town we stopped at the ‘superstore’, which was the equivalent in size and range of products as a small corner shop in the UK. On arriving back at Paradise Cove little spits of rain were beginning again.

After lunch we had a short walk down the beach, before rain stopped play again. We didn’t get too far because I kept wading into the water to look at things. Right up to the waters edge were a phenomenal number of sea cucumbers laying on the sand. Schooling fish kept right to the shallows, sometimes leaping from the water when spooked by something. About a metre into the water were isolated corals, I could walk right up to them and still only be shin deep. Around these congregated several small colourful fish, as well as a couple of larger butterflyfish. Visibility was excellent, apart from the wind blowing the surface water about.

Our package came with a days free hire of a moped, so the next morning we grabbed one. Gemma had sorted out a Cook Islands drivers license a few days earlier in Rarotonga, so she was fully legal to ride it, despite them spelling her surname LOMGMAN. It was a little bit shaky to begin with while Gemma got used to it and I clung on for dear life. In a short time though, we were motoring along happily, criss crossing the island and roaming across all of it’s roads. The weather was mostly kind to us, a little bit of cloud, which was appreciated as it held the sun in check, and then a bit of a shower in the late afternoon. We’d had quite a full day exploring so were ready to hand the bike back by that point.

Our dinner consisted of half a coconut cake each because we weren’t too hungry after a big lunch. We’d noticed a bar near to our accommodation, called Crusher Bar. The Lonely Planet said it was a good spot so we thought we’d wander down for a drink. It seems that the bar has undergone two changes of ownership since the glowing review in our guidebook. One had run the bar into the ground until it was taken over two weeks prior to our visit by the current owners who had plans to get it back on its feet as a raging local hangout. It wasn’t exactly raging when we turned up. The owners were sitting round a table with some mates and invited us to join them. Since we were the only other people in the bar it would have been rude not to. At first it was a little bit uncomfortable and I’m sure, had the bar had any doors, that they would have been swinging in the wind when we first turned up (a la western saloons). One of the aforementioned mates of the owners was a Cook Islands legend, Don Silk. Along with his business partner he was sailing to Canada from New Zealand, but missed and ended up in the Cook Islands. He has been there since the 1950’s. He regaled us with tales from his life, and chatted to us for a while being specially amused that I had read about him in the tourist newspaper. He has a biography out, Kauri Trees to Shining Seas, which we didn’t buy and instantly regretted.

We continued chatting with everyone and having a few beers, promising to tell everyone we knew that Crusher Bar is a really nice place where you can have a good old yarn and a drink with the locals. So there you go, I’ve said it now.

We were up early and at reception waiting to be picked up for a lagoon cruise with Bishops Cruises. We needn’t have bothered being early as Bishops work on island time like most other people in the Cooks. The weather was a little cloudy and windy, but happily devoid of rain. The cruise was lovely. Auitutaki is famous for it’s huge triangular lagoon dotted with motu. The blue sea rushed past as we cruised through the lagoon to our first stop, a set of coral heads where we could get some snorkelling done. Although the wind was causing some choppiness and a fairly strong current was running the snorkelling was excellent. The coral wasn’t brilliant, but it managed to support a large array of fish both small and large as well as housing a couple of giant clams. Jumping off the platform at the back of the boat I found myself right in the middle of a large school of butterflyfish. Gemma didn’t have her customary mask problems so we were able to get right on with swimming past the coral heads and letting the current push us back on the other side.

Back on the boat we made for our lunch stop, Tapuaetai or One Footprint Island (or One Foot Island). While the crew got lunch together Gemma and I walked round the tiny island, marvelling at the colour of the lagoon. Lunch was great, salads and fish barbecue, I couldn’t resist seconds. The island is in the middle of a pattern of sandbars and so it is possible to walk way out into the lagoon and still only be ankle deep. So that is what we did before returning to get a One Footprint Island stamp in our passports (cheesy, I know) and send some postcards to get the special postmark (which I suspect is the same stamp as in the passports.)

At our final stop, Aikaiami island, the captain pointed out the islands used in the filming of Survivor: Cook Islands. The island we were on was used to house the contestants that had been voted out of the show. Since they got free accommodation, food and unlimited activities it wasn’t a bad deal at all. We didn’t have very long on the island so Gemma and I just sat on a bench and played with a hermit crab.

The package we were on also included an ‘island night’. Island nights are big in the Cook Islands and many of the resorts and restaurants have one on during the week. The nights are a big buffet dinner followed by traditional music and dancing. You may think it is strictly for the tourists but that isn’t the case. The nights are popular with the locals as a way to keep their culture alive. So music and dancing have survived the changes imposed by the missionaries whereas some traditions have been lost. Like eating your defeated enemies. Not something I would have particularly wanted to see. We went along to Puffy’s next door to us along with an English and an Austrian couple also staying at Paradise Cove. There was masses of food, some of which was unidentifiable. There was a banana pudding which looked like chunks of raw liver. Needless to say I didn’t try that one. What I did eat was excellent. After the meal drumming started up that was almost samba-like and the dancers came out. All ages were represented, with some of the younger ones looking like they were being forced to do it against their wishes. Most seemed to be enjoying it though. I can only think that in times gone by, and maybe even now, the dances must have had some kind of sexual partner picking function. It surprised me that the missionaries didn’t ban the ladies from dancing, the sinuous and sensual twisting of the hips being positively erotic. It wasn’t so nice when a group of the men came out dressed as girls and dancing the ladies dance to much hilarity. If my eyes had been popping out on stalks at the girls, they went firmly back in their sockets when they came on. I did get a kiss from one of them when he danced up to me though! A selection of locals and tourists were grabbed by the dancers, including the Austrian girl we were sitting with, for the final dance. The tourists gave a good effort, but were no match for the locals.

