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For older posts please find links to monthly archives at the bottom of the page

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

One of the things I had been looking forward to in New Zealand was doing some white water rafting. In Christchurch I found there was a good stretch of river nearby on the Rangitata and that the rafting company was willing to pick me up from the city and drop me back at the end of the day. For the 2nd time on the trip some of the world got to see the distressing sight of me in a wetsuit, though the worst was hidden by the bulk of a lifejacket. The good thing about this stretch of river is that the rapids build up in grade from easy little ones to much more challenging stuff. We didn't loose anyone form our boat but a couple of people fell out of other rafts. At the end of a fun, exciting and wet run in the rafts we passed through a section of river where it narrows to the length of the boat. After shooting it in the raft you are invited to jump in for a swim. I'm 2nd man in, but the flows at the original landing point must have been higher than before since the first 3 people in couldn't swim to the shore. It ended up with all 3 of us clinging to a rope and getting dragged to the side totally exhausted. All the people following us were brought out upsteam of where we had been sent.

Rangitata Rafting

I then caught the Stray bus to Kaikoura, a town famous for seal, whale & dolphin watching and dolphin swimming. Given the choice of standing on a boat looking at marine mammals or getting in amoungst them is an easy decision so I had to climb into the 2nd wetsuit in 3 days. We had been warned (after paying) that there was a bit of a swell at sea so I legged it to the nearest chemist for some drugs. The boats themselves were out of the water on trailers and we were to board the boats prior to them being floated. I've seen this done with smaller boats but never before with ones this big. Once out with the dolphins we jumped off the boat to snorkle with them 4 times, all of us making silly noises to get their attention. The one time a dolphin swam round and round me was when I was humming the notes from Close Encounters of the 3rd kind... coincidence????? It was good fun and unlike anything I've done before. We then hung around watching as dolphins leapt about showing off before heading to shore. Sorry, but I don't have any pictures of the dolphins as my camera isn't water proof.

Boat Launch

I've now got to plan through the next few weeks because if I catch a bus tour I'll have to extend my stay in New Zealand. Whilst I'm really enjoying myself and there's lot to do travel in NZ is almost too easy as its so like home. Think I'll spend the next day in the Marlborough wine region.........

PS was lucky enough to stumble across Michael Moore's latest book, "Dude, where's my country", just after its release. Bought the book, thoroughly enjoyed it and left it to do the rounds at the Green Tortoise. I saw on the news yesterday that it has been release in the UK; I recommend reading it.

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Saturday, November 22, 2003

South Island New Zealand 

Arrived yesterday in Christchurch and settled down in the Holy Grail sports bar to watch England win the Rugby World Cup in the last minute of extra time. Great atmosphere and it was interesting to note that whilst the England supporters were visible with team shirts and painted faces, you could only tell who most of the Aussie supporters were when the cheered. I'll spend a day or two here sorting myself out and booking a bus tour around the island.

One annoyance of NZ's cities is idiots who have bought fast Japanese cars, fitted them with loud exhausts & stereos and then parade around the streets. You never see any of these prats on NZ's great driving roads, just around city streets showing off. I can't understand how you can have a great drivers car and never take it for a run on a decent road but decide instead to cruise around cities at a time when any sensible person is in the pub.

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Top of North Island

Took a trip up to the very north of New Zealand passing up through Waipora Kauri Forest, stoping to see Tane Mahuta the largest tree & God of the Forest. It was probably the largest tree I have ever seen, certainly in terms of its girth (13.8m), and is about 2000 years old. Apparently much of NZ was covered by Kauri forests before the europeans arrived and found they made great ship building material.

Tane Mahuta

Further up the road we stopped at a visitors centre to hear the story of Opo, a dolphin that appeared in 1955 and would play with people at the beach. Whilst it is fairly amazing how friendly Opo became with the locals it is more incredible that the town is still able to trade on the memory almost 50 years later.

The next 3 nights were spent at Paihia, the tourist centre of the Bay of Islands. Normally touristy areas are a real turn off for me but the backpacker ghetto of Paihia had one of the friendliest social scenes of anywhere I've been so far and it was a struggle to persuade myself to leave. There were several Dutch girls in the hostel who were able to give me a lot of grief when their team whipped Scotland 6-0.

