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From the Shire to Middle Earth and back

a travel blog by rickandsuejohnson

This will be a record of Rick and Sue's trip of a lifetime from England's Midlands to meet up with a Brit and a Canuck down under. During the trip we hope to see where a local writer's work was filmed but also to see lots of flora and fauna peculiar to this part of the world.
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Houston.............we got a problem...............

Christchurch, New Zealand

We apologise dear readers for the delay in posting this blog. The first draft got lost in Bagkok. The Captain of BA9 must have uttered words very similar to the heading as we flew somewhere over eastern Europe en-route to Sydney. But I get ahead of myself – let's start at the beginning. On the morning we were due to depart, we had to make a quick detour to Ellesmere to pick up something that should have already arrived. Not to worry , we had left plenty of time - Heathrow will normally take about 3.5 hours from Cockshutt, 4.5 hours on a bad day and we were leaving at midday for a 7pm deadline for checkin. It started raining as I was packing the car and got steadily worse as we progressed along the M54. It was so bad that traffic was seized up on the M6 and it took us an hour 15 mins to do what would normally have taken 45 minutes. The M6 toll was running freely but the rain was so bad that we had to keep the speed down to 60 or less at times. We kept hearing reports of problems on our intended route down the M40, so against my better judgement I was persuaded to re-route down the M1. I was convinced that the M25 would be static by the time we got there on a Friday. It must be said that the navigator was right and I was wrong. (It must also be noted that the only reason I agreed is that experience has shown this is usually the case). We duly rolled into Heathrow car park just after 6 and quickly notified the family of our status. (We discovered we had got off lightly – Ben had had to abandon his car and taken 2 hours to get home while poor Ellie we discovered later didn't make it 'till 9:30.) Having been clever and checked in on-line the night before, apparently all we had to do was drop our bags at the fast bag drop and we could get through the checks and settled in for a quiet wait in the departure lounge. We hadn't recognised that this is the busiest Friday of the year and Heathrow was heaving. The fast baggage drop was we discovered a relative term. We had a long queue to negotiate, first for the baggage drop then for the security checks then for the passport control. We finally made it to the departure lounge at about 8pm. Not to worry we said to each other, we're on holiday – what's a little hold up. We were about to begin to discover.............
At ticket collection we had been told that the gate number hadn't been allocated – we should watch the screens. We had a meal then settled down to wait for the 10pm flight- and wait. By 9:55 we were getting a bit anxious as we had heard absolutely nothing over the announcement system and there was nothing on the screen. I approached one of the counters at a gate and asked if they had any idea – they checked their screen – apparently the aircraft was being towed to its departure gate but would need provisioning and loading. A delay of some 45 minutes was likely; we thought OK what's a little delay, after all we were due to have a stopover of almost 3 hours at Bangkok, perhaps this could be reduced? We settled down by the gate expected until we were called at around midnight and actually took off about 45 minutes later. The Captain apologised profusely for the delays which were caused by the flight being 'lost in the system' and the poor crew had been stranded without a pick-up bus for the same reason. After our evening meal had been served at 2:00 we settled down for a bit of kip before Bangkok. The Captain had taken on extra fuel and would be aiming to make up some time. I noticed we were flying at about 700mph, which I think is just under the speed of sound.
We duly touched down at the stylish new Bangkok International Airport about 2 hours late at 6pm local time;at which point the Captain apologised that we hadn't made up any time – 'as you may have noticed' one engine had developed problems and been cut 2 hours into our flight so we were not able to fly as quickly. He warned us that the engine would need attention and repair before we would be able to continue. Never mind we thought, we're on holiday, getting to Sydney a few hours late will not matter. We had to disembark from the aircraft anyway but although we would be boarding from the same gate, the Authorities presumably take the view that there is no point in having a new airport if people don't enjoy it. So off we walked from the extremes of the airport to the centre and back to the gate, passing through the security screens, bag checks etc to get to the departure gate. We watched as engineers peered at the engine; the new crew tried to keep us informed of progress but information was at best sporadic. Finally the decision was made that the onward trip to Sydney was cancelled. We would be put up in the Airport Novotel overnight until onward transport could be arranged. Tired, depressed and dispirited we made our way back again to the central hub but this time to check out. We had to wait some time for this as the Thai authorities refused to let us into the hall until a new team was assembled specifically to deal with us. We then had to queue for some time to get through the customs controls – none of us had visas, so the Thai authorities insisted on holding on to our passports if we wanted to leave the airport building. No-one was happy about this but we had no choice; 100 years ago this would probably have resulted in a gunboat being dispatched! When we got to the hotel, there was the inevitable queue with 300 people checking in at once. We finally made it to our room at 10:50pm local; 10 minutes before the restaurant was due to close – and we were hungry. But the hotel kept the restaurant open for us. Crawled into bed and crashed out. We were told that there would be a meeting at 1pm to tell us what was going to be done.

By early Sunday morning, one or two people who had not been satisfied with waiting had got seats and the rest were getting restless, so the Hotel management asked the airline to send someone to address a hastily arranged conference at 10am. We were put in the picture; the aircraft was to be repatriated for repair. We would be found flights with anyone else that could give us a seat in the priority according to the price we paid. We were warned that it may take a day or two as this was a busy weekend; there were no spare 747's to take us on, few airlines operated direct to Sydney from Bangkok and if anyone were prepared to choose an alternative destination, it would alleviate the situation. The meeting was repeated at 1pm to make sure everyone had the information. We let them know that if we couldn't get a flight to Sydney in good time, we would prefer to go direct to Christchurch where we were due to meet up with Ollie and Ang on Wednesday. Some people who were not under any time pressures accepted an offer of transport to a resort on the coast for a couple of days. The rest of us were told that we would need to be ready to be available to rush for a flight at 45 minutes notice. So we chilled as much as we could. In fact the cage in which we were trapped was quite a spectacularly gilded one even if it was not where we wanted to be. By the following morning, there was an apparent discrepancy between what we were being told by the airline and what people were able to achieve themselves on the net; the manager was duly summoned for a 1pm meeting to face the music with many people extremely angry. Poor guy took a terrible verbal hammering and his protests that facing us was taking him away from helping us fell on deaf ears; this was our second day and we had already been overtaken by people on the flight the day after us – we were taking no prisoners. After some time he was interrupted – there were 4 seats on Singapore Airlines to Sydney via Christchurch. We were apparently already booked on it and had to be at the airport immediately for a check-in by 3. Although we hadn't unpacked, we still had to get our things together hurriedly and raced to catch the shuttle bus with a mother and daughter, escorted by airline staff to collect our passports and get to the check-in desk. We arrived 2 minutes after it had closed. Thwarted at every turn! We were then whisked round to the airline desk and were checked in to the same flight that we would have been on 2 days ago! When our boarding passes were issued, we were escorted to the customs formalities by a girl who admitted she was on her first day! We had a grand tour of the airport before we got to the departure lounge. As the time of the flight drew near more and more of our friends from the stricken flight arrived and it was clear that a decision had been made to move us all without further delay.

