Monday 22 January 2018

Loose in Nelson

Don't ask me how it happened, but I'm blaming booking my domestic flights for this trip while somewhere en route to Antarctica and hence on the other side of the International Date Line. The upshot is, I've got an extra night here in Nelson, while the Baby, more efficiently, is scooting off home at lunchtime. She turned her nose up at the DIY waffles at the Prince Albert breakfast buffet, but I thought it was an unexpected treat for a backpackers, to have a couple of waffle irons on the bar plus batter measured out ready into glasses.
Then we wandered off into town, which is small, cute and accessible and well supplied with coffee bars, so we sat in the sun in Trafalgar Street with our flat whites while a little Asian lady swept busily all around us. After attending to a couple of errands - which included buying a pair of jandals for me as my feet were complaining about yet another day in trainers - we set off vaguely towards the Suter Art Gallery. 
We got distracted, though, by a Kite Festival on in the park on the waterfront, so we trailed over there and lay on the grass looking up at what seemed mainly fish-themed colourful kites of all sizes (though there was a horse vainly trying to get airborne, plus a pig, and a spaceman). All the kite fliers were, naturally, older white men.
The River Kitchen was ideal for an early lunch, beside the Maitai River - the best chips, plus I can recommend the portobello mushroom and halloumi burger, and Rochdale's ginger/lime cider. Having had a bit of a wander around the shops, we then (it is Sunday, after all) finished up at the back-street Craft Beer Depot, where we were the only customers. We sprawled on the sofa with a Braeburn apple hopped cider (hopped cider!) to toast the Baby's excellent idea in arranging this little expedition, and then said goodbye as she got onto her bike and pedalled off to the airport.
At an unaccustomed loose end - normally, when I'm travelling, there is precious little free time, let alone an entire half day of it - I sucked up a bit of Trafalgar St vibe, went up to Christ Church Cathedral which is Nelson's only justification to call itself a city, was a bit disconcerted to find a display of decorated Christmas trees inside, and then, in true homeless style, fell asleep on a bench in the garden alongside.
Next I went to see a movie - I've struggled to remember which one, it was so forgettable (The Commuter) - and finally moseyed back through the warm evening to the Prince Albert where, after the luxury of having a room to myself last night, I was doing it proper backpacker style in a mixed dormitory.  Not that it mattered: I was in my upper bunk with the curtains drawn before the others came to bed, and was up and away well before them next morning, so I never actually saw any of them (though I did hear snoring, and farting).