The night before the guys at Crusher Bar had told us that Friday night was the jumping local party night, with a DJ and really kicking off at 10:30. Shortly after that time the six of us walked up to the bar, noticing with approval the amount of cars and mopeds parked outside. The DJ was indeed playing, although very much in the R&B style, and most people in the bar were hanging about in clusters looking moody. Given the amount of vehicles outside and the lack of people inside, each person must have driven three vehicles to get there. We got beers and stood in a circle. The Austrians and the English couple began jigging although I couldn’t really motivate myself to do more than sup at my lager. The jigging worked some magic however, and soon the dancefloor was full of twisting and turning locals. About a minute before midnight the DJ made an incomprehensible announcement and then promptly on the stroke of midnight turned everything off and packed up. The shutters on the bar went down at that precise moment. I gather licensing laws on the island are very strict. The Austrians were stunned, they couldn’t believe that the locals once a week party lasts for, basically, an hour.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kia Orana

Our flight from Nadi to Rarotonga was late afternoon, but because we crossed the date line we arrived on the evening before we left. This threw us slightly. At Nadi airport I thought for a moment we were going to be charged again for revalidating our tickets, but then the woman said we didn’t need to and just directed us to check-in. Air New Zealand still haven’t answered my complaint e-mail about the way we were dealt with in Auckland. The Lonely Planet mentioned a departure tax which confused us because, despite signs up in Nadi airport we couldn’t find where to pay it. It seems they include it with the ticket now, which seems much more sensible (take note New Zealand).

The pacific islands like to welcome you to their airports, this time a single bloke playing a guitar and singing as we queued for immigration. Our immigration officer must have not done his dourness training yet as he seemed reasonably jolly, although he did purse his lips a bit when he saw the original date on our onward ticket. I explained that we’d had them changed and they needed to be revalidated. He didn’t look convinced but stamped our passports and waved us through anyhow. After baggage collection and customs, where Gemma had to show some plant based souvenirs that she’d bought to an officer, we found the desk of Rarotonga Backpackers. We’d pre-arranged our accommodation by e-mail and joined a gang of others. There were quite a few of us and only a small minibus such that we ended up rammed in, with people sitting on each others knees and with their legs over the luggage. Thankfully the road that circles Rarotonga is only 34km around so we knew that it wouldn’t take too long to reach our destination. The hostel has two locations, one on the beach and another nearby on the hillside. We were booked into a bungalow at the hillside. They are pretty laidback in these parts, so just showed us to our room and told us to sort out the checking in formalities the next day.

Despite the cock-a-doodle-do’s starting up early in the morning I still didn’t drag myself out of bed until gone 10:00. The check in formalities were dispatched quickly and we set off to have a quick look at the surrounding area. Just down the hill and over the road is the beach and the thin strip of shallow lagoon protected by the reef which runs right around the island. We hopped on a bus into town. The bus service couldn’t be any less confusing, two services, clockwise and anti-clockwise with a single price for a journey. No route numbers, fare stages or changing buses.

We browsed the market which was being packed up. Cursing our tardiness we sat down for a nice lunch at a seafood place called Trader Jack’s. After lunch we made a mad dash to the supermarket and bottle shop. We’d been told the supermarket closed early on Saturdays and wasn’t open on Sundays. No alcohol is sold on Sundays either, so we had to make sure we were prepared! We were kind of blown away by the prices in the supermarket (2 litres of milk -$7.20), but reminded ourselves that we were on an isolated island where everything has to be shipped in. We spent the rest of the day just reading on our balcony and looking at the elusive thin wedge of blue ocean horizon that we could just about see through the coconut and papaya trees.

In the morning we hiked up the Raemaru track, or halfway at least. The track is hewn roughly into the bush up the hill and was fairly hard going at the start. There were some gorgeous views out over the island, the contrast between the deep blue of the open ocean and the lighter turquoise of the lagoon being particularly striking. Following a fairly distinct pattern, the rest of the day was spent reading on the balcony. There is a certain laziness that seems to pervade the pacific islands and we succumbed to it rather easily.

People partying by the pool into the early hours kept me awake and I had to resort to earplugs to finally get some sleep. That notwithstanding, we were up and out quite early the next morning and into town on a fact finding mission. In the afternoon we made our way over to the beautiful Muri beach for a bit of a look. Because we knew our check out from Rarotonga Backpackers was imminent we were looking to book somewhere to stay over there. A trudge around places was unsuccessful, they were either full, too expensive, or in the case of the backpackers over there had closed offices. We gave up and returned not having sorted anything out.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Bula Time

It took us a while to decide where to go after our time at the Westin. 300 islands make up Fiji so we wanted to at least see one of those. A cruise looked the best option to do this, but the ones we looked at were too expensive. In the end we swallowed our pride and bought one of the packages offered by Awesome Adventures to the group of islands, near to mainland. The Yasawas and the Mananucas.

The fact that it was called Awesome Adventures and that it was aimed at backpackers made us shudder and we had visions of “wacky” non stop party backpackers. In the end we were glad we chose it. Our worst fears were not confirmed and we had a lovely time. We opted for the “lazy threesome” where you go to three islands. It is pot luck which ones you are assigned to, but we were happy with ours.

The first one was Tavewa which is at the top of the Yasawa islands and so a four hour boat ride, after which we travelled back down staying at 2 more islands. The journey was gorgeous, travelling past island after island ringed with white sand and palm trees, gorgeous blue sea. Views you see in brochures, but this time reality actually lived up to the brochure pictures.

All the islands we stayed on had different characters. I think the staff at the first, Coral View, made that one. They were so genuinely affectionate and made us feel so welcome. Even though we were only there for 2 days we felt that they were genuinely sad to see us go and we had big hugs from some of them. At each island we were welcomed with the Bula song; serenaded off the beach as we arrived. We were sung a farewell song as well. At Coral View we made friends with a couple, Elaine and Dave. Elaine was quite emotional when they sung it with such feeling. This of course set me off!

The atmosphere at Coral View was lovely too. We couldn't help getting into the spirit of the island and I blame this for the fact that we ended up cross dressing! Every night they had an activity and this one advertised itself as “make your fun dream come true tonight in Fiji!”. Tim had already made his fun dream come true back home, but he still participated wearing my clothes and I wore his! Look out for those pictures and there will probably be a video circulating the net at some point! Everyone put in the effort. We had to dance down a catwalk and be asked questions at the end of it. I'd never make a stand-up comedian but I think our dancing made up for that!

The island was beautiful and I couldn't get over how many different shades of blue the water was. The only thing was it was quite windy and so not ideal for snorkelling. It didn't matter though. We spent a lot of time wiling away the hours in a hammock. We also visited a traditional village. It was a bit uncomfortable at times. We went into the Chief's bure and sat around in a circle waiting for him. When he arrived we shook his hand and were invited to ask questions starting at the beginning of the circle so you knew that soon your time would be. When I've worked doing group work this is called the creeping death and is advised against as it makes everyone feel nervous. You could see the beads of sweat forming on everyones head as they furtively tried to think of a question before it was their turn. I asked something about the artwork in his bure and he made me repeat the question about 4 times!