The flight from London landed to great cheers and after it had been reprovisioned and loaded we were invited to board to even more cheers. But it wasn't over yet. The cold hand of fate had more in store for us. After initial boarding checks, the Captain told us he was having problems starting an engine; the 'plane was taken off the stand to be started on the apron. This didn't work, the cabin systems were shut down to divert energy to the start, so the cabin got hot and a lady fainted. We were taken back to the gate and when the lady was recovered, the engine was started at the gate. We were towed back to the apron ready for permission to fly and while we were waiting, one of the passengers became very sick; we had to wait for a decision from the airline medical team about what to do. He was to be medivaced. We returned to the gate to disembark the poor unfortunate, get on some cleaners and take off his baggage. We also took on some more fuel! Because of Australian concern about importation of unwanted insect life, each time the doors were opened, the crew had to walk up and down the aircraft with insecticide to fumigate it! I couldn't help hoping that none had stowed away in my case while it was open at the hotel or Australia could be in for trouble. Finally we made it past the apron and out onto the runway ready for take-off, two days and two hours late. As we finally made it into the air, the prisoners of the gilded cage raised another shout; we had been beginning to think we would have to return to the tender ministrations of Louis again. But what is a little delay when you're on holiday? As we settled down for the flight to Sydney we thought it would be good to watch 'Amazing Grace' with the inflight video on demand, needless to say it didn't work. So we mused on the effect for our truncated time in Sydney on our never-to-be-repeated-holiday-of-a-lifetime. Our 3 days of sightseeing would have to be condensed into one; we decided on just 4 things we would do: see the Opera House, see Sydney Harbour Bridge and do a harbour tour. We would have our anniversary dinner, as originally planned in Guillaumes in one of the Opera House shells, overlooking the harbour and the bridge. We should have known better........................

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on July 31, 2007 from Christchurch, New Zealand
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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Sydney in 12 hours and off to New Zealand

Te Anau, New Zealand

Our hotel couldn’t have been more convenient for a short stay. From the front door we could see the Harbour Bridge at the end of the road and across the street the entrance to Circular Quay, so we eagerly set off to walk round the Quay and checked out the harbour cruises. I’d read in the Rough Guide that the Opera Café on the lower concourse was a good bet with beautiful views of the harbour and bridge so we made our way there for lunch before taking our boat trip. A really great way to get a taste of the layout and beauty of it all. The boat stopped at various points around the harbour area and if we had had the time we could have hopped off and then caught a later boat to get to the next highlight. By the end of our tour it was beginning to get dark so we headed back to the hotel for a quick shower and change before heading to Guillame’s in the Opera House for our anniversary meal ………….. only to find a notice apologising to clientelle for the fact that the restaurant was closed for the evening for a private function!! We looked at one another and started to laugh. With the luck we had been having it wasn‘t too much of a disappointment. We headed back along the quay and dined in the open (next to a patio heater) with the harbour in the background with twinkling lights reflected in the water along with the coloured neons from the skyscrapers that surround the area - one of them being AXA. It couldn’t have been a better substitute to our original choice and it began to feel as though we were really on our holiday. We headed back to The Russell for an early night, we needed to be at the airport again for a 7 am check in for our flight to Christchurch. Well you’ve guessed it the flight was nearly 2 hours late in taking off. However, we ended up only an hour late for our link up with Ol and Ang. It was wonderful to see them again and Ol and Rick headed off to collect our campervan while Ang and I chatted over a drink in the airport café. The men seemed to have been gone for quite a time and then we saw Ol. He asked me would I like the good news or the bad first. ‘It better be the bad love’ I said. ‘Well the bad news is the hire place is all locked up and no-one is there, but the good news is that we’ve managed to get you a cabin for the night at the campsite where we’re staying and we can sort out the van in the morning’. Relieved that we had successfully met up after all the hiccups we had had along the way I was surprisingly unphased. The cabin was great and we slept like logs before the start of our wonderful time in New Zealand.

We picked up our campervan early next morning. They said they had no idea we were coming and deducted a day’s hire and upgraded us to a bigger van. A whirlwind tour of the facilities and various keys for various lockers saw us off and on our way to Oamarou.

We filled up with diesel and hit the road. It was a little disconcerting to see plumes of black smoke gushing out of the exhaust from the wing mirrors but we put that down to it being a diesel engine. We also guessed that Minnie, as Rick christened her, had not been on the road for some considerable time as she was a little musty with overtones of disinfectant in the cab. We arrived at Oamarou at sunset and headed straight to the Blue Penguin viewing arena. Wrapped up against the cold (it is their winter) we sat and waited. We weren’t disappointed as right on cue first one group and then another started clambering up the rocks leading from the beach to their little nesting burrows. They are the smallest penguins in the world and are really cute. They gather in little groups at the edge of the rocks before making a run for their burrows across a floodlit track. The next day we stopped off to see the Moeraki Boulders and more photo opportunities on our way through Dunedin and then inland to Te Anau. It was a long drive and we took turns at the wheel. On the last stretch I resorted to a repertoire of nursery rhymes and any songs I could think of to keep me awake (I was driving) as surprise, surprise we discovered on day one that the radio didn’t work. Painful for Rick but better than me falling asleep!! This sounds worse than it was - there are literally no other cars on the road!! We discovered over the next day or so that Minnie had a blocked up waste water pipe (could have been embarrassing if not sorted) and a broken rear light bulb. Rick as ever got her in order. We ended up getting quite attached to Minnie over the fortnight, as apart from the windscreen wiper falling off in Auckland she coped with everything thrown at her!

We had planned to spend our time at Te Anau by taking a trip down Milford Sound. When we arrived at the campsite Reception to book we were told that, due to the danger of Avalanches, the Milford trip had been cancelled and the alternative to Doubtful Sound was fully booked. A quick change of plan took us to Queenstown for the day and we booked for Doubtful for the next. We loved Queenstown. On the edge of a beautiful lake, surrounded by snow capped mountains, lovely cafes and a cable car ride for panoramic views of the whole area. A great day with the prospect of further adventure and promises of even more beautiful scenery and wildlife the following.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on August 5, 2007 from Te Anau, New Zealand
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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Fur Seals off Doubtful Sound

Christchurch, New Zealand

An early start and on to a small coach that drove us to take the first boat across lake Manapouri on our way to Doubtful Sound. A quick stop at an information centre and then another coach ride up and around mountains with the sides of the tracks fringed in snow. A little strange as it was reasonably hot and tree ferns were growing by the roadside. We were eventually dropped off opposite a beautiful waterfall while our guide parked up and went to fetch the launch that was to take us down the Sound. We passed huge mountain peaks as we cruised along, occasionally sighting a waterfall. Our guide told us that they were not in full spate as it hadn't rained much since yesterday but that yesterday's tour had not been able to see the mountain tops as they had been shrowded in mist! He said that if we made good time he might be able to take us out of the mouth of the sound to see if we could catch a glimpse of the fur seals. We crossed our fingers and sure enough luck was on our side. Rick got some really wonderful shots of them as they lay on the rocks and the younger ones being inquisitive lomped over towards the boat to investigate. It really made our trip and the sand fly bites that we collected on our way back seemed a small price to pay!!!

