Saturday, 6 December 2014

A few funny little things.....

Pubic grooming is different in Japan!

Taught one of the teachers at my school that old saying 'Easy Peasy Japanesey'. She looked confused!

Japanese people traditionally have very small dogs that do not take up much space. Invariably they are dressed up (seriously I would guess 60% are adorned in some costume or other) and, the more pampered ones, are transported around in special dog prams. This way they can go into shops, around the town and on buses without causing any undue savaging worries to other citizens. When their dogs are allowed out to walk they are closely monitored by their owners who will not only pick up the poo in a little bag but will sloosh down any area that the dog has pee’d  on by means of a little squirty bottle.

Dog Prams!
The people who are employed to work on the buses and trains, in fact, in any role that involves the wearing of a uniform, are proud to wear the uniform and treat their jobs with consideration and pride. They are always impeccably turned out with white gloves, pressed trousers, shiny shoes, smooth chins and willing smile. Seeing them often makes me think of their counterparts employed at British Rail, CBC buses and NCP car parks. I have a little chuckle.

Some restaurants have special vending machines that dispense tickets for the meal you choose from a picture on the front of the machine. You then hand the voucher to the waitress and she brings you the appropriate food. Many others have plasticised dishes displayed in the window. This way you can see exactly what you are going to get.

One of my teachers bases how cold a classroom is on how many fat kids there are in the room! More fat kids the warmer the room – apparently.

People in Japan all walk up stairs on the flats of their feet. Its like they have been especially trained to bring the whole foot down at the same time. The result of this is that they are really slow and noisy when going up or down stairs because they can’t help but stomp.
Your average Japanese person walks at an estimated 1.5 miles an hour. It is simply astonishing how slowly they can dawdle about and, because they appear to have no periphery vision, they veer all over the place and cause horrific slow mo pile ups of shuffling people. Finally on the walking issue. Women seem to only move their legs from the knees down.

Skytree plaza - Another photo op
where we had to queue with kids
OK on to stuff we have been doing… First work. We are both working in schools for the same company which is good news. The bad news, however, is that we are working about an hour away from where we live and in in opposite directions. Not what we signed up for but we both do our thing whilst travelling. Mine is learning Japanese and Rachel’s is …. Actually I don’t know. Now there’s a thing. I know just about everything else there is to know about the woman – when she’s hungry, what she really means when she says something, what she means when she doesn’t, what she likes, doesn’t like and even times she goes to the loo (all the time – that's when). But I am not sure about the train time usage. Huh?! 

Footnote to above. She tells me she talks to High School boys! I think I will leave that hanging ambiguously in the air for now.

Anyway once she has finished chatting up minors Rachel is teaching 4 days at Junior High and I day at Elementary. She loves her teachers and they her. She now smiles at children and oohs and ahs like a proper human instead of the child catcher she has always been. Something about these little Japanesey folk make you do that. Anyway she likes the schools and although the JHS is a little unrewarding the lovely teachers make up for it whilst the Elementary day fills her with joy.

I am at JHS too (but no elementary for me). However I have carved out a rather nice little “show off” niche for myself by teaching a phonics course I devised. So half my time is spent as a ALT and the other half of the lessons is spent shouting out noises and make kids copy me. Alll good fun and well received by kids and the school alike.

The company we are with seem a bit flakey and the chiefs (or sub chiefs) appear to be a bit on the disorganized side. We keep hearing dramas that have occurred and every now and then I shoot off a slightly offence and aggressive letter to head office about something or other. I fear it is the Japanese way rather than just our bunch. We will see in due time.

Kawagoe Float festival
We have been to several festivals. They call them festivals and, indeed, there is usually something to see but more than anything it's a good excuse to huddle together in queues and pay over the odds for food. These skinny well-proportioned people love eating. And they eat with gusto and joy. Where It goes I don’t know. Some of my personal favorites I have seen on the stalls are gaudily sugar-coated bananas on sticks, frozen cucumbers eaten like ice lollies and bags of dried fish crisps - disgusting

So festivals – Kawagoe Float festival….Huge floats trundle around the town being pulled by devotees of the temple they represent. They occasionally come up against another float and have a 'float off'. A ritualized battle where they waggle laterns at one another. We have been to a “Family Friendly Assassination Festival” celebrating the Ninja. Ninja dressed people doing stuff on stages, wandering around a bit, serving food and giving murderous demos to groups of wide eyed boys. 

Skinny Ninja Panda
We quite often go to Tokyo and walk about the parks or go shopping or see the sights. There are lots of things to see in Tokyo so we always come home feeling its been worth it. The other day we kept seeing groups of Wheres Wally dressed characters wandering about – don’t know why. We have seen the most amazing Christmas lights at Raponggi Hills and Mid Town. One was themed “The universe” and hopefully I will have put it up on the gallery when you read this as its worth seeing. 

No reason - they just were!
Shopping is pretty amazing here. So many shops filled with such nice things. The other day we went to Ueno and went rooting around the lanes near the railway arches for hours. Being jostled from one shoulder to the next as we and a million others all looked to buy a bargain from the stalls. We also went to the biggest electrical store in Tokyo, so, by definition probably one of the biggest in the world. 8 huge floors of everything you could ever dream of. I bought a mouse. (Question: whats the plural of electronic mouse?)