It was also the place where, at 3am, I fell trying to descend from my to go to the toilet. Somehow my foot got caught as I tried to jump from the ladder. I landed with a loud thump and I was worried about who I might have woken up. The sniggering from around the room told me several others and that they were more amused than annoyed. I limped off to the bathroom for the original purpose of the journey and to inspect my wounds; a large bruise across the top of my left foot and a grazed right knee. Quality pratfall.

Paihia Posse

I took a day trip from here up to Cape Reinga where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific in a swirl of currents. On the way there we passed through the Puketi forest, drove along most of 90 Mile Beach, up Te Paki Stream and went sand boarding on the dunes. Sand boarding was a laugh but a lot of hard work hiking up the dunes through soft sand. Cape Reinga is a special place to the Mauri as it is to a tree here that their spirits come for several days after they die, before moving on to their ancestoral home lands.

90 Mile Beach
90 Mile Beach

Sand Boarding
Sand boarding

Cape Reinga
Cape Reinga

On the road back down we stopped at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom, a business that makes wooden decorations, tools and furniture from the preserved wood of buried 45,000 year old Kauri trees. Much of the work is stunning but most amazing of all is a section of trunk that has been carved into a spiral staircase between the 1st and 2nd floors.

Kauri Kingdom

After watching NZ win 3rd place in the Rugby World cup it was time to head south again. The plan was to fly from Auckland to Christchurch missing out the bottom part of North Island as I had done most of the activities in the central part in my 1st week here. It was in Auckland I had a couple of minor annoyances: first I left my credit card in a restaurant and wans't able to get it before I had to catch a plane and second I found my hostel reservation in Sydney for the New Year period had fallen through and that everywhere I was trying now was fully booked. Minor irritations but they took the gloss off my last day in Auckland.

Some final thoughts about Auckland : all the nights I have spent here I have stayed at the ACB hostel, NZ's biggest. Its size prevents it or its bar (the Globe) from being particularly friendly places where you might make friends. It is however, clean (except when the maids clean the wrong bed when someone leaves a dorm room), modern, efficient and a good place to plan further travel. It does have some bad planning though, with several bunks having their ladders up against walls. It also tends to have mixed dorms and on one night there were two girls sharing a single bunk in my room. I didn't realise this until next morning, though this was just as well as I doubt I would have slept if I'd realised earlier.

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Monday, November 17, 2003

I've done all my updates for the moment to San Francisco, Samoa & New Zealand. Please look at the bottom of the page for links to my archive pages where older journal entries are now kept to keep this main page to a reasonable size.

Paid a quick visit to Kelly Tarlton's Antartic Encounter an aquarium housed in old stormwater holding tanks. The aquarium is one where a moving walkway runs through a glass tunnel at the bottom of the tanks. It was great to see Manta Rays and sharks up close and from beneath. The attraction also has the Antartic Encounter where you walk through a replica of Scott's 1911 Antartic hut before catching a heated snowcat ride through a colony of King Penguins housed in sub zero temperatures. Fresh snow is blown in every day and when I was there there were a fair number of small chicks being looked after by their parents.

Kelly Tarltons

Congratulations to England on beating France last night. I am now booked on a Magic bus to spend 3 days seeing the very North of New Zealand.

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Sunday, November 16, 2003

New Zealand North Island 

Caught up with my mate Paul, who I met in Samoa. Paul only has a week before heading off to Oz (he plans to cycle from Perth to Sydney) so we hired a car and have raced round some of North Islands key sights. On Monday we went cave tubing through the Waitomo caves. A select few got to see the distressing sight of me in a wetsuit, but it was good fun doing some caving, seeing glow worms (weird lifecycle) and swimming underground.

We then drove to Rotorua and arrived late but in time to see England scrape through against Wales. Up next day to see the mud pools, hot springs (boiling hot) and geysers before heading south to National Park taking a quick look at the Huka Falls on the way there.