Another early start the following day saw us on our way through Queenstown and on to the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers. The drive involved crossing the Alps - steep uphill and downhill sections with extremely sharp bends involving speeds or lack of them of around 25 Km.

We arrived at Fox at twilight and pulled off the road and on to the approach road leading to the base car park. Only one other vehicle in the park and a solitary Kea (South Island Mountain Parrot) who seemed unruffled by our invasion in fact he obviously expected a few tit bits - even though signs in the car park ask visitors not to feed them. We started out and I did wonder if I should have suggested we take a torch. Ol and Ang strode on ahead and met us on the way back from approaching the foot of the glacier as by this time it was getting rather dark. We still managed to get an idea of the magnificence of it. So strange to think of a huge block of ice, which had been carving its way through the mountains for centuries still being there. We drove on to Franz Joseph and into our next Top 10 Campsite for the night.

We had planned to travel back via Arthur's Pass to Christchurch the following day but took time out before leaving Franz Joseph to see the Glacier there.

Again a majestic sight. We couldn't approach really near due to weather conditions on the lookout path but still got an amazing view.

Again wonderful scenery as we drove along with a lunch time stop in a mountain pass car park with another Kea. This one was very adventurous and proceeded to climb all over the car parked next to us. It perched on the wing mirror and then slid down the back windscreen.

When it realised no-one was going to provide it with lunch it took off with a great squawk.

Our last night with Ol and Ang in Christchurch before saying goodbye at their camper van depot. They flew off to Sydney and we drove on up the coast to Picton. The last leg of the journey took us on a coastal road and we spotted more seals on the shore rocks and stopped to take a closer look.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on August 7, 2007 from Christchurch, New Zealand
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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New Zealand North Island - Farewell to Minnie

Auckland, New Zealand

Before leaving Christchurch, we had one last thing to do – Ollie needed to have a dinner of Roast New Zealand lamb. After a brief discussion, we decided that if Ollie was going to finally have his NZ lamb, we would be best going out. Reception mentioned the Oxford on Avon pub which does a carvery and when I rang discovered that lamb was on the menu; decision made. It was a very generous meal and good too. After the meal we had a brief tour of the city centre, which was quite beautiful by night.

The next day, having dropped Ollie and Ang, we made our way up to Picton; it seemed strange not having the Kiwi Campervan either behind or ahead and although it was nice to have time to ourselves, found ourselves missing Ollie and Ang's company.
The next day we crossed over to Wellington up Queen Charlotte Sound. It was raining and a low mist clung to the hills so the scenery was not as spectacular as it may have been. The crossing lasted 3 hours and once out of the sound, there was quite a swell. We made our way up to Taupo - our initial impressions of North Island were that it is significantly busier than the South. Also we were not as impressed with the scenery, However, as we progressed, this improved with lots of gently rolling hills. In Taupo, Ollie had recommended a cruise on Barbary and we were very glad we followed his lead. We only had to be down at the harbour for 10:10 for our trip on Barbary. So a relatively easy start to the day for a change.