After an emotional farewell to Elaine and Dave (we were meeting up with them the next day on the next island but maybe the farewell song had got to us a bit too much) we travelled to Naviti island. Again we were welcomed with the Bula song. The accommodation here was a bit more upmarket with a verandah on our hut and ensuite as opposed to outdoor salt water showers on the previous island (which was quite nice though as you could watch the sea as you showered). We watched a lovely sunset from the hammock on the first night.

The staff here didn't have the same spark as Coral View but they were still lovely (until they made us get up and dance to the Bula song and made us dance a silly one with random people!)

The resort offered snorkelling with Manta Rays which Tim and I fancied. In the boat we saw a fairly big bird hovering over the sea and the crew shouted, “there they are”.(The birds go after the fish which the Manta Rays are chasing) We looked to where they were pointing and saw a few dark manta ray shapes in the sea and hurried to get our snorkelling gear on. I plopped in the water as graceful as ever (not) which caused my mask to shift and water get in. The next few minutes saw me spluttering and thrashing around in the water trying to sort my mask out. I was feeling more and more manic and frustrated because the crew were shouting to tell us where the Rays were, “over there, swim there. Quick quick. No swim the other way. No no. Get out of the current.” I felt like going back to the boat and turfing them in. As I thrashed around I heard a big splash. I felt a bit jumpy at this point as I was stressing about my situation and I didn't feel in control. I looked around and saw that the bird we saw earlier had dived right in front of me which was quite cool. All I succeeded in doing was swallowing loads of sea water. I hadn't even got my head under when the crew shouted to come back to the boat. It was so frustrating especially when everyone said they saw some. I fixed my snorkel and the next time we went in I calmed my mind down and decided to be calm when they were shouting and not panic. I managed to jump in gently and my mask stayed on. The visibility wasn't great and the sea wasn't the calmest, but I saw one big manta ray underneath me which was lovely. However, it looked like it was coming for me and although I knew they don't hurt I didn't want it too close. I like to keep my distance from sea life which is why I don't want to learn to dive. I popped my head up. When I went back down though it had gone and I didn't see anymore. I struggled against the current to get to the people in time who were with some other rays. Back on the boat and everyone was swapping stories of how 5 or 6 were doing dance formations round them and I sat and smiled through gritted teeth. It felt reminiscent of Borneo when everyone saw a turtle except us. At least Tim got to see lots of rays though. I did see loads from the boat though and that was very good, especially when an absolutely massive one went past. Tim told me he had heard me when I asked him for help but he chose the mantas! Can't blame him really. Thrashing, spluttering me or beautiful, graceful creatures of the sea. Hmm I know which I'd chose!

That evening after the arrival of Dave and Elaine, catching up on the 24 hours we'd been apart and after more silly dancing, we were invited to drink Kava by one of blokes who worked there with the locals. Elaine declined as she was really tired but Tim, Dave and I trudged off feeling slightly edgy as it all felt slightly shady. We felt we had to do it though. Kava is drunk every night by Fijian people. It is the crushed up root of a plant which looks a bit like ginger. We arrived at a thatched bure where lots of locals were all seated around a bowl with something which resembled thin cement slurry. ummmm, cement slurry. A man dished up the Kava in a small bowl to each of us in turn and everyone clapped rhythmically and randomly and said “bula” (this word is used for many things) In turn we downed the foul looking liquid. People had said it was really awful, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. It was quite hot and gritty, but didn't taste so bad. After I downed it I followed suit to everyone else and said, “Bula Bula”. Not sure why, but hey! I'm sure I just said “hello, hello” I looked around as I waited for some effect. I wanted to laugh at Dave and Tim as they looked like rabbits caught in headlights. Their eyes were looking quite big and round, or it could have been the effect of the dim lighting. A lot of people were just sitting slumped. I think they'd had quite a lot. It was quite quiet until Dave brought out his magic tricks, something which we saw frequently in the few days we were with him and which was great for breaking cross cultural barriers. The kava group were impressed. After this Tim and Dave had more Kava (I declined) and I took lots of photos of people on their request which I have to send to them.

We left the bure and I felt quite wired. It's supposed to be narcotic and therefore you should be able to sleep well. Apparently Dave did, but me and Tim struggled!

The following day we all headed to Honeymoon beach, a short walk up a hill, through forest and a small settlement later we were at a beautiful secluded white sandy beach. I immediately jumped into the clear blue inviting water after which we walked up the beach and were fascinated to see hundreds of hermit crabs all marching in the same direction away from the sea. We heard them before we saw them, clicking away.

Back at Korovou and after lunch we said goodbye to Elaine and Dave, this time for longer than 24 hours as we leave for the Cook Islands and they go to the New York. We boarded the boat for our final destination on that trip, Bounty Island. I had to sit inside and felt unable to leave my seat feeling a bit iffy. Must've been something I ate! Arriving at Bounty Island, it looked lovely (as they all have) Again we were greeted with the Bula song. All our accommodation had been overlooking the beach and sea but this one was right on the sand. The sea looked really inviting, but we went and sat on the end of the jetty with a drink and watched the sun go down. We were pleased when we spotted a stingray swim under us.

We watched the welcome singing that night which was probably the best yet with about 20 people singing really soulfully. It was really lovely. My mum would have been in bits!

Up early the next day to make the most of our only day on the island. We walked right round it which took, all of half an hour. Again, beautiful white sand, clear blue sea, islands dotted in the distance. We had hoped to see a turtle or two as we had heard that the island has nesting turtles on it. Not to be. Turtles are eluding us this trip.

We spent some time snorkelling which was probably the best off the beach snorkelling we've done. There was lovely colourful soft coral and lots of really beautiful brightly coloured big fish. I was glad to get my snorkelling head on again. The rest of the day we spent reading in the shade. It was just too hot to do anything else.

The time we've spent in Fiji has been such hard work and I hope nobody feels too sorry for us. Fiji is beautiful and I would definitely go back. From the moment you step off the plane and you are serenaded by fijian people it is hard not to get into the spirit of it. There are so many different islands to visit and we didn't even explore the mainland which is apparently in contrast to the beaches, with highlands and rainforest. Next stop The Cook Islands. hOh how will we cope with more beautiful beaches and island life?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands

As the nation of Fiji is composed of many small islands, we decided we ought to see some of them. We originally looked at Captain Cook Cruises and Blue Lagoon Cruises, both live-aboard small cruise ships that ply a more or less fixed route through the Mamanuca and Yasawa island groups. These cruises were a bit out of our price range, so we were forced to look at alternatives. A company called Awesome Adventures Fiji markets itself to the backpacker market. I’ve already mentioned that I cringe at such things, but since a five night trip with them was the same price as the least expensive two night cruise with the others I gritted my teeth and booked a trip. We chose the Lazy Threesome trip, five nights spread over two islands in the Yasawas and one in the Mamanucas, starting with the northern Yasawas (or the possibility of two islands and two nights on their own live-aboard cruiser). The company is deliberately vague in the brochure and you don’t find out exactly which islands or resorts that you are staying at until you pick up your tickets. I imagine this is so they can spread people out amongst the resorts, as well as picking the ones that cost them less.