Some Christmas Lights - But see gallery for video
We have been to other towns too. Rachel works with a lovely woman called Asami who has taken us to a harvest festival – Food! And the other day to Karuizawa which was up North about 2 hours from here and was absolutely stunning with a lovely drive through Autumnal leaves that occasionally opened up to give us glimpses of the valleys thereabouts. We even went ice skating in a huge rink with just the four of us and Rachel managed to flip up and crack her head open. Blood on the ice is not a good look. At the insistence of the friend we went to hospital but it wasn't that bad and just as well because the doctors only worked on Friday mornings so there was NO ONE to see us..

Trouble with leaving everything so long is you forget so no doubt I have overlooked loads. However, one final thing….We got the last of our clothes from the UK sent over by my sister. 30kg of old friends. We are still smiling at our new abundance of clothing 3 weeks later. Mind you we did spend pretty much two years in the same stuff so its not surprising.

Bye for Now

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The land of the rising sun...and falling masonary

Well here we are in Japan and have started what, I guess, is phase three of our relationship. First living in England, then travelling the world and now, hopefully, living in Japan for a while.

We decided to leave Tonga and fly to Japan again to actively seek out jobs. We had fallen in love with the place when we were here a few months ago and since we were getting nowhere fast applying for jobs on line we decided to bite the bullet and start knocking on doors.  We had a slightly ambiguous reply from a company we had had Skype interviews with so dropped them a line to say that we could wait no longer and were on our way to find work elsewhere.

I guess it forced their hands because about three hours after we landed in Japan and booked an apartment for a week in Osaka we received an email saying we had both got jobs… Me in a Junior High School and Rachel as a substitute teacher for the company. Yeah.

All a bit frantic as we were in Osaka and it was Sunday night and we had to get to Ageo – about 40km north of Tokyo for Training on Tuesday. Training as it happened was that comprehensive and was more about cultural integration so even though we missed the first day it didn’t matter.

We are now living in a place called Kumagaya. Towns roll into one another in this country and there is no clear distinction between them. However, we are 26km from Ageo where we work and live in a tiny apartment owned by the language supply company. It’s about 3m x 7m and is our kitchen, lounge, bedroom, hallway and bathroom – all in one room (apart from the bathroom). We have roll out futons for our bed, one gas ring for our food and have to be very tidy. Living in a Camper van for two months certainly prepared us for this so whilst it may seem a ridiculously small place for two people to subsist its actually OK – for now. On the plus side it is two minutes walk to the rail station (We have to commute 30 minutes to Ageo every day – paid for by the company). The amazing gym we have joined is 5 minutes walk as are all the shops and supermarkets. We have never lived in such a convenient place. Its very much in keeping with our just-within-reach new lifestyle.

There’s lots of little idiosyncratic things about living in Japan that I will cover in a later blog. I will say, however, that these are a very polite and proper people and it will be a challenge to conform. But conform we will. We are both trying to learn Japanese conversation which at this stage is not seeming too bad. The written world however is just bonkers….. There is Kanje – The very complex symbols which mean a whole word but mean other things when put together – Next there is Hiragana which are much easier symbols and these represent the phonetics of the language. Finally, there is another set of symbols which are called Katakana and these are used for foreign words. Looking at this in a text book is truly overwhelming. But we will try. I have to say I am trying harder to crack this aspect of Japanese than Rachel but we will see.

As ALT’s we are there to assist the Language Teachers. These teachers, however, speak fairly basic English with an American Japanese twang so the poor spoken word is passed on to the students. It’s our job to try to correct this so we are encouraged to speak to the students as much as possible and read out the passages in text books. It’s OK. We do our jobs and we go home. It’s difficult though because the Japanese work like dogs. The school day starts at 8.15 until 4.15. We arrive at 8 and they have already been there since 7.30 and when we leave at 4.15 you can bet they will all be there till 5.30. Sure they get paid more money but it is all based on this “seen to be working” shite. Effectiveness is not important – physical presence is the best way to lick ass and this will possibly be our downfall because we sure as hell won’t do it.

This is all pretty long so in closing will say that our first week has been incredibly tiring but we both feel great about what we are doing, where we are living and how our brains are coping with all the new info. Oh yeah I don’t know whether someone was trying to tell us something but on our first day we experienced our first earthquake..

At epicentre some 50 miles away it was 5.6 but in Ageo where we were it was 4. Rachel was in a third floor building so i think it was stronger for her. I was in school. Everyone’s phones had earthquake alarms sounding, then a few seconds later the shaking started, built for 15 to 20 seconds then subsided. It was like having a big lorry thundering past your house but such a big lorry that stuff moved on tables a bit. Teachers ran for their classrooms to check on the kids. But it was over pretty quick. No one seemed at all bothered. i guess they know when it’s going to get big because at the point when it started to subside they looked like they had to make a decision whether to take action of not. Obviously with lessening shake the danger had passed.

So that’s it for now. 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Australia- Oh go on then!

Australia has been lurking in the Pacific Ocean on the outskirts of where we have traveled for nearly two years and finally, even though neither of us has ever had a yearning to go there, we decided it couldn't be ignored any longer. 

We fly to Sydney which, as pretty much everyone says, is a great city. Modern but a good amount of older Victorian buildings. Water is all around and the pleasant harbour fronts and and parks make for interesting walks. And walk we did - covering all the main points of interest - National Gallery, Observatory, Bridge, botanic gardens, Regents Park, The Rocks, St Mary's and, of course, the Opera House. This, however, we do in style by going to see the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play various pieces including Janacek's sinfonietta (Rachel and I have both just finished reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 - a surreal book in which the piece is frequently mentioned and had therefore intrigued us). Such a thrill to be in the Opera House, in Australia sipping bubbly and feeling sophisticated as opposed to our normal grungy selves. We even went out for a posh meal!! 