Saturday 20 January 2018

Abel Tasman Kayaks - Day 3: Not having our kayak or eating either

Grass is softer than sand, was today's first lesson - which makes sense, of course, since sand is rock. Granite, specifically, here. Also, if you sleep scrunched up it spreads the load from your hips. And it helps to be physically tired. All of which is to report that I slept much better last night, thanks for asking, which was just as well since today was to be the most physically demanding of the trip.
I've done some tramping in my time. Greenstone Valley, Milford, Hollyford and Hump Ridge Tracks, the Tongariro Crossing - plus *cough* the Inca Trail - as well as shorter tasters in all sorts of places (some of them with added bears) - so I know I can do reasonable distance and heights. What was new about today though was carrying all my own gear.  I KNOW! Gasp and all that. All those multi-day hikes I've done were supported, by which I mean that I only carried a day pack, all the rest of my stuff being carted to the next night's accommodation by either helicopter or porter. Go on, sneer if you like - but I still walked all the steps; and was arguably in a better state to enjoy my surroundings than those people bent over under their huge backpacks. Humph.
Anyway, today I was one of those people. Our gear has been stuffed into the kayak holds up till today, but Abel Tasman Kayaks spirited our boat away yesterday because the tour we opted for means that today we walk back to our pick-up point at Anchorage, so we are the transport from here on in. The main problem for me was my tent which, since I rarely use one (and have never needed to carry it, see above) is old-fashioned and heavy - the complete opposite of the space-age set-up the Baby has, which both weighs and folds down to nothing. Me, I'm stuck in the past where heavy nylon and metal poles rule. So even putting my pack on this morning was a struggle (upper-body strength never having been my, er, strong point).
Never mind. We set off on yet another gorgeous sunny morning, the sea turquoise blue and, now that the rough weather has been over for a couple of days, beginning to clear nicely to the transparency that all the Abel Tasman tourism literature makes such a feature of, as in this stolen pic:
So, the tramp? I'll spare you the detail. It was hot and sunny, cool and shady, up and along and down, repeat. There were many photo stops, it being super-photogenic New Zealand and all; there were rest stops, it being me and all; there was talking and panting, quite a lot of sweating, ferns and fern shadows, bush, streams, bridges (including one swing bridge), streams, waterfalls, mossy rocks, bellbirds, quails, beaches, bush, views long and short.
And people. Lots and lots of people, which surprised, pleased and dismayed me in pretty much equal measure. I mean, great that there were so many people out there getting exercise and enjoyment from the scenery; but amazing and a bit disappointing that so many of them were foreigners - I mean, why aren't Kiwis doing this more? - and finally, where were the peace and solitude you (I) expect in the bush? No wonder the track was so well maintained, with all this traffic.
There were long-distance trampers with huge packs and some of them carrying gas stoves in their hands like briefcases, day-walkers like us, and even people straying away from the nearest beach in bikinis and jandals. Some played music, many were nattering loudly (so I knew they were German - so many Germans! it was like a walk in the Black Forest - and Brits, Americans, Spanish, Chinese), and there was a traffic jam of selfie-takers at the suspension bridge. I was pleased to see so many solo girls, though.
We paused at Bark Bay again, where I was so glad not to be going in the opposite direction because it was a LONG steep climb that way, and where we waded through the lagoon, disturbing the oystercatchers and learning from the cheerful DOC guy cleaning the toilets that 29 degrees was predicted for today. (The DOC campsites we used and passed through, by the way, were the basic ones with nothing more in the way of facilities than a tap and a toilet. No showers, people! That's what the sea and the rivers are for...) We pressed on, past the lovely Sandfly Bay lagoon, and stopped above Torrents Bay to marvel at this little settlement of baches with no road access, tucked behind a finger of dazzling golden sand, alongside a tidal lagoon. Lovely.
Except, when we got down there, first of all we discovered that our planned lunch of pizza snacks was nowhere to be found, the Baby "100% convinced" that it had been stolen in the night from the tent fly by a greedy weka - yet another of our flightless birds, and much less shy than the kiwi. So we nibbled some kind of chocolate truffle things, washed down with filtered water. And then, instead of being able to cross the lagoon on the low tide track, we had to trail around its far reaches, adding an extra hour to our hike (the Baby did test the depth: they were right).
It was pretty, though, and it did mean that the Baby got a second chance at Cleopatra's Pool when we went past the turn-off, and ticked off her rock-slide while I sat feebly on the main track, eavesdropping on the passers-by and thoroughly enjoying not having my pack on my shoulders. 
And then we got back to Anchorage, to sit on the beach marvelling at the water taxis loading up more and more kayaks - 19 was the record - before it was our turn to climb aboard and whizz back to Marahau.
Abel Tasman Kayaks were so impressively efficient at this end, too: as our water taxi approached the beach, a team of tractors headed into the water towing trailers that the taxis drove straight up onto, so that the tractor could then trundle with us up out of the water onto the carpark. There the guys unloaded the kayaks super-fast, and we then stayed in the boat as the tractor towed it back to the kayak depot down the road. Brilliant. And then, after a bit of a R&R, the shuttle came to collect us and distribute us back to our various accommodations in Nelson - the Prince Albert again for us. Such a good service (plus, they support pest eradication in the park).
And that was it, our kayak/tramping adventure all over. I'm so glad the Baby thought of arranging it for us. It's something I've wanted to do for ages, but I would probably never have got around to it on my own. It was extra special too, having the time with her, and doing it together. Best Christmas present ever!