The cruise was marvellous in a yacht once owned by Errol Flynn, apparently born in Tasmania! The rain we had had first thing had stopped and although breezy, it was fine. While we were cruising out, we were able to do a bit with sail but getting to the point round which we needed to go, the wind shifted and gave us quite a swell. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to cope with the pitch and roll and the motor pushed us into the rollers hard enough to get spray all over the deck. I was glad we had worn our thermals and overtrousers as it would have been cold and wet otherwise. We managed to get a good look at the carvings but with the swell, we couldn't just let the yacht wallow and had to have some speed to maintain control. After the carvings, we put up sail and after we got past the point were able to make pleasant headway going down wind. It was a marvellously relaxing and quiet experience. Once back on land, again following Ollie and Ang's suggestion we went up to see Huka Falls, a wonderful cascade caused by the river being channelled though a short and narrow gorge, then dropping 10 metres into the watercourse below. After a spot of lunch, we hit the road again to Rotorua, arriving about an hour later. A very early finish to an unusually stressless day, really. We booked our Hangi and rainbow springs tour so that we could see a kiwi in action. The Hangi was wonderful and the 'cultural experience' which preceded it was interesting, even if one wondered how much of it was really traditional and how much simply for the tourists. I suppose it is the perennial dichotomy of tourism whether it perpetuates a sanitised version of the way people lived so that an insight is available or allows the tourism to destroy the way of life that was of interest in the first place. We finished off with a tour of the Rainbow Springs where a trust has been set up to preserve NZ's native bird population with the aim of restocking in the wild. Presumably to help in the funding, the have a rainbow trout hatchery. We saw all sorts of sizes from 'fingerlings' to huge beasts about to be discharged. On the way round our guide explained some of the Maori beliefs and bushcraft with herbal remedies. The highlight of the tour was to go through the Kiwi enclosure where there were allegedly 3 birds. However, only 1 was prepared to show himself at all and he was pretty shy and very quick (they may not have wings but they would make great rugby wingers!); still we did get a couple of glimpses as he ran past us.
The next day we had planned to see some of the local volcanic activity but got up to steady rain. We decided to stay pretty local in the morning and see how things went before deciding what to do later. We managed to walk round the lake front with sulphurous whiffs all around. We saw various pools of bubbling water and steam vents all over the place. We visited the very interesting Anglican Maori Church (one of very few that are warm to enter) I was a little disappointed that photography was not allowed inside. One of the interesting features was of a window that overlooks the lake which is a sandblasted and stained picture of Christ walking in Maori costume. It is cunningly meant to look as though he is walking on the lake. The extensive Maori carvings were delightful and there is some more traditional stained glass which was very attractive. Interestingly, the list of priests shows almost all have been Maori. Opposite the Church was a beautifully carved Maori meeting house. As we walked the rain grew worse and we were glad we had proper all weather gear, the walking shoes amazingly kept us warm and dry, even though we were aware that they were wet. We dried out a bit over a Chai latte (thanks Ang) in the old bath house, then moved on with very persistent rain. When we got back to the campsite, we found that although our gear had held up well and we were dry inside, there were some beginnings of damp in one or two places, my camera bag was soaking and the day bag had given up the unequal struggle with the weather and some of the contents had to be dried out; fortunately our passports were OK! So we spent that evening with the heater on full blast drying everything out! We decided, not for the first time this trip that a variation in plan was required and would get up early the next day and make a long day of it, paying a visit to Wai-O-Tapu, the thermal park before visiting Hobbiton and on to our final destination for this part of our trip - Auckland. By this time I was beginning to get quite attached to Minnie, having resolved most of the early problems she had been reliable and quite easy to drive.
We got to Wai-O-Tapu at 09:30 the next morning, got our tickets and after a brief look at the nearest parts made our way back to the van for a run down to where Lady Knox geyser was. We had an interesting chat from a bloke who described its discovery by inmates at an open prison nearby then popped a bar of soap down the chimney. A couple of minutes later, there were bubbles and a few minutes later, the geyser started and reached about 10 metres. It was quite interesting if not actually really spectacular. We then went round the park and this was truly wonderful and fascinating, with colours, smells, steam, vents and lots of bubbling. I hadn't associated volcanic activity with quite as much water as was evident. After our visit, we had a quick look at a mud pool just outside the park. Watching the mud plop was mesmerising!
Back in to the van and up to Matamata; initially to a garden centre on the main road that has made the mistake of calling itself Hobbiton. We were directed to the info centre in the middle of town and bought our tickets for the 2:30 tour. It was a marvellous insight into the making of the films and the problems associated with the contract terms imposed upon everyone. Seeing the set and the background provided by the very informative guide, Caroline made it all come to life. Sue & I decided to watch the trilogy again when we got home!
Back on the road again, we arrived in Auckland at the campsite at 7pm. pretty tired but very happy. One of the most notable features on this trip has been the distances. There are no motorways to speak of , the van was governed to 100k and one just has to be prepared to take time to get from A to B. The trouble is that it is too easy to underestimate how far that actually is.
The next day we caught the bus into Auckland from outside the camp entrance. It took just under an hour to get in and then we walked to the skytower and caught the lifts up to the observation platform and the skydeck. The views were wonderful from both but we agreed it was worth the extra $3 to go up the extra level. After taking in the breathtaking panorama, we went down to the cafe for lunch and a leisurely observation of the harbour area. We then went down and saw someone launch themselves off the tower; it looks spectacular but I feel that someone must be lacking something in life if they need to do something like that to generate some adrenaline! We got ourselves to Mount Eden, then climbed this (unlike some members of the family) for another fantastic panorama of the city.
While returning Minnie to Adventure, she had one more final surprise for us in snapping one of her wiper blades~ as it was raining, this was a bit of a problem. We were shuttled to the airport and checked in, in good time. Needless to say, we were 30 mines late leaving. However. this was a QANTAS flight and we were treated to a splendid 3 course meal, finished off with a magnum (chocolate ice cream). We landed in Brisbane and got held up through customs as a result of having been in UK in last 30 days (foot & mouth since we left). A very nice customs officer apologised that we would have to take our shoes for a scrub. Through this we went to the Hertz desk where a lovely girl sorted out our requirements and set us on our way with maps and directions to Ollie and Ang's apartment. We duly arrived and went out for supplies for our next day. Oliie and Ang had already prepared a lovely evening meal for us and we settled down for last minute planning for the next couple of days before crashing out - we had an early start to make if we were to get to Hervey Bay in time for the whale watching – but what's new????.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on August 7, 2007 from Auckland, New Zealand
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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Whales in the bay

Brisbane, Australia

We had planned to travel through the Glass House Mountains on our way to Hervey Bay but decided, as we needed to catch an afternoon Whale Watching boat, to travel without this detour and try to see them on our way back to Brisbane. This proved to be a good decision as we reached the harbour and the booking office with only half an hour to spare before the sailing. Grabbing our wraps and sandwiches (very kindly prepared to take away by one of the quay side restaurants) we boarded to start what turned out to be a truly amazing afternoon. We had brought binoculars to view, if we were lucky we thought, anything in the way of whale activity. We didn’t need them. 45 minutes in to our journey a small pod (group) of whales was sighted and our boat headed over towards them. Engines were cut and we were encouraged to go on deck and wave and call out (no, not an episode of ‘Are You Being Framed’) The whales are apparently inquisitive creatures who enjoy interaction with human beings – well as long as they aren’t brought by factory ships armed with harpoons!). The noise and activity seemed to do the trick as the pod swam over to investigate at close quarters and then proceeded to swim around and under the boat, occasionally diving, blowing through their air holes or splashing the water with their flippers. The captain told us that these were only babies of about 2 years old weighing in at around 2 tons apiece. They must have spent at least an hour with us before the boat moved on when we then saw a couple of adults who treated us to more antics, including breaches (where they hurl their whole bodies at great speed out of the water). It is difficult to explain why all this was so moving – I guess it is the fact that they are huge creatures and yet so gentle, friendly and trusting. Sadly it was time to head back to the harbour. We got back to the car and drove to the accommodation that Ang and Oli had booked for the night to be greeted by the owner, with the inspiring and welcoming words - “well, you're lucky I didn't let your room, you're very late”. It was just 6 pm! Anyway we unpacked and after a hasty trip to the supermarket got started on tea while Rick went to settle with our friendly landlady. We were due to make a very early start the next morning for our adventure to Frazer Island and also wanted to book ourselves in for the night of our return from there.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on August 10, 2007 from Brisbane, Australia
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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Frazer Island