Another day we catch the double-decker train from central station and go to a town (can't remember its name) that sits on the edge of canyon. There is a an impressive drop to the floor which is covered in trees and alive with parrots, cockatoos, budgies and we walk along the precipice for several miles looking to the distance and the Blue Mountains. So called because of their colour which is attained by being surrounded by forests of eucalyptus trees that give off an oil that creates a bluish mist. 

We had no specific plans for Australia and when we woke on our 5 day we decide to see if we can get a camper van relocation. This are campers that need returning to their original location and can be hired for just a $1 a day. 30 minutes later we are furiously packing in order to get to the depot as we have a 5 day relocation to Adelaide. These deals are something of a double edged sword. On the one hand you have transport and a place to live so you can enjoy athe country with a degree of freedom. On the other hand, there are fairly short delivery times so travelling just under 2,000kms in a short time is a bit of a schlep! Even so we set off (this time in a much smaller beast than those of NZ) down the South coast to follow the Great Ocean road to Melbourne then on to Adelaide.

This part of the country is fairly well farmed so although there are patches of scrub and national reserves more often than not we are driving through fields of crops or more common - cows or sheep. These field stretch on to the horizon in every direction and unlike the stunning scenery in NZ (which I would argue to be Australia's richer and more interesting cousin) they are fairly dull. The principal point of interest on the roads is the overwhelming amount of large road kill that litters the hard shoulder. We have never see so many carcasses - rabbits, wombats and dozens of kangaroos. Occasionally we see a live Roo bouncing along which gives us hope that at least some get across the fairly empty roads.

Did you know that a big kangaroo can weigh 300lbs, stand 6ft tall and can jump nearly 10ft in the air. Couple that with the evidence we used to see in Skippy of them operating radios and flying planes and it's a surprise that they don,t rule the land given that there are millions of them.

We travel along through various towns of little interest plagued by a strong wind and showers lots of the time. occasionally the sun does come out and instead of shivering we can enjoy the one thing synonymous with Oz. The great coast road runs from Melbourne towards Adelaide and is quite nice. There are some pretty views and some cool limestone and sandstone stacks in the sea to break the journey but time was forever pressing. We do a lighting tour of Melbourne which is heralded as the culture city in Oz. It probably is but we were not there long enough to sample more than a quick lunch and walk around the main area 

around the impressive Victorian station. There seemed to be lots going on due to a charity festival but that aside it is a pleasant and friendly city and certainly one I would go back to to explore more thoroughly.

Our final night in the van is spent on the edge of a quarry lake and to kill a little time we spend an hour in the small towns one horse saloon and chat to Dave, a stockman on a large dairy farm and the publican, a large racist with a ridiculous moustache. It is really surprising how rascist a lot of Kiwis and Aussies are! The temperature is 0 degrees and since we ditched are warm charity clothes in NZ we are freezing and I end up wearing a scarf and hat in bed to keep warm. 

We deliver the van in adelaide the following morning and have three days to spend there in a warm comfy bed before flying out. We could have done a workaway stint on Magnetic island and followed the beautiful peoples trail on the Gold Coast. We could have got a relocation to Perth and were even considering driving through the middle from south to north. But, in truth, we had had enough of Australia with its it's intimidating distances and high prices and didn't really want to waste more time before getting ourselves back to Japan to look for a job. 

Whilst here, however, we had a nice time. Another vibrant and interesting city. Not as in your face as Melbourne or Sydney. A bit more laid back with less high rises and some great walks through 

extensive parklands. Certainly the highlight was a fun evening we spent with two women we had met in Kerrala in India a couple of weeks after leaving England in 2012. We had spent an afternoon with them exploring the backwaters and had swapped details and kept in touch. It was therefore great to hook up again after so long and swap a few memories. We finished the evening with a tram ride back to the city and a weird confrontation with a drunk and high Aussie dressed as a shiek who was alternately the king of Scotland, the queens cousin and in special ops and wanted to kill all the Arabs and torture them in various ways. Plainly mad and a bit scary but entertaining nonetheless.

So goodbye Oz. Next stop Osaka

Saturday, 30 August 2014

This is a true story...

The clear night sky was laden with stars. Orion stood proud amongst the southern constellations and the moon, but a sliver, stood in the side lines to allow that twinkling performance to be better seen. As Rachel and I sat there in the late evening looking up in wonder a shooting star rushed across the sky. We both made a wish. A few minutes later a further shooting star made its appearance and further wishes were made. Wishes are not for sharing and we both went to bed although it was plain that our wishes would not sleep.

The following day those wishes kept urging us to speak them aloud. They simply would not be held in and gradually we discovered that both our wishes were the same….

Two nights later I woke at 4.00am and looked out from a beach hut we were staying in up to immense sky above our deserted beach. The stars shone out so bright it took my breath away. I woke Rachel to come and see. Naked, we walked down onto the beach and lay on the sand wrapped in warm bedspread looking up in silence at the magnificence above. It was then that Rachel said “I don’t imagine we will see any more shooting stars tonight after seeing two the other night” and almost in answer to her words  a further shooting star fell through the skies and it was then that I asked if she “Rachel, under the light of a falling star, would marry me”……

She said yes! My Rachel said yes and held me and cried, we both cried, and logic and intellectual argument about who needs to be married was beaten away. We have told one another a thousand times of our love. But at the end of the day nothing says “I love you” more than publicly proclaiming your love through marriage.

We have been together for four years and in those years have learnt to live with our pasts and look to the future. We have never argued and have fitted so well it is impossible to imagine ever being or wanting another person. So that’s our news. Look upon us kindly. Know that our love is strong and vibrant and all consuming. It scares us with its ferocity yet we would not trade that raging feeling within for the world.

