11.01.2010 - 27.05.2010
Welcome to what is very likely to be the last of these big long group emails that I write… At least for a while ! I hope you’re all keeping well ? I’ve been in France now for 4 weeks, and I thought if I’m going to tell you about our recent adventures in NZ, I’d better do so sooner rather than later when I’ve forgotten it all !
So, the last time I was in touch was from Brighton in early Jan where I was catching up with Marcus (the friend that I’d begun all this travelling with in Nepal in 2007) and Jade (his Partner), and where coincidentally Piet, a Dutch guy from my first job in NZ, happened to be studying for a Masters.. And so I met up with him too It was mid-winter – the bleakest in a long time for England, and so I didn’t do a whole lot during the 4 days I was there.. I wandered around Brighton and saw the better known sights – the Pavillion, the beach etc, but I imagine Brighton better visited in summer !
From Brighton, I headed to London to meet Antonin (surprising him at Gatwick !) and we chilled out in a pub Paddington for the afternoon to wait for our flight to Sydney – we had too many bags and it was too cold to do anything else ! After a long flight via Seoul (where we had mistakenly believed we were spending the night as we had done on the first leg of that flight), we arrived in Sydney in the middle of summer – it was lovely We chilled in Sydney for the day (I met my grand-aunt for lunch) and took the night train to Melbourne (not a particularly pleasant journey) and made our way out to Queenscliff where an old university friend of mine (Silvana) is now living. Silvana, who’d had a rough few months with a breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, was on the road to recovery and we spent 5 days exploring the area of Australia she currently calls home. Queenscliff is close to the beginning of the Great Ocean Road (that runs from Melbourne to Adelaide along the coast) so we drove along some of that and spotted wild (i.e. not in any sort of reserve/zoo) koalas along the way ! We also spent a day at the Australian Open (tennis) where we almost melted watching a guy with a very un-Irish name represent Ireland as the first Irish tennis player in a grand slam tournament in a long time ! Unfortunately despite all our cheering (of course every Irish person at the Open that day was at that match even tho’ almost nobody had ever heard of this guy before…Even Sonia O’Sullivan was there !!), he lost.. But it was worth nearly dying of dehydration for all the same !
From Melbourne we flew to Auckland and almost immediately bussed it down to Taranaki to pick up our van. Luckily our van had been left in very good hands (thanks Ang !) and we were on the road in a couple of days. We headed straight for Wellington where we spent a lovely few days catching up with some of our old friends.
From Wellington we headed back across the Cook Straits for the South Island; believe it or not, there were some things we had missed there last year despite 3 months of travel ! We hightailed it down the East coast with a quick hello to some friends in Christchurch, and a brief surf-board repairing stop in Dunedin (lucky that it was repairable given it had been reversed over in a van!!) to Invercargill to organise a trip out to Stewart Island – NZ’s third island.
So, at Stewart Island, the sight-seeing part of our travels began.. Stewart Island was stunning ! It was so worth making the effort to get out there despite all the monopolised prices (only one ferry company, only one campsite etc). The thing we most wanted to do on the Island, second to diving (which sadly turned out to be impossible when you’re just 2 people) was to see some kiwis and do some walking. There is one apparently amazing walk on the Island (the North West Circuit), but as it takes a minimum of 8 days and we were neither physically fit enough for that after 6 months of no exercise in Egypt, nor did we have large enough bags for all the supplies you’d need to take with you for such a long walk, so we decided to pass on that one ! Another time maybe ! Instead, we opted for taking a water taxi to a place called Freshwater Landing (up a river, only accessible at High tide) and to walk from there the 15 km of flat terrain to Mason Bay on the west coast of the Island. There’s a DOC hut at Mason Bay and we’d enough passes with us to stay there for 3 nights if we wished (Mason Bay is a good place for spotting kiwis). And so we ended up spending the entire 3 nights and days there just chilling out in the unusually gorgeous weather, wandering along the beach and thro’ the dunes and bush, searching for kiwis at dawn and dusk, hunting for shellfish for dinner and being tormented by sandflies all the time ! It was heaven We met some really lovely people while we were there – really interesting – some who were almost at the end of the long walk, some where were all about photography, and all of whom were hoping for that glimpse of a big fat hairy/feathery arse sticking out of the shrubbery snorting about looking for insects ! When it came to wildlife, we were very lucky. By the time we left the Island we’d seen 5 kiwis !! And one day while we were sitting quietly in the bush on the old airstrip near the hut, we saw a white-tailed deer that got really really close to us (less than 5 m away) before it got wind of us !! That was really wow ! It was really sad when we had to pack our bags and head back to the small town of Oban to catch our ferry back to the mainland..