We got picked up early in the morning from the Skylodge along with a few other people. We got speaking to a Welsh couple who were doing the same trip as us but interspersed with some extra days. Happily at the jetty we discovered that they had been assigned the same resorts as us. As we were headed first to Tavewa island at the extreme northern end of the Yasawa chain we had a four hour boat ride ahead of us. The ride was lovely cutting through beautiful calm blue seas, stopping off at the island, some of them tiny, along the way. After Naviti island the wind picked up and the water became a bit more choppy. Along the way we spoke to the Welsh couple, Dave and Elaine, and got on really well.

Eventually we transferred from the ferry onto a very rickety boat to transfer to Coral View Resort. A mild soaking later and we were on the beach and being welcomed by all the staff. The resort was a fairly basic, rustic place with traditional bures, basically thatched huts. The dining and entertainment room was cool, built straight on the beach with a sand floor. The staff were excellent, all very friendly and leaving a real sense that they cared about you. Joe, the guy in charge, apologised profusely on our first night because they were unable to do their normal welcome song.

Our time on the island was spent pretty much lounging in hammocks and reading, although we did take one excursion. The resort runs various boat trips, including one to the Blue Lagoon from the Brooke Shields film. We took one to the village on a nearby island. To be honest it was the only disappointment that we had on the island. On the trip out a tiny flying fish jumped into the boat. On the island itself we were marched in through the village, sat in the chiefs bure and waited for him to arrive. When he did we all shook hands with him and got to ask a question, going round the circle. There was no pre-amble and no explanations other than to the questions we asked. We later heard from other people that had done village visits on other islands that they had been given a really good and informative tour. Ours seemed purely a way of getting us to buy stuff from the ladies of the village, who assembled selling necklaces, sulus (sarongs) and various other trinkets.

On the second evening the whole staff formed to give us our belated welcome song. It was really quite nice, the whole staff singing together. Afterwards they held a cross dressing night, which everyone got into, some more enthusiastically than others. Sticking a bra over a football top just doesn’t cut it in my book. It was pretty funny and I think everyone had a good time. After lunch the Yasawa Flyer arrived again and we made our way southward again. At lunch the staff sang the farewell song which had Gemma and Elaine in tears. Elaine and Dave were staying an extra night at Coral View before joining us at the next island, but we said goodbye like we’d known them for years and wouldn’t be seeing them again.

The journey down to Naviti took only an hour or so. We boarded the little boat bound for Korovou Eco Tour Resort and booked in. The excitement of the previous evenings transvestite shenanigans had worn me out. I tried, in a blind panic, to escape the dancing after dinner. I failed. I think I managed about ten minutes of conversation afterwards before dragging myself off to bed. The accommodation at Korovou was a step up from Coral View, en suite bathrooms, with freshwater (albeit cold) as opposed to outdoor mixed fresh/saltwater at Coral View. Both resorts had a completely different character.

We awoke refreshed in the morning and after breakfast took a snorkelling trip to see manta rays. The presence of the mantas is seasonal, and they should have gone by now, but luckily they are still there. A short boat ride round the island and we were all in the water. The guy piloting the boat was spotting the mantas by looking for birds ahead of them. They chase fish to the surface, which the birds then dive in for, so the birds are a very good indicator. There was a lot of confused splashing around trying to follow the guy on the boat’s instructions to get out of the current and wait for the manta rays. Some people were splashing toward them rather too much which spooked them a bit. Gemma was calling out for me as her snorkel wasn’t on properly and all she was managing to do was swallow a lot of seawater. I had a decision to make, swim back and help Gemma, possibly missing the manta rays, or crack on looking for them. I selfishly chose the latter and was rewarded with a good view of a couple of rays, one massive one swimming right underneath me.

We got back in the boat and moved to another spot, this time with people having been briefed to calm down in the water and also with Gemma’s kit having been tweaked. She did manage to see a manta ray this second time. I think I saw about five or six, in one place three were doing a sort of looping dance with one another, just gently spinning through the water in a somersault motion. Manta rays are absolutely majestic creatures, effortlessly gliding through the water in currents that I had to really struggle against. We also got some good views of them from in the boat on the way back.

In the afternoon we were on the deck as the band played the Bula song and Dave and Elaine arrived from the Yasawa Flyer. We spent the rest of the day with them drinking and chatting. Late in the evening I mentioned to the main host, Moses, that I hadn’t yet tried kava. This got us an invite to the bure at the end of the beach were his uncle, and most of the island’s locals were drinking it. Kava is a drink made from a powdered root, and has a mild narcotic effect and reputedly reduces anxiety. Dave, Gemma and I went along while Elaine bowed out. It seemed a little shady at first, but was fine once we were in there. As we drank half coconut shells filled with the liquid, that tastes and looks like dishwater, Dave pulled out his magic tricks and proceeded to wow everyone (as he had done every night previously). I vowed to learn a couple of tricks, as they are instant cross-cultural ice breakers. The locals continued as we bowed out and went back home. Despite kava’s reputation as inducing sleep, both Gemma and I had a terrible nights sleep.

After breakfast and checking out of our rooms Gemma, Dave, Elaine and I walked over the hill to Honeymoon Beach. A path cuts through the trees and up a steep hill, then down the other side through a small settlement with a couple of houses and fairly extensive fruit and vegetable gardens. The beach is private with a donation box, so we dropped in a few dollars on the way through. We were the only ones on the beach, a wide stretch of sand with beautiful clear water lapping against it. Walking along the beach toward the rocks at the end we saw hundreds of hermit crabs plodding up the beach. I love hermit crabs, so I was very impressed to see so many of all sizes marching their way toward the trees.