Please raise a glass in our absence and wish us well. When, where and how will follow once we know ourselves.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Tongan Drive by Whale Swimming

Today we went out on a boat to swim with Humpback whales. On TV they show these beasts as majestic, slow moving and inquisitive chaps who like nothing better than having a human flapping about beside them. Indeed this was the speil we received as we set out to sea with the huge Capt Sam. We are briefed upon the importance of slow movements in the water, upon silence, upon respect for the whale who is letting us into their world. As we head out we start to see water spouts blowing up or a whale surging out of the water to breach so head off in pursuit and sure enough within a half an hour we are but 50 metres or so from out quarry, their large bodies gliding in and out of the water. Three times we get this close to different mothers and calves before they sink away without trace into the ocean. These huge beasts measuring 50ft long and weighing 40 tonnes disappear without trace and we are left bobbing around on the surface alone once more. After three hours we latch onto three whales – A large male, mother and baby and chug along for miles with them once more 50 metres away. The captain hopes to gain their trust by not approaching to close and that they will then stop swimming and rest long enough for us to all get in the water with them. However this group, and I suspect many others, don’t have the same idea and they continue on their way leaving Capt Sam no option but to head them off at the pass, so to speak, and puts us in front of them. Then, just like the brifing….Not! We are told to GO GO GO! Everyone runs and jumps in shouting, splashing and whooping. All eager to have that magical feeling of swimming with whales. As I hit the water I turn to face Rachel who, alone, is standing on deck of the boat that is drifting away at a fast rate of knots. Being somewhat nervous of being out of her depth she had steeled herself to get into the ocean and was quite prepared to lower herself in gently as prescribed. Running, diving and jumping however were never on the agenda and so she never got to do a drive by whale swim. For that is what it was. Had it been as seen on TV. Then she would have had every right to feel sad but as it was my whale swim lasted 6 seconds as the calf  moved past me some 15 metres away. Not a sight of the other two though although there is a thirty second clip of the group that only the dive master and the first whoopers would have seen. On the way back, however, we were to stop at a reef for snorkelling and diving. I had registered for the dive and Rachel for the snorkel but since it was about two miles out to sea and I was nowhere around to help she once again viewed it from the boat in the company of a retching and very sea fellow passenger. My dive was somewhat surprisingly a sparse of schools of fish but the coral formations were the best I have seen. Still it is good to clock up the dives having now done them in the Red Sea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and now Tonga.

The following day we hire a jeep. A dilapidated Rav 4 with wobbly bald wheels and no acceleration and spend two days driving around the island seeing the capital of Tonga Nuku’Alofa and the shittist Royal Palace I have ever seen; Blow holes that were pretty amazing and spurted 20 metres into the air when the waves hit the porous rock; An ancient stone Hengy style arch, swimming pigs and a brilliant cave where we had to scramble around in the dark and ended up at an underground pool where I was able to swim in total darkness in crystal clear water. A bit scary but quite thrilling. I should also mention that less than ten minutes after hiring the jeep which we were supposed to have a Tongan driving license to do we were pulled over by a large, gold tooth copper who was intent on booking us but was thankfully susceptible to our charms and humble respect. A stern warning was given with a large un-stern smile and we quickly vanished for fear of a change of heart.

We decide to move on from our guest house and on our trek around the island find a couple of beach houses on a deserted beach that is owned by a company that puts on cultural shows. We immediately opt to spend time here even though accommodation is basic with no hot water. On the upside we have the beach to ourselves and a perfect view of the south pacific over a reef some 40 metres off the coast. Time here is slow and punctuated only by a few buffet meals where we eat raw tuna, yams, snapper, stir fried chicken, roasted piglet (displayed in all its charred glory), clams and seaweed.

The shows are worth seeing. Normally we hate this tourist pap but here there are realtively few tourists and the large majority of the audience are South islanders. The host (a wannabe rock star) is an absolute showman and his staff and family look after us well and put on a mini spectacle in a flame lit cave where we see traditional dancing, battle poses like the Haka , fire and stick dances. All made better by copious wine and a short walk along the moonlit beach to bed.

Tonga has proved to be an interesting break from the other places we have visited and fully justified in selling itself as the only authentic South Seas Island. We will remember Tonga for many reasons yet to be told.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The other side of the world - literally

Tonga (pronounced dtong-ah) lies some 9800km west of Chile and 5000km East of Australia in the Pacific Ocean just to the side of the international date line. Cross this line going west on a Friday morning and you arrive on a Thursday. Weird!

Tonga is a group of some 70 volcanic islands that support 103,000 people and are ruled by King George 5th. To be big in Tonga is to be beautiful and the kingdom holds the title of having the largest people in the world both in height and girth. The recent king who died in 2006 was over six ft and 440lbs.

There is something distinctly Caribbean about Tongatapu – the main island on which we are staying. The people are laid back and friendly and everything happens in ‘Island time’. The villages are raised in largely wooden houses and shacks that stand beside the poor, often dirt, roads. This, however, does not diminish the sense of pride that exists here. The Tongans are the only island in the South Pacific that were never colonised and that is something we have heard proclaimed on several occasions

Our guesthouse beach
We arrive on Saturday in our guesthouse that is set just above the crashing, startlingly blue sea that washes over solidified lava stacks before washing up on our little beach. There is another family from France here but they leave the next day leaving us to have free roam of the place. Our room is on the first floor with views over a coconut plantation at the rear. We have use of a 1st floor lounge outside our door but since we are the only room upstairs and only people in the place it is effectively like a suite. Just outside this is the balcony with the view as described above.