Brisbane, Australia

Up at 5am!! Packed, loaded car and at the 4WD hire place for a briefing at 06:30. The briefing was quite terrifying in pointing out the hazards of speeding on the beach and the dangers of excessive speed on the inland tracks as well as pointing out the need for self-reliance. There were graphic images of overturned vehicles and bent bits. There was also much helpful info on how to deal with the differing terrain and what to do if you got stuck. Off to catch the barge at 08:15, the Toyota hilux was a different drive - for one thing, the brakes were unimpressive, although they worked well enough once you got used to them. Later we discovered that the handbrake had a mind of its own about whether to release or not and the gear ratio selector could be a bit awkward about co-operating with requests. Suitably concerned, we disembarked on Frazer Island. I suppose I had begun to suspect that this would not be the mildly testing dirt track encounter I had been expecting. I was not let down! The 12km drive across the island to our accommodation took just over 1 hour and was full of drama with soft sand, high clearance drops over roots and ruts. It was at times very bumpy and I was concerned for Sue's back. The whole trip would not have been so bad if we could just do it at our own speed but it was like the M1 on a Friday afternoon and 4WD tour coaches were haring across from the ferries and with tour parties and if you didn't pull over quickly, they were driving on your tail pipe. If you did pull over, you risked getting bogged, so you waited for an easier looking candidate. At one point, I saw oncoming traffic and an obviously difficult passage just after I passed a passing place, so I dutifully reversed in and let half a dozen vehicles past in the opposite direction. Once I got going again, I didn't get the momentum I needed and so got stuck. After a couple of attempts at unsticking we decided to dig out. Shifting sand from the front of the wheels was enough to give us the momentum we needed to extract and we managed to reach the resort without too much more drama. After booking into our very nice apartment, freshening up and having lunch, we were off again, this time with Ollie driving. He had blown up the cushion that Zoe gave him for his travels and Sue found it gave her back additional support. As we drove onto the beach, someone decided to use the same route off the beach as we were using to get on, despite us choosing the left hand side and being on before they started their exit. Ollie had to stop; the guy then decided to reverse out but we couldn't get going again. We started to dig out then some French students who were also digging out their bus came over and gave us a push so that we were away and onto firm sand. We went back to help the French contingent and a pilot got himself stranded; we started to dig him out and he tried to get going. It seemed strange that all the action was taking place at the rear wheels. I thought that as a pilot, he would have the technical knowledge to have the car in 4WD and suggested so to Ollie. But it took a French student to actually point it out to him! He got free soon after. Then the student bus managed to get free and we started our journey up the beach. The briefing had warned us of washouts and so we were looking for any evidence of these as we approached creeks running across the beach. Poor Olly who was driving got much additional warning from the back seat. But when we approached the wreck of the Maheno, we discovered that the real problem is really not expecting them. Ollie approached a creek with care thinking there would be a small drop into it but found it to be bigger than expected, though thankfully it wasn't too bad. The Maheno is an interesting wreck, decomposing at the tide line, you can see she was once a mighty ship and some of her timber planking is still in place. We drove back down to Eli Creek and parked up. Ollie and Ang decided to wade down the creek and played pooh sticks with Ollie's flip flops under a bridge. Apart from the odd noisy tourist, it was a pleasantly quiet and peaceful spot. The creek was beautifully clear. Getting back from here was a bit hairy with many people travelling very rapidly along the beach and with the rising tide leaving very little room on the left for me! We had one little and fairly uncomfortable detour when we turned off the beach too early for a rock detour but we were lucky enough to find a place to turn round and make it back out. Back at the apartment Sue had to have 5 pieces of chocolate before her nerves were quietened. We were all quite bushed by the day and by the time we had made supper and tidied away we were ready for bed. We made an early night of it.
Next morning we had a family conference and decided that we wouldn't attempt the Champagne pools at the northern end of the island but concentrate on the lakes. Sue was feeling much more positive and although the trip across the island through the lakes was extremely bumpy at times it was marked by maniacal laughter as she hung on to the strop above the door and bounced around on her seat. The great thing about this trip was the lack of tour buses along the way until we reached central station. The lakes were crystal clear with white sandy beaches. Lake Birramin was absolutely delightful and Ollie and Angela had a nice swim there. Afterwards we had lunch at a picnic table in the forest. After lunch we went on to Lake Mackenzie and from central station on were competing with tour buses once more. The trip across had been quite testing with some very difficult passages but Ollie managed to cope very well (he later said that he had been told that the best way to cope was to drive fairly fast over bumps and thereby miss out on a few) and I found when I was driving that I had a better insight into reading the terrain and how to deal with it as well as having more confidence that both the vehicle and I could deal with it. Lake Mackenzie was spectacularly lovely if a little crowded. We were under a little bit of time pressure as we arrived at 2:30 and had to leave at 3:00 to be sure of being at the dock by 3:45 for the 4:00 sailing. We actually left at 3:10 and I was concerned not to misread the trail and get bogged while at the same time not being too cautious and slow. In the event, we made it to the dock with about 5 mins to spare and the barge nowhere in sight! There were some huge pelicans on the sand of the estuary. The barge arrived late and then had to wait for one of the tour buses to arrive and discharge its human cargo. We finally left about 3/4 hr late. We filled up with fuel before returning the Toyota and were pleased when they did their check of the vehicle and found no need to charge us. Loaded up the car and went to our accommodation only to find Mrs Crazy had double-booked us despite our pre-payment – got this refunded. We made enquiries and found another studio apartment not far away; we made our way there and were delighted to find it was a delightful place, unfortunately only one room with a double and 2 singles that dropped down from apparent wardrobes Ollie found his feet wet in the middle of the night and we found that the air conditioning unit was the culprit. We went back to the Wheelhouse restaurant for dinner and had fish (Barramundi) and chips which was excellent but the service certainly wasn't.
The next day we made a reasonably early start and set out for the glass house mountains. As time went on it became clear that this was going to be a bigger ask than we had thought. We had to limit our excursion to the main route and while this was a lovely drive through the mountains, it was not as spectacular as we had been led to believe and there was no sign of the waterfalls and only a small amount of viewing of the mountains themselves. This route left us a bit short of time to visit the Koala sanctuary outside Brisbane and the town traffic didn't help. We decided to go for it and had a lightening tour of the sanctuary lasting 15 mins. Then off at a brisk pace to the airport; it must be said that if we had taken as long to reach the airport as it did the sanctuary, we would have missed our flight but fortunately Ollie navigated us through the town centre bypass which worked very well and we actually arrived with 5 mins to spare but only by not re-fuelling and had to pay a penalty for this. After checking in, a hurried re-distribution of load left an airport bin the beneficiary of some interesting food items. The Virgin Blue flight left on time and actually arrived early; the flight was most notable for the fact that the cabin crew were led by a bright spark who clearly really enjoyed her job hugely and made it enjoyable for everyone else too. We picked up the new hire car - I was lucky enough to get another Toyota Aurion – though not the Sportivo this time which then transported us to our apartment in Yorkey's Knob. Just as I was approaching the village, a Kangaroo hopped into the road necessitating an emergency stop to avoid a collision., Due to the lateness of the hour we went down to the Boat Club for supper of Pizza and arrived with 2 minutes to spare before they closed for meals. Fortunately, they agreed to serve us. The pizzas were first class.
The next day was a Sunday and Ollie and I were up fairly early to pop out to the supermarket for breakfast, not having had the time to do any shopping after we arrived. We were a bit concerned that it wouldn't be open. Not to fear – it opens at 6:15 7 days a week! I noticed a key scratch along the side of the car that I hadn't seen before and rang Hertz to say that I hadn't noticed it last night when picking it up. They seemed OK with this and said that it had now been noted on their records, so not to worry. After a nice breakfast which we ate in the apartment it being a little fresh to eat outside, despite being in the tropics, we spent a most relaxing day in Cairns. I was prepared for a rather seedy, touristy place but although undeniably set out for tourists, had a charm about it. We parked up on the seafront a little way out of the town and walked in to the centre. We had a nice lunch overlooking the bay and spent a bit of time in an internet cafe before heading back, doing some shopping and booking our tours to the Great Barrier Reef and Kuranda. Ollie was going to give some instructions on how to snorkel with a borrowed kit from the manager, in the pool outside the apartment but when we tried the water it was freezing and we decided not to bother. We then thought that it may be better on the beach, seeing as it was late afternoon and trotted down to the sea some 50m away. As we got to the beach, it was quite windy and chilly and at least for me made it a no-no. Ollie braved the cool and managed a paddle but even he didn't go for a swim.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on August 12, 2007 from Brisbane, Australia
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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A birthday to remember on The Great Barrier Reef