After lunch and a couple of beers the Yasawa Flyer appeared on the horizon and another farewell song started up. We said goodbye to Dave and Elaine, promising to visit them in Wales sometime. Our next stop was Bounty Island in the Mamanucas, named after the HMS Bounty of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame (The crew of the Bounty were the first Europeans to sight Fiji). The island is also famous for being the location of Celebrity Love Island, although that one rather passed me by. It was quite a long ride to the island and I spent a good portion of it on the front of the boat watching the sparkling water rush past as we stopped at various islands along the way. At one island hundreds of fruit bats were circling the treetops.

In the launch on the way to Bounty I developed, perhaps irrationally, an utter and overriding hatred of three English girls who were also on the boat. They were vacant, painfully skinny, wearing stupid giant sunglasses and clutching designer handbags. It took 10 minutes for them to move their emaciated frames up the boat when requested to. I think they may have been malnourished and therefore not fully alert. Just the mere sight of them brought out a murderous rage in me. On approach to the island they were in a flap trying to identify features that they’d seen on Celebrity Love Island, and failing miserably because it was filmed on the other side of the island.

Once again the character of the resort was completely different, as well as the accommodation. This time we had a fridge, air conditioning and hot shower! I don’t think the staff were as friendly as the other resorts we’d been to, although their welcome and farewell songs may have been the best. Before dinner we sat on the jetty and just watched the water for a while. A small stingray swam up and round the jetty posts. The food at Bounty was excellent. I didn’t stay out too long after the singing finished and got an early night.

In the morning we took a nice walk around the island, which only took half an hour. Aside from the resort and some buildings that I guessed were from Celebrity Love Island, there wasn’t anything except beach, trees, shells and birds. Lovely. After the walk we moved our bags from the room and went snorkelling from the beach. They have quite a nice range of corals just off the beach and a stunning range of fish species. We spent a little while in the water just drifting from one patch of reef to another marvelling at the colour of the fish. The rest of the day was spent just lazing in hammocks and on benches until it was time to be picked up by the boat and ferried back to Port Denarau, and from there back to Skylodge. We didn’t get an upgraded room this time, but weren’t really bothered. The room we did get was fine, the only discernible differences being that the ‘lesser’ room was slightly smaller and had no towels.

And so ended our time in Fiji. It was a completely relaxing time for us and almost like a holiday within a holiday. Having both luxury and more basic accommodation was nice. I enjoyed both. I probably say this about everywhere we’ve been, but I would definitely go back to Fiji. The people are lovely, the islands are perfect little idyllic paradises and the marine life is amazing.


The plane ride to Fiji was mercifully short, especially given that we were sat next to a young family with a kid that screamed most of the way. I resolved to book myself into the vasectomy clinic as soon as we return to the UK. We had exit seats but, perhaps fortunately, I wasn’t called on to demonstrate my door opening skills. The immigration officers in Fiji had all paid attention to lessons at the international school for stern-looking officials, it was slightly surreal being looked up and down with the jolly strains of a band in the background.

We’d pre-booked at Nomads Skylodge, a backpacker place near the airport. Normally anything with the word backpacker associated with it gives me the shivers but this place wasn’t bad at all. If I had to guess I’d say it was a resort that was finding it hard to compete with the better located and more up to date places, so reinvented itself and began targeting the budget market. The service was excellent and we got upgraded to a better room so we definitely weren’t complaining. The ride from the airport was enlivened enormously by a crazy honeymooning dutchman, who was whacked up on painkillers and aeroplane wine. He seemed much more subdued the next morning at breakfast. With his wife he was visiting 6 countries in just over a fortnight!

Our stay at the Skylodge was a limited one. In the morning we took a cab to the Westin on Denarau island. The Westin is one of three Sheraton owned hotels in the same complex on the island, and the poshest of them. We don’t normally go for such budget-blowing luxury, but we had decided to treat ourselves for Gemma’s birthday. Being the scruffy looking oiks that we are, we attracted some odd looks when we arrived at the hotel, spurning offers of help from the porters. The room was lovely and we very quickly made ourselves at home, using the specially designed shower and loafing around in bathrobes and slippers. Gemma sat on the bed and opened the cards that we’d picked up from Christchurch.

The first day was spent just chilling out, walking round the resort and generally being lazy. As evening draws in the hotel has a fire-lighting ceremony where drums are banged, flaming sticks are twirled and large braziers in the pool are lit up. Gemma had to ring her Mum to be wished happy birthday, so after a couple of drinks we went back to the room and she did so. By the time we got off the phone we were both pretty hungry so we made for the nearest restaurant, The Steakhouse & Grill. Again treating ourselves, we had a nice meal. Gemma had a shock when she saw that the wine had cost as much as the food, but when I related the whole thing to being less than the cost of a night out at home she calmed down. The wine was very nice.

Breakfast was a quiet affair with my hangover beginning nice and early. I tried to be healthy by sticking to fruit and yoghurt, but failed when I saw the croissants. The hotel had many activities organised, but active wasn’t how I was feeling at that point so I sat by the pool with a book, occasionally jumping in to cool off a bit. We ate lunch in one of the restaurants at the adjoining Sheraton Fiji resort. The exertion of this was such that we immediately had to have a bit of a nap. Our bed was so comfy and inviting that I had trouble tearing myself away from it, I had visions of being stuck there forever. The mattress was thicker than my head. That evening we watched the fire-lighting ceremony again having a couple of beers. Neither of us felt hungry at all so we didn’t bother with dinner.

In the morning after breakfast we jumped on the first boat across to Akuilau Island. The resort owns the island just over a small stretch of water from the beach and runs an hourly shuttle boat over to it. We took a quiet walk along the beach, peering in pools at the wealth of crawling, swimming, wriggling and squirming life in there. Lizards and crabs dashed around on the rock as we approached them. I found a couple of hermit crabs that were either mating or fighting. It was hard to tell. Back in the main grassy part we met a man who lives and works on the island. He led us on a path through the trees to a small chair and plucked us fresh papaya and coconut.

Back at Denarau we jumped straight in the pool for a bit of a cooling dip and then lazed around for an hour or so, occasionally looking up to order a cocktail or something to nibble on. The highlight that evening was the crab racing. An auction was held at the start for various crabs named for sports personalities from various countries. We bid for and won, for $27, the Fijian crab, named after a golfer I think. I think Gemma enjoyed the excitement of the bidding, although it was very restrained compared to that which happened for the Canadian entry, with a couple of Canadians bidding madly against each other. David Beckham crab was also a hit, going for about $120. All the contestants were sold and a bucket produced full of hermit crabs with numbers on their shells. This was dumped rather unceremoniously on a mat with the aim of seeing which crab made it off the mat first. I have an inkling that our crab was over the line first, but in the end it was fudged up so the kids that bid won. Fair enough, although what would they do with a cocktail (the prize)?