Reana, Rachel and Chris

Our house manager is a Tongan Flalfal. The youngest boy in the family and consequently (as per old Tongan traditions) has been brought up a girl. Her name is Reana. She/he is 28, quite pretty for someone with 5 o’clock shadow and very feminine in movement, gesture, voice and general appearance. She is quite lovely, laughs a lot and has made us very welcome.

Village Church
Saturday evening a couple from another hotel come by to be nosey and after a chat and a couple of glasses of our duty free gin arrange to collect us the following morning to go to the Tongan Free Church Service. We are advised to dress smart and when Rachel presents herself before Reana prior to leaving she is greeted with a hand on the hip posture, accusatory pointed finger and the comment of “Are you wearing THAT for church!” Rachel is chastised and taken back to her room to have Reena find a skirt that she says will do. She offers her a pair of her size 7 stilettoes which she has to decline. We arrive a little early and take our seats in the rear as the church slowly fills. The building is large free standing hall with corrugated roof. Windows are arched and along with the altarpiece skylight are all filled with coloured stained glass plastic with each window having a different colour. It’s all pretty funky. The locals start arriving and all are dressed in their Sunday best. Gaudy, flouncy numbers with big hats and reed fans for the ladies and dark suits for the men. Many of the women (and some men) wear a sheet of woven palm leaves wrapped around them called Tapa which is tied in the middle with a belt or piece of ribbon. The bottom of the sheet reaching the floor and the top splaying out just beneath the sternum. It is traditional to wear these in memory of a dead relative an one large woman we spoke to said she had worn hers for a year in memory of her father. Any way. The service begins and the preacher is belting out a fire and brimstone style address in Tongan. Lots of shouting, eye wiping and fist waving to keep his flock on the straight and narrow. Suddenly we all jump up and a huge baritone voice hits a powerful first note closely followed by and even stronger tenor and then the assembled choir and congregation start singing. It is a joyful, full bodied and gloriously loud sound that fills the small church and spills out of windows and doors so all around can hear the force of belief from the faithful. No mournful dirge is this but a throated and stirring tune that moves you to hear it. Rachel and I both have goosebumps and feel honoured to experience this. On leaving I congratulate the choirmaster for his voice and find my hand lost in his huge meaty paw.

The weather at this time of year (their winder) is an average of 22 degrees but the sun seems much stronger. It is however perfect. Hot enough to wear little all day and just a hint of a nip in the air at night so no aircon or fan is needed. The Roar of the sea is constant as it is so close and we sleep like babies. Rising each morning to look out to see for whales. The Humpback follows the Tongan Trench (2nd deepest in the world) on their migatory trail in order to have and raise calfs so we can see blow holes spurting up plumes of water several times a day from our balcony. Next blog will tell you about swimming with whales.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Time to say goodbye to the snail shell.

I write this whilst sitting on the bed of our host for a couple of days – Heather. We encountered her and her friend Jenny walking on New chums Beach and have taken Heather up on her offer of being her house guests for a couple of days in Auckland. More about that later.

So we left skiing. Spent three days there and got one and half days skiing in. The rest of the time was torrential rain – something of a recurring theme in the North Island part of our journey. Whilst the temperatures have been generally higher than in the south it has come at the price of rain. It has lashed down on us in copious amounts, fuelled by strong winds that have buffeted us from every side. Luckily these same winds blow the clouds along so we are frequently getting all seasons in any hour.

We follow a little more of the thermal route and then head off along the Forgotten World Highway. We thought we had seen all the beauty that this extraordinary country has to offer but then we have this thrown at us and once more we are oooohing our little hearts out. Great wide valleys, high sided ravines and mile after mile of folded green land stretching away to the horizon. The road twists and turns and then turns into gravel for about 20kms (It’s a Highway for goodness sake!). We drive through Whangamomon – Through old territorial rights this village and its surrounds made a claim that they were an independent state (Passport to Pimlico NZ style). The claims were ignored but the tiny township still advertises itself as the ‘Capital of the Republic’ and issues passports once a year to travel through the town.

Further on we stay in Stratford and sleep in a rugby club car park which was wonderfully quiet and go for a snowy walk on the lower slopes of the impressive Mount Taranaki. A volcano that soars up in Fujiesque style from the surrounding flat plateau and can be seen from miles around. Its lovely drive up to the visitor centre through the surrounding woods and the walk we took along a terrific boardwalk  in the cold air of a sunny day left us feeling invigorated.

In New Plymouth we stayed in a campsite with our van parked on the top of a cliff looking out to sea. For a short while we even managed to get out the deck chairs and sit with a glass on NZ wine and watch the sunset. We stay her for two nights as we have more Skype interviews for jobs scheduled so wifi is needed. It’s a nice town although we barely ever spend much time looking around shops at things we neither need, can afford, or would like as momento’s. We did however venture our for a fish and chips supper with curry sauce which was bloody lovely.

As you drive around NZ you repeatedly come across different policies to freedom camping. Some districts make an effort to provide quite nice areas in town and allow self-contained camping at picnic sites as long as you don’t loiter through the day. Others allow government owned car parks and amenities to be used overnight and others slap no camping signs on just about everything. It’s a little galling to see a large picturesque and unused area sitting there with not a soul in it and know that if we did stop we might be liable to a large fine. I guess we are seeing it from the side of responsible campers off season as opposed to in the summer when the roads are full of less considerate and often not self contained vans.

