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.