From there we headed towards Fiordland and that mecca for most people who travel to NZ – Milford Sound. We spent a couple of days exploring the road from Te Anau to Milford and did an early morning cruise on the sound itself too. This was a completely different experience to Stewart Island as it is totally and utterly tourist-infested. Bus loads of tourists from every walk of life travel along this road every day (maybe not in winter..) and avoiding them was a challenge to say the least ! Fortunately one of the advantages of living in a van is the ability to freecamp: park up and spend the night pretty much wherever you want (for the moment anyways, there are some kiwis that are trying to change this !), which helps you to avoid the crowds somewhat !
After Milford we headed to the Queenstown/Wanaka area hoping to do a couple of walks. There was one in particular that I wanted to do, but unfortunately it was 30 kms along one of those really badly corrugated unsealed roads that are found in NZ, and I swear the van would have fallen apart had we gone all the way.. So we had to turn around and face defeat Pity, but I guess another thing to come back for We did manage to make another visit to our favourite hot tubs !! And we found some gorgeous places to camp – we were very lucky the whole time we were in NZ in terms of the weather : we hardly saw any rain !! From Wanaka, we headed over the Haast Pass to the west coast..
Once we hit the west coast, we pretty much didn’t leave the coast for the rest of our time in NZ. We camped at some stunning beaches (sometimes with perfect surf for Antonin to surf, sometimes with the perfect lack of surf for me to take a swim in the mornings !). On the west coast we stopped at Okarito, Greymouth, Westport and Karamea.
From Westport we headed over to one of my favourite spots in NZ : Golden Bay We hung out there at my favourite hostel in NZ and wandered along Farewell Spit and hung out on the stunning Wharariki Beach.
We’d (easily) managed to spend the entire month of Feb on the South Island, and we could have spent longer.. But I was dying to see lots of the North Island that I’d never seen, so at the beginning of March we once again crossed the Cook Straits and chilled in Wellington with friends (it was so good to see you guys !). After a week it was time to say our farewells to windy Welly and hit the road once again. Our first stop was Castlepoint – a small settlement at the end of a road…really pretty, but there wasn’t much surf so we didn’t stay too long.
After that we headed to Napier and the Hawkes Bay area and we began to follow the Pacific Coast Highway that runs all the way from Napier to Auckland hugging the coastline (as the name would suggest..). Some parts of this route are well travelled, some less so. But almost all of it has stunning beaches and seascapes. How long we stayed in a particular place often depended on the waves !. Apart from admiring the scenery and enjoying the beaches, we didn’t do very much. Napier was probably the most interesting town along the way, as it was flattened by an earthquake around 1930 and it was rebuilt in the Art Deco style – I believe it’s one of the Art Deco capitals of the world now. We also spent a bit of time on the Mahia Peninsula (another surf spot) which was fabulous.
A little north of Gisborne was a fab beach with my favourite camping spot of them all right beside it. We stayed in that area for a while as the weather was fab and so were the waves. As we headed north from there towards the East Cape, we noticed an increase in the Maori influence. These are the poeple who were settled in NZ when the Europeans arrived, having arrived themselves from some Pacific Islands prior to that. Maori influence is pretty much non-existent on the South Island, and on the North Island there are a few areas that are still predominantly Maori – the East Cape is one. Some of the artwork decorating the entrances to their schools and Marae (meeting houses) was really impressive. And I also overheard Maori being spoken in the small shops in the area.
After the East Cape we hit the Bay of Plenty which was fabulously flat and calm and, for the first time I could actually enjoy my morning dip (should read wash, as we pretty much free-camped the whole time) and not be restricted to knee deep water for fear of being sucked out to sea ! Our favourite spot along this large bay was Mt Maunganui – a fabulous stretch of beaches with lots of public toilets and showers and picnic areas and, once again, fabulous weather !
We headed up the Coromandel Peninsula then. I was very much looking forward to this as I’d heard so much about it for such a long time. But unfortunately the weather turned a little while we were there. So we didn’t get to enjoy the beaches as much. We did of course stop at Hot Water Beach, a beach that’s right over a hot water spring and so you can take a spade (locals rent them to tourists !) and dig your own hot pool in the sand. Unfortunately this only works around low water and, as EVERYBODY goes there, it can get quite busy with every vying for their bit of space. The water is ridiculously hot, it’s impossible to sit, or even stand, right where the water is seeping up.