The Waitomo glowworms are advertised as something to behold and so when we arrived we were quite ready to be underwhelmed. However, the caves were really quite extraordinary. A thirty minute walk through low limestone caverns lined with twisted, rippled white rock and interspersed with stalactites dripping lime infused water to the waiting stalagmites below. We then board a small boat and our guide, pulling us along a roped route, leads us into the water filled caves where, above our heads, are literally thousands of flickering lights of the glowworms holding to the cave roofs with their sticky silken threads hanging below. (The lights serve a purpose - flies etc. see the lights and fly towards them, prey then gets stuck on the threads below the light, thread then gets pulled up and the prey is eaten).  It's all a bit gruesome but what a thing to see. Eventually we float out of the caves to land at a small jetty where the beginnings of a huge NZ night sky are await us.

For our final night in the van we are camp about 50k from Auckland and I ask that my worthy co pilot Rachel find us a freedom camping location on rugged coastline with dramatic weather. Sure enough we follow a road down to wide black sand beach backed with sandstone cliffs near the town of Waiuku where we park  up on a flat sandy area and take a pleasant stroll as the sun sets over the ocean. Rachel likens walking on the beach to walking on diamonds as the glinting crystals of sand reflect the light from this otherwise carpet of black. We get back to the van just as the rain starts to splatter on the ground and no sooner do we shut the door do the heavens open up and we are rocked and battered by a torrential storm all night.

But every day brings something new and as we look out in the gloom of early morning, as the wind and rain still lashes the coastline we see scores of racehorses being exercised on the beach. The jockeys hunkered down as they gallop through the surf. Fabulous. Oh yeah, and a terrified baby seal is seen coming out of the ocean to be greeted by huge fast moving beasts that send him splashing back as quickly as he is able.

Finally we have reached the end of our two month road trip in New Zealand. It has been an amazing experience and we have seen some stuff. To anyone coming to NZ I would urge you to set out on the roads in this manner rather than limit yourself to towns and daytrips. It is a remarkable country and to immerse yourself in its wildness, even to the limited amount we did, is a fabulous thing. Two months, however, In a very limed space in winter is enough for anyone. Even loved up fools like us who revel in each other’s company feel it is time to move on. We return the van and once again are impressed with how mighty/kea/maui rentals treat us. Refunding money we spent on a gas bottle and waiving the original charges of gas bottles as well because there was not enough to last our journey.

And so here we are at Heather’s house. Slightly jaded after a great dinner party last night with Jen and Heather's friend Lynne which felt like passing time with old friends. We ate a fabulous meal of roast lamb, vegetables with a plum dessert as the wine flowed, taste tests were conducted, dancing and yoga exhibitions were given and laughter prevailed. Today our host gave us a tour of Auckland where we ate at the trendy waterfront, envied huge boats in the bay and took a view from the top of Mount Eden - one of 50's volcanos in and around the city. Brilliant!

So thank you New Zealand for two marvellous months where Rachel and I feel immensely grateful to being alive.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

More of the same but all so different!

Mauri's, I think, are probably silly people! I base this on the names by which towns are called - Pio Pio, Okoko, Kokokorua, Aka Aka, Maharakeke, Tiki Tiki, Punga Punga and the like. Silly!

Over the last 10 days we have seen loads and done loads but, looking back, it seems we have done very little. Our perception of time/achievement has obviously gone a bit doolally over the last two years. Consequently we feel really pleased to have got up and out for the day by 10.00am and a bit "out there" if we haven't parked up and got cosy by 4.30pm. We are like proper retiree's who can easily take an hour just opening the milk. Why? Becuase we can! Anyway, here are the highlights....

Mount Maunganui sits at the end of small spit of land outside of the town of Tauranga.It's a dormant volcano that is now covered in foliage and has various steep walks up, down and around it. Great views from the top which was littered with sweating, healthy types who had completed their morning constitutionals.

The drive down to Matata was pleasant but by NZ standards not exceptional. We stayed on a DOC camp (govt provided)and got free grapefruit and lemons from the site manager. Later we walked along the beach and saw a guy fishing using a topedo and a winch...The remote controlled torpedo with flag atop is send out to sea for a kilometre or so pulling a line that has dozens of bated hooks on. Out "fisherman" then hits the rewind button on a small winch and pulls it back along with any number of large fish. We queried him on his chosen method of fishing assuming him to do it commercially. No. That's how he likes to pass his time fishing. Results rather than the sport of the catch are his thing and could have been ours too had we accepted his kind offer of a 14 inch snapper he had hauled in.

Rotorua probably means "Stinky Town" in Mauri. It is famous for its thermal springs and general volcanic activity. Its quite amazing that any number of streams, patches of land, clusters of trees and pools are sputtering or smoking all around. We went on a great walk through an amazing Redwood Forest with these towering giants all around us. Quite humbling to think many had been there for nearly a 1000 years. Beside a blue lake, a green lake, colourful cliff faces and rock plateaus criss crossed with boiling streams we also saw some brilliant mud pools which, again, steam and bubble, but when they do they make farting noises and big splurges of mud jump into the air. 

From Rotorua to Lake Taupo is a drive on long straight roads through mile upon mile of fir trees - Spectacular! We have travelled on many roads and always have opted for the scenic version rather that the quicker route. This is a road trip after all and, truly, the journey is story as much as the destinations. Driving here takes your breath away at least 10 times a day. Never before have i driven up and down so many hills. I cannot imagine anywhere in the world where there are so many corners to be turned. You look on a map and you think that any journey is only a short distance but without fail everything takes 2 to 3 times longer than expected because of the extraordinary terrain. Drivers are courteous, roads are empty, views are amazing - what more could we ask?