Cairns, Australia

What a fabulous way to have a birthday! We had to be down at the marina for 8:30 and were sailing at 09:00 with Reef Magic Cruises – a particularly apt name, out to Marine World pontoon, moored out on the outer reef which is apparently not as heavily visited as the inner (and therefore more pristine). Ollie and Ang had decided to hire a waterproof camera for the day so that we could get lots of nice pictures of our trip; you can see some of the results amongst the photos. It has certainly added a memorable extra level to the day. We signed up for an accompanied snorkel with a marine biologist as this would mean that we got best value from the trip according to Ollie (and he was very right) Ang insisted on paying for it for my birthday. The trip out to the bay was fine but when we got to open sea, the wind we had been warned about made its presence felt and we had some significant seas to cope with. Surprisingly, I found myself OK as long as I watched the horizon but after a while Sue felt a bit queasy and asked me to go to the rear deck with her. I thought she was perhaps trying to protect me from seasickness before it struck. As time went on, although I didn't feel too bad, I am sure that had I stayed in the main body of the boat, I would certainly have succumbed. Ollie joined us outside later and even Ang who apparently never gets seasick, found herself feeling uncomfortable. On reaching the reef, we transferred to a pontoon which was not bobbing about quite so much so was quite a relief even if it did move more than I would have liked! We were given our wetsuits and snorkel gear and told to report to the snorkelling platform in 15 minutes. We were given instructions on how to use the snorkel, in my case involving the use of Vaseline on my moustache to allow the mask to seal watertight on my top lip (I found this wasn't foolproof and I needed to let out water from time to time). The initial dip into the water was not the lukewarm experience I had expected – actually it was bloody cold! After a little while the suits did their work and the water became tolerable! The transition from above water to looking into the depths while underwater was utterly amazing; I guess that it is not an unsimilar experience to getting a pair of glasses for the first time when you hadn't appreciated how poor your vision had become. Our guide had us hold on to a life ring while he explained what we could see below us; the different type of coral and the vast profusion of fish – I couldn't believe how many fish were in one place and in view. We were presented with a sea cucumber and held it up for a photo opportunity. The sea cucumber apparently spends his life eating dirty sand and pooing clean sand – an unusual arrangement. After our all too short 45 minutes of instruction, we got back on the pontoon to dry off a bit and warm up. The wetsuits didn't help at this point and although we were in the tropics and it was a warm day, we needed to put on some dry tops to warm through. Poor Ang was shivering until she put a warm top on. Sue and I went on the next semi-submersible trip and got to see a wonderland of coral, colour and fish – again I was struck by the profusion of colour, variety and quantity. We had a wonderful buffet lunch and after a brief rest, when we managed to see a huge Maori Wrasse being fed on the snorkelling platform, put on our wetsuits again for an unaccompanied tour of the area. While I was pottering about on my own, Ollie came along and in an interesting role reversal took my hand and guided me round some of the fantastic sights around the reef that he had discovered. I found it quite touching that he should take so much trouble. I didn't like to get too far away from the platform as when my mask or snorkel leaked I had to clear them and was concerned that if I got overconfident, it would be too easy to get into trouble. I did wish, though that I was able to have the confidence that Ollie had – born of practice – in diving down towards the lower reaches of the reef. Many years ago I wouldn't have had the problem! We were able to get amazingly close to all the fish who were apparently quite blazé about our presence but having been warned of the danger of cuts inflicted by the coral, were loathe to get too close to the reef. Not that this appeared to worry many others who were charging around without too much consideration for others who were about them; despite being careful one of our party managed to get a nick and we made sure that we got some antiseptic on the cut as soon as possible. After spending a good time out on our own, Sue and I got back on the pontoon and showered and dried off. We thawed out with a cup of tea and then went to find Ollie and Ang who were finishing off their swim. We lost sight of Ang and there were some anxious moments while we searched the surface for any sign of her only to find that she had returned to the pontoon and was behind us! Gradually the stragglers were coaxed from the water as the tide fell revealing increasing portions of the reef. Back on board the boat, we had another cuppa and decided to get a cd with some pictures of us and some of the reef. The trip back was not as bad as the trip out but it was nonetheless uncomfortable and we were glad to get into the harbour and disembark. I was tempted to do as Pope John Paul used to do and kiss the ground but felt that it would betray my landlubbing side too much. We got back to our apartment got showered and changed and then went for a meal at the Knob's Boat Club. Unfortunately it was 2 for 1 night for members and so was packed. We decided to be prepared to wait rather than go anywhere else. We had to queue for a little while to order but the wait wasn't too excessive and the meal was very good. Suitably exhausted, we retired fairly early – another early start tomorrow!

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on August 14, 2007 from Cairns, Australia
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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High up in the Canopy

Cairns, Australia

We reached the railway station and picked up the pre-booked tickets for our Rainforest experience – a trip to Kuranda by train and return by Skyrail gondola. We waited on the platform in anticipation for the tell tale sounds of an approaching steam engine. A large light appeared in the distance. As it grew nearer I could see the brightly painted coachwork of a modern engine pulling a long string of old fashioned carriages. We chugged off at a sedate pace gradually climbing higher into the mountains and through the rainforest. The track passes through a series of tunnels as it winds its way upwards and there are beautiful views of Cairns and the coastline. From time to time you catch glimpses of waterfalls to the side of the track. The train briefly stops at Baron Gorge for a photo opportunity of the waterfall there which, judging from photos, can be spectacular but due to the shortage of rainfall when we visited was just a trickle.