Another day of lazing by the pool started with the fish feeding. I’d seen this on the activities board and was quite looking forward to it, so was dismayed when a guy came up shouting, ‘Fish feeding, feeding of the fish.’ to then throw a loaf of bread in the water and walk off. The fish seemed to like it though, the bread pieces jumping around on the water and disappearing chunk by chunk. In the evening we were treated to a magnificent sunset as we walked along the beach to the Sheraton. We had dinner at that resort before walking back with Gemma nearly dying of fright at nearly stepping on frogs and having fruit bats fly out of the trees next to her. They grow the bats big in this part of the world.

The luxury was over with the next morning, although we waited until just about the last moment to check out. We caught a cab up to the Skylodge, where we had stayed when we arrived to sort out our remaining time in Fiji. When we arrived, I thought again, that the place wasn’t bad for the money, especially as we’d been upgraded to a better room again. Our taxi driver had been mercilessly touting for the business of taking us touring around the main island of Fiji, we put him off by taking his card. Instead we sat around the pool again, soaking up the heat and reading. Very relaxing, despite the surroundings being a bit less luxurious that we’d become used to over the previous few days.

Slumming it

I turned 28 (Thank you everyone for your cards) in Fiji and it couldn't have been a better place to soothe the shock of it! As a birthday treat we booked into the Westin. I'm not proud I'll stay anywhere, but this was absolutely awful. The room was luxurious with a mattress and double shower head specially designed for the Westin. It was tastefully furnished and had a lovely bathroom. I know it sounds awful and you are probably wondering how I could have spent four days there mainly relaxing by the pool with cocktails, umm relaxing, swimming, eating, putting up with the room, wearing the dressing gown, (even though it was too hot for it I made sure I wore it).swimming, relaxing. I think you get the picture.

The Westin was on a resort of two other hotels and you can use all their facilities too. There was a beach in front of one of these but not much of one in front of ours. However, our hotel owns a little island about 10 minutes boat ride away which you can go to when you want. We spent a few hours over there, being the only ones on it except for the family which live there. A member of this family picked us a coconut and Papaya and it was all very idyllic.

Each night the hotel had an unwind ritual which consisted of hunky Fijian men banging a drum and fire dancing as the sun went down. At about this time, the bats would come out and I would occasionally shriek when I thought one was coming for my head. These bats were absolutely massive. About the size of chickens so I think I should be forgiven for being a pansy.

The four days was very resorty, but we enjoyed it. It was a step away from the norm and we enjoyed living it up for a while, although we felt four days was probably the right amount of time. Believe it or not there are only so many times you can watch hunky men dance with fire. We didn't see much of Fiji whilst at the hotel, but that was our next assignment.

Goodbye Campervan

We've said goodbye to our van now. Despite it being slightly shabbier (added to previously mentioned faults the holder for the table leg snapped because of metal fatigue and left a hole in the floor), I was still sad to leave our mobile home behind.

Our last day in the van was spent West of Auckland. My initial reservations of Auckland melting away when I saw the beautiful coast line and the Waitakere ranges, a lovely wilderness area, all within about an hour of Auckland city. The day was spent pootling around exploring the coast thick with beautiful trees and bush. We went to Piha a beautiful place with houses sat in the bush covered hill overlooking the beach with Lion rock, a massive beautiful rocky outcrop. Next beach was Te Henga beach where we joined the locals and surfers at the little coffee van before walking along the black sand beach (product of volcanic history). We camped at at the van park next to the last beach, Muriwai, another black sand beach where we had a lovely walk up to the Gannet colony. Hundreds of gannets were perched on the rocky outcrops which help to make the coast so pretty. The fisherman stood on the rocks below looked dwarfed by the immensity of the sea and the rocks. Waves were crashing against the rocks and one Fisherman looked like he was defying the elements by rooting himself, fishing rod in hand, to the spot.

A bottle of wine bought at a winery (as is the theme of our time in NZ) was drunk to seal our last night in our van and the next day we returned Ezy.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Glow-worms, Whales and Vegetables

In Waitomo we stayed in a van park, our site next to a field of entertaining cows. It was a welcome break from driving straight away the next morning when we only had to go across the road to get to where we wanted to go. This was the Waitomo caves. In the area there are about 300 caves. We chose to go on a tour which takes you to see Glow worms and another cave near by. It was a great trip, our guide on the way to the cave explaining the geology of the scenery which was very green, very hilly with (as is the way in lots of New Zealand) sheep around us. The area had a lot of limestone which means that millions of years ago, it was under the sea (limestone being rock made up of tiny crushed shells).

We arrived at the cave and adorned attractive hard hats with lights on before entering. Inside we saw Glow worms up close. They aren't worms but are the larvae of the fungus gnat which have luminescent organs. They weave sticky threads which hang down and which insects, attracted by the light get caught in. The Glow worm reels in the thread and eats the insect. After watching a few insects perish we moved on to an inflatable raft. This was the highlight. We moved down the river inside the cave and it was like sailing through a grotto with lots of fairy lights around. These lights were of course the Glow worms and as our eyes adjusted to night vision we saw more and more and they became brighter. It was strange to think that all these beautiful lights were something quite horrible really. Larvae of a gnat. It was very relaxing and quite hypnotic floating through the cave looking above and around and seeing all these beautiful lights. A girl next to me said 'it would be great if the sky at night was like this'. I thought, 'she obviously does not look up at the sky enough then', as what was above us could have been mistaken as the night sky with lots of constellations. It was even more amazing when the guide made a loud noise and they all shone brighter. I believe this happens because the larvae work with vibrations so they interpreted the loud noise as an insect nearby and therefore shone brighter to attract them.

Outside of the glow worm cave, blinded by the sunlight, some of the group fed the eels. After the eels had their feed we had ours (well a biccie and cuppa) before heading to the next cave. This was a lovely cave with some nice decorations, but the highlight of this cave for me were the extinct Moa bird's bones. Caves always provoke my imagination into thoughts of ancient times so to have an (estimated) 20,000 year old extinct bird in the cave added to that feeling. David Attenborough filmed a documentary at the Glow-worms caves which apparently was shown in UK in October 05 or March 06.