Taupo was wet. It rained and rained and rained. We booked into a proper campsite with showers, toilets, laundry etc bought 4 bottles of wine and treats and spent Rachel's 45th Birthday in bed watching old movies, canoodling and drinking heavily. A perfect day at the end of which the sun came out for a short while to allow us to spend an hour walking amidst our 36 hours of indulgence.

Skiing!!! Rachel went into ski school whilst I had a couple of hours on my own. The day was glorious. Anyone who skis will picture the scene. Fresh heavy snow had fallen in the night and the world was clean and sunny and crisp. My nose felt pleasantly pained drawing in that cold air whilst my face was warmed by the sun as I was whisked up the chairlift to the upper reaches of the mountain. Apart from one day in Japan I hadn't skied for a while so took the first couple of runs slowly but then met up with a very good skier called Peter who knew the mountain well and took me over an array of slopes (on and off piste). Keeping up whilst maintaining some style was a little challenging and I took a couple of stupendous spills with the cheer of "wipe out!" Being called from the lifts above my head. Hey ho! All in the spirit of the game. Returned to Rachel to find her ploughing down the nursery slope looking a bit like a prawn balanced on two lolly sticks (not a natural born skier). However, how can i judge after three wipe outs. My sister, when she first started skiing (actually for several years) always had a few tipples before hitting the slopes. Sadly rachel didn't fancy red wine for breakfast so was a little tense. Still (and I hear her groaning as i read this to her) there's always next time. 

That's it for now. Its 10.35 and we really should be getting dressed and hit the road. 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The glorious Coromandel

After a month on the road in the South Island and a 5 day break housesitting we fly to Auckland to pick up another van. When we got the behemoth for the first leg of our journey we thought it was a little on the f****king huge side but after a short while got used to it and hoped that we might be fortunate enough to get another upgrade with the new van. Unfortunately we went for behemoth to Juggernaught and 6 birth double cab giant they gave us was a bit too much. We tried it for one night but the additional height, width, length and thirsty, underpowered automatic engine just didn’t feel right. The extra size was mainly unusable – double cab and extra bedding area and consequently the working space was smaller than before. so the following morning, after phone calls and a small monetary adjustment we backtracked the 70km to pick up the same sort of vehicle as before – weirdly this seemed like a mini in comparison but the way Rachel hugged the familiar sink, seating and sleeping areas with a huge smile on her face was testimony to us having made the right decision.

We headed off from the rental place once more and in no time found ourselves on the Coromandel – a small peninsula with off lying islands a couple of hours from the sprawling city of Auckland which houses over 25% of the country’s population. Oh how lovely to be once again away from all that brick and be surrounded by tree’s, hills and rolling countryside. The Coromandel is beautiful and is soon wowing us with its loveliness. We camp in a DOC site at the end of 3km gravel track and ramp up the heating and pile on duvets and hats to keep warm as the temperature plummeted under the big clear sky. The good news, however, was that the following morning was glorious and we set off on 5 hour trek through the native bush. We had hoped to walk to some huts deep in the outback but without sleeping bags and suitable trekking gear had to abandon the idea. Still, there’s always next time and the trek we did was a joy anyway.

We have decided to scale down the miles for the second part of our journey and have selected a few areas we want to see in more depth rather than rushing through. The first two night stop is in a charming town of Coromandel (principal town of the peninsular). It’s all wooden, Victorian styled houses and turn of the century solid looking buildings that were once the court houses, banks, assay offices and the like. The principal trade of the town is fishing and oyster farms and consequently there are lots of little restaurants selling seafood. We had to have a powered site the first night as we both had skype interviews for teaching jobs in Japan and hopefully by the time I get to publish this post we might have some news. I hope so. As fab as NZ is it has still not quite usurped Japan as our favoured destination to stay. But, we haven’t completed our second leg yet and who knows what we will think by the end.

Had a great day today. Parked up at Whangapoua and before setting off to find the isolated and unspoilt New Chums Beach we asked two lady walkers the way. We had a very animated and jolly 5 minute chat and ended up arranging to go for a drink and meal with them in another town 40km away that evening where we watched the rugby, had a few drinks, laughed a lot, and slept in the council car park. Heather and Jen (our new best buddies) were good company and have invited us to stay with them for a couple of days when we get up to Auckland again. Testimony once again that if you are open and friendly then good things come your way. I do think we will take them up on their offer and are looking forward to another evening (we forgot to pay attention to the Rugby!). Anyway New Chums Beach is reached by walking along a beach, wading a stream, jumping from rock to rock over a further 500 metres until a glade of some NZ trees, palms etc is reached. You follow a little track through this until you suddenly behold what

is said to be the 7th Best beach in the Southern Hemisphere (Who puts these lists together?). It’s lovely. White sand, steep rocky outcrops covered in dense vegetation that stop egress from above and clear blue water that slowly slopes away into the pacific. Its deserted and the sun is shining and it’s the middle of the NZ winter so we strip off and run down into the surf naked for a very (I mean very) short dip in the icy water before lounging on some rocks like a couple of basking seals – basking seals who happen to like sandwiches and a bottle of pop.

Next day we travel a bit further down the coast to Hot Water Beach where, along with about 30 other people, pick a spot on the beach, dig a hole in the sand and after waiting a few minutes jump into the shallow, very hot pool that has seeped through the sand. I am sure we looked wonderful with me wearing my trunks and Rachel, for reasons best known to her, opting to just wear her underwear. Once again it is a beautiful day and the slight chill in the air only served to make the whole experience better by keeping our exposed bits cold. After an hour or so we hand our pool over to a group of young things in return for them taking photos of us which they are to send via email. Tonight, as I am typing this, Rachel is just cooking our dinner “Curried Vegetable Thingy” I believe she called it. The sun has just set over the sea and we are atop a cliff overlooking the huge expanse of sea before us. My god life is good!