Kuranda itself is very touristy but still rather charming and we stopped on our way to Birdworld for a cream tea. I confused the lady behind the counter by asking for just that. She looked puzzled and said “what's that”. “Um, what you've got on the board ......... Devon Cream Teas”. “Oh right. Well I've never heard them called Cream Teas before”. That sorted we sat down for our teas (at lunchtime)! Refuelled we made our way to Birdworld. Amazing. It was really wonderful – a huge open area of forest and ponds with tropical birds everywhere. When you looked up you could see a very fine mesh of netting enclosing the whole area but it was so lovely to see the birds, to all intents and purposes, flying freely. Some of them were really tame and would take seed from your hand. Reluctantly we made our way back to catch Skyrail. Our return combination ticket meant that we needed to be at the Skyrail base terminal by 3 pm to take the last bus back to the railway station where we had parked. The gondolas whisked us high above the treetops with 3 stops en route to our destination. We spotted the train in the distance below us as we gradually and silently glided through the sky back down to the coast. We finished the day by heading into Cairns to pick up the disk of photos Ol and Ang had taken with the underwater camera they had hired for our Barrier Reef trip. They were wonderful shots and well worth the effort they took in taking them.
We still hadn't used the complex pool but dipping our toes in on our return it seemed bitterly cold so Ol suggested we walk to the beach only a few hundred yards away. He bravely strode into the water which was also very cold so with just a brief paddle we gave up and popped back to start tea.

The following day we decided to return to Kuranda, this time by car. We headed for one of the wildlife parks. The object of the exercise being to have a cuddle with a Koala.

It turned out to be quite a small park and unfortunately we arrived at the same time as a large group of Japanese tourists. The kangaroos and wallabies all ran for cover to escape the barrage of cameras but we enjoyed seeing the Koalas and Ang and I proceeded to the 'Cuddle a Koala and have your picture taken' area. We were pleased to read, as we waited for the shots, that the Koalas are protected by law from being used more than a certain number of minutes in one day for photos.!

Rick and I left Cairns for the start of our journey back home and a day in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, before our long flight to Heathrow the next day. We packed up and left Yorkeys Knob but not before a daylight trip down the Marina. On the two occasions that we had been there before it had been to eat at the Yacht Club there and I thought it would be nice to see what it all looked like in daylight. We parked up and strode down to the harbour wall. Two huge signs warning 'Danger Salt Water Crocodiles' were clearly visible as we approached the beach to the side of the harbour wall. It suddenly became clear why there had been no-one on the beach when we went for our short paddle a couple of days previously!! We hadn't seen any signs in the section that we had gone on. With a nervous laugh we drove past our beach and on to Cairns, dropped Ol and Ang off at their hostel and said our sad farewells. Our flight was on time and we arrived in Sydney in good time to pick up our hire car and drive back to the Russell. Our short time there at the beginning of the holiday meant that we managed to find our way there with only one wrong turning!

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 29, 2007 from Cairns, Australia
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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A Blue Haze and a Swiss Chalet

Katoomba, Australia

A two hour drive from Sydney saw us to Katoomba. It was a glorious bright sunshiny day though the air was icy cold. We arrived soon after lunch, checked into our hotel and armed with our guide book headed off in the direction of Echo Point and what proved to be a really wonderful afternoon. The views from here are out of this world and the haze above the forest does really look blue. We walked the circuit to Skyway, descending the Giant Stairway alongside the Three Sisters and then crossing the Jamison Valley, passing Katoomba Falls to the Scenic Railway. The Railway takes you back up to the top of the cliffs from where you can take Skyway back to reach Echo Point. We'd worked up quite an appetite by the time we returned and it was beginning to get dark. Having had a little look at the local guides and thumbed through the Rough Guide we plumped for a place called the Swiss Chalet just a very short walk from where we were staying. Suitably wrapped up against the cold we headed out. What a wonderful find. The restaurant was, surprise, surprise furnished and set out like an old fashioned Swiss Chalet (picture Heidi and you've got it) complete with cow bells of assorted sizes. It was packed but, luckily for us, they were able to squeeze us in. One rather large fondu later saw us back out into the cold and a brisk walk back to the hotel where the wood burning stove was glowing healthily. Having checked in for our return flights the next evening we settled down for the night. The next day we decided to take another shorter walk this time to see Leura Cascades and view Briday Veil Falls. Although lovely it was obvious that, like the waterfalls in Kuranda, they would be really spectacular if there had been any recent rain to speak of.

Our final check in and then the long journey home. What an adventure – truly a holiday of a lifetime even if it had got off to a wobbly start. Planning it and reading other people's blogs was nearly as much fun as living it and writing it up and reading Rick's accounts has made me feel perhaps another journey might be round the corner!

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 29, 2007 from Katoomba, Australia
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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Afterthoughts - questions I have been asked