Out of the caves again and the tour ended when we arrived back in Waitomo village. We carried on the site- seeing on our own and visited a couple of natural attractions up the road a few kilometeres. The first one was a the Mangapohue natural bridge, a massive natural limestone bridge with a large stream running under it. My description does not do it justice. It was beautiful and again I was in awe that it was essentially made out of tiny shells. We walked to the other side of it through a field with some curious and some not so curious sheep and more scattered limestone, some with fossilised giant oysters in.

The next natural attraction was beautiful Marakopa falls which usually is in three tiers, but because of rainfall it was running as one; the result being a large, impressive waterfall.

From one stunning waterfall to another the next day we stopped at Bridal veil falls. Tim laughed at a comment I made in a broad Suffolk accent that they make them good in this part of New Zealand. That they do though. Bridal falls was a stunning, tall single stream waterfall gushing into a pool at the bottom.

After the falls we headed to Raglan for our daily coffee. Heading for our chosen cafe we were aware of a van creeping along by us. We stopped so he could pass us which he didn't. Instead he beckoned us over. I thought he was going to tell us off for walking out in front of him or something. I felt reluctant to do as he said, a bit like the shepherd incident previously, but in the end I did as I was told. I was glad I did as he told us that there were whales coming into the harbour. We rushed over and indeed there were several orcas (AKA killer whales) swimming in. We felt incredibly lucky to be seeing them, especially when a girl told us that she had lived there for 5 years and this was only her second time seeing them. (Apparently they appear about twice a year. ) I couldn't believe our luck. There were some kayakers in the harbour who probably couldn't believe theirs either. They were too far away for a decent picture, but seeing them emerge and hearing the blowing noise as they exhaled from their blowholes was fantastic. We followed them down the harbour a bit before deciding to get that coffee, after which we had another look at a couple of orcas which appeared to be in the same place as we had left them. I love it when things like that happen when you don't expect it. I had been missing a bit of wildlife whilst in NZ. That made up for it. Just in time too as we only had two days left.

From whales to gardens in the City of Hamilton. We had lunch and wandered round the large pretty gardens and played the guess the vegetable game. We can have fun doing anything!

The end of New Zealand

Hamilton is only an hour and a half south of Auckland. As we still had a day left we went north into Auckland, but immediately swung across to the west coast. The North Island is very thin around Auckland, with the city sprawling from the east coast inwards. On the west side the Waitakere ranges are a forested mountainous area protected as a regional park. The drive through the park was lovely, native bush at both sides of the road and it was easy to forget that we were so close to the city. We stopped at the Arataki information centre to have a look from the viewpoint, a 360 degree panorama of Auckland and it’s surrounds.

The view of the coast which broke through the bush on the road to Piha was fantastic. A stunning blue sea with Lion Rock just off the beach. The beaches of this part of the west coast are covered in black sand, a remnant of past volcanic activity. The sand sparkles as sunlight reflects from minerals in it. This looks lovely, but the wet sand stuck to people doesn’t look so nice. The surfies were out in force taking advantage of the weekend sunshine.

There isn’t a road which hugs the coast, meaning that we had to double back on ourselves several times during the day. Our next stop was Te Henga, or Bethells Beach, another nice spot, where a little trailer based store does a cracking coffee. Again, the car park was full of people pulling out boards and heading onto the beach. We laughed at a dog racing across the beach to chase a kite.

We made a quick wine tasting stop at the Matua winery and took away a bottle for that evening. About 10km away was our final stop, another stretch of black sand at Muriwai Beach. We booked into the camp site, a lovely spaced out site with loads of interesting mature trees. Muriwai Beach is also the home of a colony of gannets. We took a walk up to the colony, where several lookout platforms sit above the gannets. Below us on the rocks a fisherman cast into the sea as waves washed over the ledge he was standing on. It all looked a little precarious.

In the morning we packed our stuff up into our bags and made our way into Auckland. We had already pre-booked a hotel near the Ezy depot, so checked straight in after dropping off the van. It was a wet Sunday afternoon when we ventured out in search of food. As we walked the rain got harder so, fearing a complete drenching, we bought bowl noodles and sandwiches from a corner shop and went back to our room.

The weather had abated the next day, so after check-out we put our luggage in storage and walked into Auckland centre. Neither of us were in the mood for it and so maybe did the place a disservice. It just seemed so similar to other cities and we felt a little disheartened. Perhaps we were sad because we had enjoyed our time in New Zealand so much, with all it’s natural splendour, and our last glimpse of it was a fairly ordinary, fairly busy city centre. At the airport we had to deal with a very snotty bloke on the Air New Zealand customer service desk who charged us $25 apiece to re-validate our tickets. We weren’t happy.


The road north from Kawhia was unsealed for the first segment. Bad weather had caused rock and mud slides in places which meant the road would narrow to a thin wedge. The road passed through some lovely native bush. We hit a diversion almost as soon as the road became sealed. Following the diversion signs we managed to get to our first stop of the day, the Bridal Veil Falls. The falls were lovely, a single spout of water pouring out over the rock and into a large pool beneath.

The sealed road continued the rest of the way to Raglan a town well known for it’s surf breaks. We were just heading into the town when a man stopped his van and beckoned us over. He told us to walk round the corner to the harbour, which we duly did to be rewarded by the sight of several orcas surfacing in the harbour. Some people were out in kayaks with the killer whales gently breaking the surface only metres away from them. We followed a pair further into the harbour, where many people were gathering. A woman told us that they appear once or twice a year, so we felt extremely lucky to have seen them.

The largest town of the Waikato region is Hamilton and this was our next stop. We bypassed the centre of town and made straight for the Hamilton Gardens. The gardens are a large and pretty park with various themed areas. We took a walk around the lake, ate lunch at the café and spent some time browsing the herb and vegetable gardens. I think Gemma enjoyed my game of ‘what’s this vegetable?’

With plenty of time on our hands we decided to call it a day and book into a holiday park in Hamilton.

Glow in the dark

There was a little confusion after we left Taupo. Because I was doing something and not watching the road we sailed past our turn off. This led to travelling up and back down two sides of a triangle totalling about 50km in length, when we should have just taken the third side at about 20km. It wasn’t such a big deal. The road passed mainly through pine forest until we got back to where we should be. We stopped for coffee in a small town (Benneydale I think). I should have been warned off by the fact that the coffee selection on the sign consisted of, ‘coffee’. I’m particularly fond of a well made flat white. This was burnt powdered coffee (not even granules) and almost undrinkable.