Cooking pot
The cooking pool that is actually used to cook food

Boiling mud
Boiling mud

Geyser
My first geyser

Huka Falls
Huka Falls


Up early next day to catch the bus to the start of the Tongariro crossing, a 17km walk through some volcanoes with an 800m climb at the start and a 1200m descent at the end. Unfortunately the weather wasn't kind with low cloud making visibility very poor and with strong, cold winds. It meant we didn't really get to see the key features at the top, but the weather cleared on the way down. It was almost surreal to be tramping through a snow field in one of the craters so soon after being on a tropical island.

Emerald lakes
Our best view at the top

Paul on Tongariro
Paul just as we started descending from the highest point down a scree slope

Heading into snow
At the point where the trail leads into a climb through a snow field. Hard work.

The descent
Looking over the main descent on the far side just below the hut. The cloud clears as it breaks over the top of the mountain.

Through the forest
The trail leads through the forest at the bottom and got quite warm. An incredible contrast to the snow, wind and mist of a couple of hours ago

Paul & I had cooked double portions of food last night so all we had to do was heat up some soup & bolognaise sauce for dinner and uncap a couple of beers. The next day we were fairly slow to get going so headed back up to Rotorua to soak sore muscles in the hot springs and to be ready for Thursdays activities.

Paul was determined to go Zorbing, which is basically being closed into a giant inflatable hamster ball with a few buckets of water and then rolled down a hill.

Zorbing
Paul in his Zorb. I have video footage of his descent but its a bit big to stick up on the site.

We then did an off road experience where you drive a little Suzuki 4x4 over a course, swapping between 2 drivers. There is one point where you come down a waterfall and have to take your foot off the brake for the 6 foot final plunge and another area where you skid down a 5 meter drop with you wheels sliding in metal channels. Adds a bit of adrenalin to the mix. I then went and raced a 1500cc buggy round a circuit in the pouring rain for a few laps setting the fastest time of the day so far.

We then headed back up to Auckland so that Paul could catch his flight early next day. We decided to stay in Parnell, a district to the east of the centre for a change. There are worse places to stay as a backpacker but I've yet to come across them. The problem is there is only one pub that isn't a Bar / Restaurant and even that is prefab Irish place. In addition the only place that is suitable for eating alone, as I had to the next night, was a burger place (however Burger Fuel is an excellent burger joint) and the hostel was the dullest yet. A hint to all hostel owners, do not put a TV in the only common area with comfy seats as it means lot of guests sitting with the lights out and not talking to each other.

Click here to get Paul's version of events.

On Saturday night I caught up with Marcel & Cam from the Green Tortoise trip. We headed back to their place with a few drinks to watch the New Zealand vs Australia semi final, which unfortunately the All Blacks lost without looking particularly threatening. Sunday I joined them at a Big Boys toys exhibition full of modified cars and electronic gadgets. It was good to be reminded that the Aussies continued the tradition of making good, basic, V8 engined, rear wheel drive cars of the type that the US used to excel in before they forgot how to make cars in the 70s.


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Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Samoa 

Apia

I originally landed in Samoa at 3am local time and about 6am by my body clock. It meant it was dark as my taxi took me from the airport into town, but the ride was an experience in itself. The car itself was a very old Japanese model, with every wheel bearing singing along and the driver never going above around 25 MPH, even slipping the auto box into neutral any time we came to a slight downhill gradient. We were getting passed by every other vehicle on the road, but even our slow progress didn't seem to stop the driver struggling to spot where the centre line was as he drifted across the road.

Later that morning was a shock to the body as it felt the heat and humidity. Just strolling around had me breaking out in a sweat and I was becoming worried how I'd cope with a few weeks of this. Its not always safe to drink the tap water, but bottled water was readily available; handy when you're getting through 3 - 4 litres of the stuff a day.

I was spending my first few days in Apia, the capital of independent Samoa, on the island of Upolu. My hotel was near the main market and bus station, just across a little stream and about 5 - 10 minutes walk from the sea front. My first stroll made it clear I was no longer in the 1st world. The little stream was opaque, dark grey and stank, yet in the rest of my time in Samoa it appeared to be the only one polluted. The market was fairly basic with stalls laid out on low benches and a series of food stalls selling fried foods at one end. Around the main covered market space were a series of "shack" shops selling manufactured essentials such as toiletries, coke, corned beef and beer. Of the produce on sale in the market I didn't recognise a thing.