Shrewsbury, United Kingdom

Would I use BA again?
Not if there were alternatives and a no huge difference in price. In fact, not unless I was desperate.
Which did you prefer; Australia or New Zealand?
I have been struck by the number of people whose first question this has been. Of course the answer is that they are different but it is true that I have more affectionate memories of New Zealand, South Island in particular and this may well be due to its lack of pretension, its stunning scenery, its emptiness and friendly folk. North Island was still pretty empty but definitely more busy and Auckland was just another large metropolis – even if quite an attractive one from a high level. Flying in to Christchurch, I was struck with the huge number of corrugated roofs and this was reflected in what I saw on the ground. Not the uninteresting grey shed roof we see here in the UK but all sorts of different profiles and colours. It has clealy been found to provide a popular, economical and colourful roofing material to compete with the concrete tiles and slate roofs we have here (I wondered if it had anything to do with local materials). Australia on the other hand I can't assess largely because I have only seen a very small part of it, albeit that it was hugely interesting. Both Nations are very friendly and welcoming. Away from the area, to distinuish between them – ask an individual to count from 5 to 8. A New Zealander will say five, sex, sivin, eight. White Australia appears to largely ignore any problems with its Aboriginal population while New Zealand recognises and celebrates Maori culture and language; though again, my perception is that whether or not you think that there is an injustice or inequality may have more to do with the colour of your skin than any absolute reality. On a philosophical if not very PC note, throughout history conquered peoples have either been exterminated or subsumed into the conqueror's society. Until European arrival, many of the Maori were tribes constantly engaged in wars; while the conquered men were often invited to the victory banquet, it was as the main course and the women were used as slaves. So extermination of enemies was common. Under European rule, while it was frequently brutal; in New Zealand's case, the legacy is such that the Maori traditions and language have survived. Even to the extent of the pride in performing the Hakka as an accepted national ritual. Ask a Maori today where his loyalties lie and it is tribe first, Maori second and New Zealand third.
What is it like to drive there?
South Island New Zealand is a delight with lots of empty roads. While Sue was driving I took a few photos from the camper and reviewing these has reinforced my impression; there is rarely a vehicle in sight. Admittedly this was winter, but there seemed to be plenty of traffic in the main towns. Driving through the Southern Alps was hairy and this was exacerbated by the practise of building road bridges over the many streams and rivers with a single carriageway, operating a preference system. Albeit that they are reasonably well signposted, it is something that you need to bear in mind as you round a bend. North Island was busier than South but still pretty traffic free by UK standards and Queensland had traffic levels roughly comparable with rural France but without the poor driving habits. Fuel is very cheap in both countries at about 50% of UK prices. As a result it seems that they are keen to have large engines in all their vehicles. Australia has not taken to diesel and seems to be a land of petrolheads. The 'Ute' is often as much a fashion accessory as a statement and takes the place of the 2 seater sports car in the UK. Often owned by by young men to whom a macho image is best enhanced with huge (preferably twin) exhausts and a large engine of several litres. The Ute will be in immaculate condition with ultra low-profile tyres mounted on gleaming alloy wheels. The truck section at the back will be covered by an impossibly tidy cover that looks as though it is never used. In fact it struck me that most of them were never used to carry any loads at all – which is probably as well as most appeared to have a lowered suspension. However, in Australia at least, the majority of cars appear to be automatic, which is a bit of a contradiction in a muscle car as not making the most of the power available. (Similar it always seems to me to a bodybuilder wearing an ill fitting suit.) Neither country has the opportunity to make much use of the power. Most roads are at best 'A' roads, sometimes with a bit of dual carriageway (which is fine with the relatively low levels of traffic). The speed limits are 80kph on most roads with 100kph on dual carriageways, occasionally increased to 110kph. Unlike the UK most people stick within the limits – I'd guess that as much as 90-95%. So these huge, powerful beasts are never given their heads and like the Chelsea tractors in London are really just fashion accessories that drink loads more fuel than necessary and pump out disproportionate amounts of CO2. Admittedly, the power can be used briefly when accelerating but the beast has to be throttled back before it gets its wind. The cars we hired were great fun, especialy the Aurion Sportivo – very responsive and handled well. Even the standard Aurion was quite pokey; Ollie reprimanded me on one occasion when I managed to induce wheelspin by flooring the accelerator to get past slow traffic. Ididn't think automatics behaved like that! I was glad we had the Aurions rather than Falcons while we were a family of 4 with luggage; it seemed to me that the Aurions had more boot space – certainly it seemed more useable. What struck me on our return is that both the hire cars appear to reflect the local view on life; here in the UK the equivalent vehicles (Avensis and Mondeo) are equipped with 2 litre engines; you may be able to get up to 2.8 litres, but in Oz, both are equipped with huge 3.5 and 4.0 litre lumps as standard fare.
The many unique words to the area are well known but there was one piece of language that particularly intrigued me as it clearly has slightly different meaning to here. You will often see a sign showing a swerving car with a subscript 'When Frosty' – we have the same sign but with the subscript 'When Icy'. The two words mean essentially the same thing but to English ears, the word 'frosty' has a more romantic, perhaps childish nuance while 'icy' is harder and more dangerous.
What are the campsites like?
Well, we used 'Top 10 ' franchised sites pretty well exclusively in South Island and they were all very well equipped, some extremely well. A campervan is a good way to get around but it would be possible to use a hire car and use the camp sites chalets; most of them appeared to cater for this. Pitches worked out at around £10-£15 per night, while the chalet we had was only about £25 for the night. Bearing in mind we went during their winter, it was not surprising that it was rarely necessary to book ahead. But it was surprising to find all of them open and still quite busy. We used a couple of other site operators in North Island and found them to be to a good standard too.
Would I do anything differently?
Sue had repeatedly suggested we get some insect repellant before we left and I had poo-poohed it but I wish we had got some before our Doubtful sound cruise and we certainly needed if after nightfall in Cairns on any exposed skin. We got some spray on stuff with deet in the end and it worked well.
What about the actual distances involved?
We found that it was easy to underestimate this. We used the excellent New Zealand Tourism site for ideas about distances and times and they weren't far out but found ourselves slightly surprised at the effort of spending so much time behind the wheel. While I think we managed a lot in a short time and we spent quite a lot of time travelling, albeit through beautiful scenery and at a speed that allowed us to see it; none-the-less we had many quite early starts and late finishes, so I am not sure that we absorbed as much as we might. The six or so days we spent in each of South Island, North Island and Queensland certainly allowed us to get a flavour of the areas but we could could easily have spent twice as much time covering what we did in more leisurely fashion and probably have got a lot more out of it. Ollie and Ang spent the best part of 3 weeks in North Island and didn't get to see it all. Clearly a lifetime would be needed to see and understand any country, but I think you could get a reasonable snapshot with a month in each Island of New Zealand. This would allow progress at a rate that would not simply leave you exhausted. The only places we spent more than 15 hours were Te Anau in South Island (and we spent about 8 hours sleeping that night and 4 hours that day driving to Queenstown and back) and Rotorua in North Island. But given the constraints within which we were working, I wouldn't change a thing! We almost got caught on the time it would take us to complete the scenic route from Hervey Bay to Brisbane and at least in part was due to underestimating the amount of time it takes to get through a metropolitan area, due to the amount of time we had spent away from them. Then again, I was struck by the 2hour flight time between Brisbane and Cairns and 3 hours from Cairns to Sydney. These are huge distances. At least internal flights are relatively cheap!
What was the weather like? We had expected to have all 4 seasons on the trip and had prepared accordingly. New Zealand was unexpectedly warm on the east coast but we gathered that this is unusual. Sydney and Brisbane were pretty typical nice Spring days when we were there but it was cooler away from the coast in the mountains. Cairns was pleasantly warm but not as warm as I had expected. We needed air-conditioning for a couple of nights but not for all of them. It was frequently quite cool after the sun went down.
Are there many others there?
I was certainly struck by the volume of northern hemisphere people. As a broadly fracophilic roughly francophonic anglophone, I am used to hearing a number of european languages while on holiday. I was quite unprepared for this down under where I had doubted large numbers of europeans would travel such a distance (particularly when, as I found out, most had to travel via Heathrow). I was wrong – all european countries appeared to be represented in most of the places we went. We even met a Belgian sailing on Lake Taupo and found ourselves in the same lift going up the Skytower in Auckland some days later!! Most of the Dutch appeared to be holidaying in France as usual, as I don't remember meeting many. I was not surprised to see a number of Japanese but was surprised at the number of numbers! They appear to like travelling in tour parties (which I guess helps to avoid language difficulties) and struck me rather like starlings at the end of summer, appearing in large flocks of chattering individuals, swooping, diving and climbing together in unison, then moving off again all together.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 29, 2007 from Shrewsbury, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: From the Shire to Middle Earth and back
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