Coffee and navigational disasters aside, I was quite enjoying the trip. We were driving through hilly sheep grazing land. The grass was very green, and the sky very blue such that it looked like a photograph with the saturation bumped way up. At times it was almost painful to look at. Somewhere along the road some farmers were moving a mob of sheep across the road. One guy was out on the road motioning for Gemma to stop. She hadn’t seen the sheep and thought the situation looked dodgy, and so refused to slow down until the very last moment. I thought for a moment that she was going to flatten the poor farmer, and judging by the expression on his face so did he!

We arrived quite late in the village of Waitomo and checked into the van park there. In the evening we had pizza at the Morepork pizzeria across the road and then settled in for an exciting evening of watching the antics of the young bulls in the field next to us. It was better than most TV I’ve seen recently.

Waitomo is famous for the extensive cave systems in the area, the name meaning something like ‘Water Hole’ in Maori. The caves here are especially famed for their populations of glow-worms, which is what we’d come to see. Typically for New Zealand a lovely place has been ‘adventured’ up for tourists. I can imagine the tourist board meeting, ‘These caves are beautiful, the limestone eroded throughout the ages leaving huge underground caverns with rivers running through. In the darkness you look up to see an enchanting ceiling of lights that look almost like a galaxy of stars above you, a perfect tourist draw’

‘Naw, it’s missing something. I know, how about we jump down into the cave from a height then shoot down the rivers on an inner tube. Oh yeah, maybe we’ll look at the glow-worms too.’

In the morning when we went over to the museum-cum-visitor centre to get a ticket I told the lady that I didn’t want a tour with, ‘Jumping, falling, crashing or whizzing through the caves.’ Her response was, ‘But you want to white water raft down them, yeah?’. No! We managed to get her to tell us which were the sedate tours and then booked on the longer, the Spellbound tour. The advantages of which were that it was a small group tour away from the more busy caves, taking in two caves and which allowed photography.

We were glad we did that tour. Our guide was quite a character and vastly knowledgeable about caves, limestone, glow-worms and a lot more besides. After a drive out to the caves with a running commentary about the geology of the area we were given helmets with torches on them and led into the first cave. A river runs through the cave, bringing in the insects that are the food source of the glow-worms. The conditions in there are perfect to support a massive amount of glow-worms. Our guide explained the different life stages of the glow-worm, not actually a worm but the larval stage of a mosquito-like fly. On the roof of the cave we could clearly see the ‘worms’ and the sticky strands of silk that they use to trap their prey (and quite a few examples of the prey being munched upon.)

We all boarded a small inflatable raft and set out deeper into the cave. Our helmet torches were put out and after a somewhat fruitless attempt to get some photos of the glow-worms glowing on the cave roof (even a professional photographer in the group was having problems) we continued down the river. As our eyes grew accustomed to the dark the cave just began to light up in front of us. It truly was a spellbinding sight. Thousands of tiny specks of light glowing away in the darkness and looking like the stars on a beautiful clear night.

Outside we had a quick cuppa before entering another cave. This was without a river and had a built walkway and lighting throughout it. The cave had some interesting decorations, but nowhere near as many or such stunning shapes as other caves. It was still very interesting though, the guide explaining how animals got trapped in the cave. We could see the bony evidence of this, with goat and possum bones and even the skeleton of the extinct moa, a giant cousin of the kiwi. By the end we knew we’d made the right decision over which tour to take as we’d really enjoyed it.

Back in the van we headed out westwards along the Marokopa road. We stopped at a couple of stunning natural attractions. The first, Mangapohue Natural Bridge, is huge chunk of limestone that has eroded into the form of a giant arch. Gemma kept repeating, ‘So that is all made of tiny shells then?’ The second, Marokopa Falls is a large three tiered waterfall. The rain that had fallen over the preceding few days made the falls into a spectacular sight, vast volumes of water pouring over them.

We didn’t fancy staying in the tiny village of Marokopa so swung north and up to Kawhia. This small fishing village stands on the harbour of the same name, although when we arrived there wasn’t any water there, instead we saw a vast muddy flat plain. We stayed in the very small van park in Kawhia, with virtually no-one else around.

East Coast

We didn’t get woken up by sheep in Morere, but they were bustling towards the van when I came back from the toilets in the morning. Maybe they were going to eat Gemma. They got spooked when they saw me and ran off. Our first port of call for the day was Gisborne, the major town of these parts. A quick coffee and use of the telephone and we were back on the road again, this time up the east coast. The road winds it’s way through pretty rolling hills, partly grazed and partly forested with both native and pine trees. At times the main road dips to the coast, affording lovely views of the bays. Mostly though the road stays inland. We did take a couple of short detours to get to the sea. These roads passed through small towns with tumbledown buildings. We couldn’t find many places to park up so our time there was quite limited. We covered a fair amount of ground, despite the road being as bad in places as the one from the previous day. Patches of unsealed road would suddenly appear with very little warning. Twice we had to pick all the cups and plates up after they came out of their holders.

At Te Araroa we stopped for the day in a camp ground set in a lovely garden near the beach. The camp ground has the world’s most easterly cinema -top that Lowestoft! Gemma was a little scared by the camp ground, it was a little bit local. There were several families who obviously lived in the park permanently. I would hate to go so far as to use the label trailer-trash, as it may be completely unfair, but there was a general impression.

Heading back westward the road was much better, with only a couple of random unsealed segments. This road also hugged the coastline for much of the way meaning we were treated to much more dramatic scenery. The waves battering the rocky shoreline and the gnarled and twisted trees made us think we were back on the South Island. The trees were Pohutukawa, only found in the northern part of the North Island, and very lovely. Again, as previously on the North Island, we were frustrated at the lack of proper stopping places so we couldn’t hop out and take photographs. Apparently a constantly smoking active volcano, White Island, should have been visible in the bay but I couldn’t see it. Gemma thought she could make it out though.

Gemma was up for a bit more driving, so after Opitiki we hooked back inland, pausing briefly in Rotarua for some lunch at the excellent Fat Dog Café. The food and the coffee were superb in there. I think Gemma particular liked the dog-based poetry adorning the walls, plates, toilets, everything else.

After lunch we continued to Taupo and De Bretts Thermal Resort again. The woman behind the counter looked surprised to see us back. It was pretty much on our route and a logical place to stop, and so stop we did. We both quite fancied a dip in the hot pools to soothe out the driving kinks from our shoulders. It was just as nice second time around, although there was some confusion at the start leading to the two of us sitting in different pools for about 10 minutes.