On continuing into town it appeared the Samoan's also didn't believe in street signs for road names or the direction of destinations, however as there were few main streets you could navigate around using the map in the Lonely Planet. The town itself is fairly spread out with virtually no buildings over two stories high and most of the commercial buildings being on a couple of blocks parallel on Beach Road. I needed brunch so headed to a place used by the locals called Pinati's. The aversion to signs continued here with no name on the outside of the building and no menu on the inside. There wasn't a lot of selection, either chicken curry or chicken chow mein, but the chicken curry and a 1 litre bottle of Sprite only cost me $5 Tala (1). Only then did I discover that they didn't bother removing the skin & bones from the chicken.

A walk further round Beach Road showed a town with an appealing worn in look, lacking the neon, plastic facade common in the west. The main government building was the biggest in town (donated by the Chinese) but the most dramatic was the Catholic Cathedral.

Apia Bay

Just south of town is Robert Louis Stevenson's last house, Vailima, built in 1890 and where he died in Dec 1894 from stroke probably caused by the TB he suffered from. RLS was a activist for Samoan rights and self government, which made him very popular amongst the local chiefs, less so amongst the Europeans. The house itself is beautifully set in tropic gardens, with Mt Vaea rising behind and it is at the top of this mountain that RLS is buried.

Vailima

My motel also happened to be near JT's Sport Bar, run by the family of Junior Tonu'u who played for Western Samoa and for the All Blacks, so I'd found the ideal place to watch the rugby world cup. It was here I met Paul & Willem; Paul from the east end of London and heading round the world and Willem from Amsterdam doing the Pacific Islands. We'd meet up most evenings to catch the rugby and with the Samoa vs England game coming up that was important, however on the big night things went wrong. The atmosphere leading up to the game was electric and only got better as Samoa took the lead, however I'd had a minor stomach complaint for the past couple of days which decided to get much worse. I had to head to my room part way through the 1st half and missed the rest of the game. Still, it got me away from people telling me how badly Scotland had done against France and away from one of Willem's brighter outfits (he must have been colour blind).

I decided to head out to what was said to be the best of Samoa's beaches on the south east coast and as they would be moving on said goodbye to Paul & Willem. There was a bus service to where I wanted to go, however I couldn't get hold of a bus schedule as the local tourist office had run out and despite repeated attempts never had any in. Conversation with other travellers made it clear that the place was a much use as a chocolate teapot. Hanging out at the bus station showed that any bus schedule should only be taken as a very rough guide at best with the driver deciding when to go based on whether he has enough passengers. If numbers are a bit low he will shuttle between Apia's two markets until he is sure there is no one else interested. The bus itself tends to be a Japanese truck with a wooden seating area built over the chassis and simple wooden benches inside. Peoples shopping will be distributed all over the inside, underneath the front seats if room, but in the case of a load of cement as a raised floor. The driver will know everyone along the route making small diversions all over the place and in one case stopping to pick up a parcel of fish and dropping them off at a house further up the road. A Samoan bus ride is definitely a must for any traveller to Samoa.

Samoan bus

Lalomanu Beach

The ride down to Lalomanu was gorgeous with the road initially following the north coast. Here we were passing through lots of small villages, many decorated with brightly coloured plants and rocks lining the road. In between was road with lush vegetation on one side and a tropical lagoon on the other. The road then turns in land and I got first sight of how lush this tropical island is; everything is green, absolutely everything. Where are other places I had been, the hills get bare towards the top, not here.

North Coast Road

The beach was almost the perfect tropic beach, with a shelter lagoon out to around 50 m where there was a coral reef surrounded by fish. The beach itself was lined by palm trees and as it was now past the main season there were very few people there. By the second day I had the place to myself and was enjoying a bit of piece and quiet with some swimming and snorkelling, however two things slightly spoilt the calm. First of all I managed to sunburn myself whilst snorkelling and secondly the night before a 4 piece band had played through dinner and tonight I was eating alone. I really did not want to be the sole diner with live entertainment and fortunately they thought the same way. It was quite an experience to have somewhere that beautiful to yourself with so little to distract you and the only sound at night being the roar of the waves breaking on the reef.