After the Coromandel we headed to Auckland to do what we’d come to NZ to do – sell our van.. ! We had the pleasure of staying with our friends Karl and Liz, again (thanks guys) and we spent a couple of weeks putting up posters all around the town, and advertising the van on every possible website, and in between showing the van to people, we’d take the last opportunities to use it to visit some of the nicer areas of Auckland (like the west coast beaches). We also caught up with Rosie and Will (friends of Antonin) who were living on their boat off Waiheke Island (an Island that’s a very short distance from Auckland) and we were lucky enough to be invited to spend a couple of nights on their boat with them – it was fabulous !! We got to sail a little bit around the island and again, the weather was fab ! Very luckily for us (as we had sold our van to a Czech couple by that stage), Rosie needed someone to mind her van for her for a week or so – perfect timing as we had just over a week left before our flights and didn’t want to stay in Auckland for all that time.
So we took Rosie’s van and headed north of the city to explore the Northland region. Here there was an noticable change in the weather – autumn had arrived and the temperature had dropped somewhat. It also became a little greyer. But we still managed to get to see all the things we wanted to see : Waitangi – the town where the British and the Maori signed the infamous Treaty of Waitangi in the 1800s, Cape Reinga – the tip top of NZ where you can see the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea meeting and the massive sand dunes at Te Paki. We’d hoped to dive the Poor Knights Islands, but it was a bit too windy to be worthwhile. Antonin did get some surfing in on the amazing waves at Shipwreck Bay. While we were at Shipwreck Bay we met 3 other surfers that we’d met at various beaches along our trip – the surfing world in NZ is apparently quite small !
After Northland we unfortunately had to head back to Auckland and give Rosie back her van Then we had a couple of days to pack up a van full of stuff into 2x20 kg for the trip home – no easy feat ! Needless to say I ended up at the airport with about 40 kg of my own, that I then managed to get on board, I’m not sure how, but I’m glad I had given myself lots of time to spare !! Antonin had flown earlier that day as he was going straight back to France; I was stopping in Sydney for a week on the way. I was roasting as I made my way thro’ customs in Sydney due to all the extra layers I was wearing to try to lower the weight of my bags ! I had a lovely week in Sydney. I stayed with my grand-aunt again, who took me to up north of the city to show me some of her old haunts. I caught up with some old friends, Silvana came over from Melbourne for a few days to spend some time with me and I got to spend some time with a cousin of mine from Dublin who had just landed in Sydney. And I finally made it out to the Blue Mountains, which were worth the wait ! And then the week was over and it was time to take my flight back to Europe !
Some photos from New Zealand: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626914444217/
Some photos from Sydney: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157627086659602/
And that brings us pretty much up to speed. I’m now living in St. Georges de Didonne on the west coast of France, right beside the town of Royan. At the moment myself and Antonin are living in his family home with his mother. We’ve both found jobs, but both jobs are just seasonal (it’s a very touristy area here) – my contract is til the end of September. The job market isn’t so good in this area of France at the moment (and Antonin is quite keen to spend some time close to his family for a while so moving to another region isn’t an option right now), and so, despite promising myself that I wouldn’t work as a waitress, I’ve found myself employed at the restaurant of a Village de Vacances. However, waitressing gives the wrong impression as to what I do, because I never take orders and I never have to remember what people want (which is a pretty good thing as I have sucked big time at that in the past !). The restaurant is all buffet food (up to 300 people a night to cater for in the high (Jul Aug) season), so we just prepare the dining room beforehand and clear up afterwards. I can’t forget anything, so it’s all good ! The people I work with (mostly French) seem lovely so far, and 99% of the guests are French, so it’s great for my French. Anyways, this job gives me the breathing space I need to look for something better (and to improve my French), and of course I’m earning money again for the first time since Dec – something I couldn’t have afforded not to do for very much longer ! I also get the same 2 days together off a week, which doesn’t always happen in the hospitality industry ! My work is tiring, but I have to say that it’s really good to be working and not living out of a bag right now !
So far while here I’ve managed to catch up with an old, old French friend of mine and her family, who happen to have a mobile home in a campsite about 20 mins away and who happened to all be getting together there recently – it was so so lovely to see them all again; we worked out that it had been about 7 years since we’d last seen each other. I also got to visit Bordeaux briefly as Antonin had a job interview down there (it’s about 1.5 hrs away). And of course I’ve been getting to know Antonin’s family and friends here. At the beginning the weather was pretty crap, but it has now realised that it’s summer time and we had glorious sunshine and 30°+ over the weekend The beach here is getting busier and busier and I’m looking forward to spending the summer here..
Anybody who’d like to visit – the nearest airport is at La Rochelle and all the cheapo airlines fly there, Bordeaux is the next closest with all regular airlines flying there !
And that’s that ! As I said, not sure I’ll keep doing these long emails – settled life doesn’t really lend itself to it so much – there’s just not so much to tell.. So, if you’re keen to stay in touch and all that, then email me or skype me.