Bright and early we set off on a walk to Cathedral Cove. Small cove separated from another by an arched cave that will eventually become a sea stack. Its deserted and beautiful with the usual blues, greens and yellow of the sun. Back to the van for a full English and then off to Whangamate where we walked on yet another beach and camped beside a sparkling river where sat and read our books in the sun with a bottle of wine until it got dark and the vista became one of a million twinkling stars in the night sky. We hadn’t really thought too much about where we had parked and during the night the tide came right up to the van so looking out of the back window in the morning made us think that we were at sea.

Final day on the Coromandel Penninsula – a place that we will be sad to leave with its coves, stunning hilly scenery, charming towns and friendly people – and we spend the day walking along a trail that took in a gold mining gorge where we went through very long and very dark (pitch black) tunnels, along old rail tracks and over suspension bridges. We finished the day with a stroll on another beach about 10 metres from our van where we saw a seal then had a half hour bathe in a hot tub. Its tuff but someone’s gotta do it.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Whale watching and Weatherall

Second time lucky. We went back to Kaikoura, after days of bad weather had stopped boats going out, hoping that conditions were favourable. And sure enough, they were. So we left from the offices in 'Whaleway Street', yep seriously, and were taken to the south harbour. I fought a young child to get off the coach first and get a good spot on the boat. I think I was just a little excited! The chap on the boat explained that it is such a prime location for whale watching in Kaikoura because 500 metres off shore the sea bed plunges from 200 metres to 2 kms (scary when you think about that too much) making it rich in food for the whales and dolphins. Anyway, whatever the reason it was absobloodylutely fantastic.

Dive, dive, dive!
They have a microphone that they hang over the side of the boat that picks up the whales cries so they know where to look. They pick up some sounds, look for the water plume of a blowhole and we speed across the water to get up close. We saw four humongous Sperm Whales. It was incredible. Unfortunately it just looks like the top of a submarine bobbing around until it dives back down to feed and then the shot everyone wants is the 'fluke'. We were all clicking away with cameras and waiting expectantly for it to submerge again. The crew were fantastic and knew exactly when it was going back down so it was all lenses ready. We had four attempts but were so scared about missing it and not knowing if we would see another that we fluffed up the pictures. The best 'Fluke' shot we could get is on the gallery.

Dusky Dolphins at Kaikoura
There was a spectacular treat in the middle of this in the form of a pod of over 100 dusky dolphins all jumping, twisting and performing in the water around us. It was incredible to see so many and in such a natural environment. The dusky dolphins are the best performers and they didn't disappoint. You could even hear them heavy breathing as they leapt along beside the boat. Truly amazing.

The boat ride back to shore was a bit choppy and several people were sick. I kept my eye on the horizon and, of course I had the best seat at the back of the boat after fighting the small child, so I was ok. We also saw a few Albatross. I thought we'd seen them before but obviously not. They are massive. They swooped around with their gigantic wings just skimming the top of the water. Pretty impressive for such a big bird. Another strange sight were seals just chilling in the sea. They were a fair way out and were literally floating around relaxing on their backs as they bobbed around. A great day and worth every cent. 

Chris, Mike, Mountains and Rocks
Next stop was catching up with Mike (surname Weatherall, that's where the blog name comes from). We met Mike over a year ago in Thailand whilst doing TEFL training and through the power of  Facebook stayed in touch. He lives about 40 kms outside of Christchurch and he offered to show us some sights. Unfortunately the weather had turned again but we wrapped up and went out regardless. We clambered over rocks where they filmed some of The Lord of The Rings at Castle Hill and tramped, that's a kiwi word for hiking, up a hill till snow made us abandon. And though the light was fading fast we even made it to Arthurs Pass which is a point of exceptional beauty. Mike showed us true kiwi hospitality and fed and watered us and let us watch the World Cup final on his huge tv. Thanks Mike. 

And final destination for our road trip of the South Island was Christchurch. A five day housesit gave us a break from the dirty camping and chance to see some of the City. We looked after the most laid back dog ever. We heard her bark once in the whole time and that was at a dog barking on the tv. Molly was some sort of terrier and looked like a giant cuddly teddy bear. Adorable. The two cats were a different story. Smooch missed the little girl of the house and would cry and scratch at the bedroom door for most of the night. Otis was your usual aloof cat and was just a giant bundle of ginger and white that would stroll in and stroll out again. 

The house was on the edge of the red zone, which is a designated area that was so badly damaged from the big earthquakes of 2010/2011 that the government bought all the land and they're making it into a park. The city itself is a bit of a sad sight. With about a third of the buildings in a state of disrepair, a third completely flattened and the rest still standing. The ongoing repairs of the roads mean so many routes are closed or one way with traffic lights. It is how I imagine London would have been after the blitz. But you can still see snippets of the old city and what must have been beautiful buildings and I am absolutely certain that in ten years time it will be back to its former glory. They are trying to make it more cheerful with lots of art pieces scattered about and a shopping centre that is stacked lorry containers all brightly coloured and the botanical gardens and glasshouse are pretty cool. We also managed to find a proper Greek kebab van, lush! 

Quake damaged cathedral
Onwards and upwards to the North Island to see what wonders that will hold. It's a tough act to follow but I have high hopes!