Samoan beach hut

Samoan beach view

With time on my hands I double checked my flight out of Samoa and realised some bad news; whilst I thought I had 3 weeks here, in shuffling dates to book available flights I actually had 2 weeks 2 days, 5 days less. It meant I had to get a move on if I was to get to Savai'i, the largest island of Samoa.

Whilst I sorted out my arrangements I stayed at a family run hotel in Apia called Aniva's Place. The father of the operation, Bob Slater, is Scottish but moved over this way a couple of decades ago. Also staying there were Lysa & Karen, who I had met at Lalomanu and had recommended it to me, and a couple of Kiwi businessmen who travelled regularly to Samoa. Always a good sign to see people returning to a place and so it proved, with drinks out front and Bob's Sashimi to snack on. The only quirk was being told that I couldn't bring back any girls (or boys) I pulled on a night out!! Apparently all to often the (un)lucky guy wakes up to find the partner gone, along with his wallet and anything else not nailed down. The hot showers more than made up for any unexpected rules that my history said I was unlikely to break anyway.

You can either fly or go by boat to Samoa and I originally planned to take the cheaper sea route, however people said the view was spectacular from the air and the return ticket was only 100 Tala (20). The flight to Savai'i goes from a tiny local airport near Apia and the plane itself is a little twin engined one, taking only 8 passengers. You know the plane is small when they weigh you as well as your luggage.

Plane
Not big, is it

Cockpit
Looks even smaller from here

Apia view
Central Apia from the air

Landing
Landing takes on a whole new perspective when you see it like this....

Once there I headed for a family run hotel that also ran tours that had been recommended to me. The hotel was basic, but good with my own enclosed, ensuite Fale in the gardens and a central area where meals were eaten together with some of the family. The head of the family, Moelagi Jackson, is the holder of several chiefly titles, was one of the first to recognise the potential of tourism on Savai'i and is a very forceful and interesting lady. Her son, Chris, was doing much of the running of the hotel whilst I was there and got married on the Sat night with the guests invited to the reception.

Wedding

During the days I would be out on tour with Warren Jopling, a retired geologist that has spent the last 25 years on Samoa and knows Savai'i like the back of his hand. You couldn't hope for a better guide to a volcanic island that geologically is very young and still erupts every 150 years or so. We toured over places where the sea has undercut fragmented rocks creating bridges & blow holes, saw sections of the coast as it was thousands of years ago and a huge area of the latest lava flow that looked like something from another planet.

Washing machine
The washing machine near the blowholes

Lava tube
A lava tube that is also the nesting site of swiftlets

Lava field
Mt Matavanu lava field

Ropey lava
Warren by some ropey lava, caused when the surface cools and thickens and is forced to move by hotter lava moving underneath

Savai'i SAR
A synthetic aperture radar picture of Savai'i showing the huge number of volcanic crates on the island

We also got to see some of the local sights. The Pulemelei mound is a large flat topped pyramid 60m by 50 m at its base and rising in two tiers to 12m high. It has recently been archaeologically surveyed and appears to come from the time of the Tongan occupation, however its use is still unknown though various theories have been proposed. There is a smaller mound just to the north connected by a causeway, but the causeway does not lead to an access point on the mound which sit in the middle of the east & west sides. My own personal feeling is that this was for defence as it gives a big advantage to those who occupy it and it has a commanding view down to the sea.

Pulemelei mound
Pulemelei mound

The nearby Olemoe Falls were gorgeous with a fantastic swimming pool at the bottom reachable only by a rickety ladder. As we had a wedding to attend we didn't get a chance for a swim but this was a hint of paradise. At the very tip of the south east is the Tafua volcanic crater. We climbed up to this to see the crater now filled by jungle and populated by flying foxes. The sight was spectacular but there was no way to take a decent photo

Olemoe Falls
Olemoe Falls

We also got to see some of the local culture & crafts. Siapo is a local material made from tree bark, where the bark is peeled off the wood, the outer course layer peeled off, the living layer scraped off before pounding it out with a mallet. The dried sheet is then patched and stuck to a 2nd layer before being decorated. Its a very labour intensive process that has almost died out since the introduction of cheap cotton materials.

Siapo bashing
Beating out the stripped bark to 5 times its original width

Siapo pattern
Adding a pattern to the bottom layer, before patching & adding the top layer

We also stopped by a fale where the family were roasting their own cocoa, which when ground they add to water and sugar to make a drink. It was clear the family lived in a very basic set of circumstances but the kids loved being able to see themselves on the camera after this photo was taken.

Cocoa roasting

On Sunday I was able to help (or hinder) the preparation of Sunday dinner in an Umu. The Samoa Umu is an above ground hot rock oven where a fire is prepared to heat a set of rocks. When this has burnt out the rocks are spread into a disk and food is then piled on top. Coconut leaves are then placed over the top to seal the heat in and let the food cook. All the food is from local produce: taro a root vegetable roasted, pork (the hotel has a farm), fish, taro leaves cooked in coconut cream... Even the coconut cream is produced fresh by scraping out the coconut flesh then wringing it out in long fibres from the coconut husk. Everything is done using basic tools and nothing much appears to have changed in decades.

Umu cooking
The umu covered over and cooking
Umu cooked
The umu after cooking, with the leaves stripped off. The chunks of potato looking stuff is taro with pork in the wire mesh

I had one trip to Salelologa, the largest town and ferry port on Savai'i, and found a small market place, a small mall with about 8 shops, a taxi rank with a BBQ and little else. It clearly demonstrated how undeveloped this island is which is a large part of its appeal to visitors. How it copes with the cyclones (generic name for hurricanes) that hit the islands every so often (the last two being in 1991 and 1992) wiping out villages and roads I don't know. Attempts have been made to bolster the coastline with rocks but as Warren observed these will just add projectiles to the mix when the waves come crashing over. In addition Savai'i can expect a volcanic eruption sometime in the middle of this centuary but exactly where and when it is impossible to say. The last few wiped out land and villages but didn't kill anyone as they weren't explosive and people could evacuate areas in the path of the lava.

What did surprise me about Samoa was how little fish appeared to be eaten. More was still eaten than in the UK, but I had expected it to dominate the diet and it didn't. What was common was lots of fried foods such as chicken, chips, donuts, etc. In addition dishes with a chinese influence were common such as chop suey and curry. Supermarket shelves seem to be dominated by corned beef and spagetti in tomato sauce. Fruit was always served as desert with papaya dominating, however despite being told that citrus fruit was common and available year round I was never offered any nor saw it in any of the markets. You can maintain a healthy diet here but it is a challenge.

For beer fans its worth noting that Samoa's local brew, Vailima, is pretty good. The brewery used to be owned by a German firm and it shows but its recently been bought by the company that brews Fosters and early signs are not encouraging. Vailima is still its distinctive self but whilst I was there the brewery release Vailima Gold which was much blander. Hopefully it won't succeed too much.

Religion is also something that stands out as being particuarly important here with many different christian churches established. Every village has a church with the next biggest building being the minister's house and there is a certain irony in that it was British missionaries who brought christianity here in 1830 and since then the British church has declined in influence at home. At lease one of the churches reads out the donations made by the congregations at the end of the service, putting great pressure on people to donate more than they can afford. At least one of the villages hit hard by the cyclone is building a huge new church that will leave the village in debt for decades and another used money donated by Sweden for rain forest protection and local facilities (schools, medical establishments) to build a grand new house for the minister. The wealth and status of the churches here stands in sharp contrast to the basic living conditions of the majority of the people and reminded me of the period of history in Europe when the cathedrals were being built.

LMS church
LMS church at Sapapali'i where John Williams landed in 1830

Hut
A typical hut of fale as lived in by the majority of the population

I headed back to Apia a day and a half before my flight to New Zealand to make sure no problems could make me miss it and it was lucky I did. My last day in Apia saw torrential rain which grounded the inter island flights and winds that stopped the ferries. It was a day to settle back and read a good book, but a shame I couldn't do more with my last day there. There was still much to see in Samoa, I had the place to myself and the 3 weeks I had originally planned would have been perfect. Its a place I'd like to come back to but its a long and expensive haul from the UK.


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