Friday 19 January 2018

Abel Tasman Kayaks - Day 2: Saturated. In both senses

You know how people rave about falling asleep to the soothing lap of waves on a beach? And there are even apps supplying that sound to insomniacs? Well, t'ain't so. Not in real life, not when you're lying a couple of metres from endlessly busy waves, it isn't. Slap, crash, slap, crash, all sodding night long. Plus there were snorers in some of the tents who were physically so close to me, that they might have been sharing my bed. Except there was no bed, just a ridiculous yoga mat that was nowhere near thick enough to enable more than a half-hour's sleep at a stretch, before the hips started complaining. Also, it got colder than anticipated. And don't get me started on those bloody night birds, squawking away with no consideration whatsoever for us diurnal types.
So, after a night like that, it speaks volumes for the beauty of Abel Tasman National Park that as soon as I emerged, bent and creaky, from my tent, the first person in our little bay to see the golden early morning light over the painted beach, the (finally) calm glossy sea, the green bush and islands and the sculpted rocks, it all immediately calmed my soul and put me into a good mood for the day's adventure. The Baby's excellent muesli and coffee on the beach set me up well for our assault on the Mad Mile - a couple of kilometres around a headland, exposed to the full force of the wind.
Except, there was no wind. Later, there would be, but up so early we were able to skim around the headland on water almost lake-like, with the leisure to observe the shags and gulls, appreciate the beauty of the bush and rocks and hidden little bays. It was gorgeous. We swept past Anchorage where we'd walked to yesterday, detoured around Pinnacle Island to look at fur seals on the rocks, couldn't go into the Sandfly Bay lagoon because the tide was wrong, and pulled in at Bark Bay which should have been our first overnight if the wind hadn't been so strong yesterday and the sea too rough.
It was a lot bigger than Watering Cove, so there was room for everyone to have their own space, plus it had a beautiful lagoon. Still quite early, the colours were saturated: green water, gold sand, blue sky, black rocks. It was gorgeous - but then, if we hadn't stopped at the Cove, we wouldn't have seen the elephant. Also, it was much busier at Bark Bay: already water taxis were buzzing in and out, delivering people and kayaks, impressively efficient in their arrival and departure off the beach. They would approach the shore, turn around, drop the anchor just so, back in to the beach and, when the anchor chain was at full stretch, the boat stopped in exactly the right spot to drop the ramp for the passengers to step ashore - and then, departing, the same in reverse. Very professional.
We set off again - also, if I say it myself, practised and efficient ourselves - out across the bay to tackle Foul Point with confidence. And rightly so: in today's calm conditions it was a piece of weasel. We could see the North Island quite close, there were more rocks and shags and bush to enjoy, and the picturesque Tonga Arches - and then, suddenly, we were at Onetahuti Beach, our final stop - and it wasn't even lunchtime!
This was the end of the kayaking section of our trip, and we glided into the beach a bit sorry, a bit glad (sore bum from the hard seat). And then, in the last seconds, it all fell to pieces: I got half out, a wave pushed the kayak, it knocked me over backwards with one leg still caught inside, and I disappeared under the water until I was able to kick my leg free and stand up. Typical - and funny.
Here I set my tent up on the grass, hopeful for a softer sleep than on last night's hard-packed sand, and after lunch and a nap Abel Tasman Kayaks very efficiently turned up to reclaim their kayak; and the Baby and I set off for a walk to Awaroa. We strolled along the gloriously golden beach, took a curving boardwalk through a wetland and across an artistic bridge over a clear and tannin-stained creek, and climbed over the next bluff and down to Awaroa. Where, dear reader, we found a pizzeria/cafe/bar set under the trees with bean bags and WiFi! After almost two whole days in the wilderness, deprived of social media, what a treat that was. It wasn't even that busy there, considering how many people we'd seen in kayaks, on the beaches and in the campgrounds, and along the track. Mostly Germans, it seemed - certainly the people on the bean bags next to us were German. "Ich bin Spiderman!" their little boy was shouting at his sister as they played.
It was all so relaxing that we didn't much mind when we learned we'd missed the water taxi back to Onetahuti by five minutes, and had to walk back again instead. The sun was lower, the colours richer, and it was just gorgeous. We even rescued some starfish that had inexplicably got marooned on the sand, a long trail of them. We had b-in-b butter chicken for dinner, sitting on the beach, I had a swim in the warm, shallow water, there were gannets and gulls, crickets and cicadas, dotterels, quails and pukeko, well-behaved waves lapping on the sand and, after everyone else in camp had organised their dinners and retired early for the night, it was quiet. Fabulous. A 10/10 day.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Abel Tasman Kayaks - Day 1: Off (but not out)

The rain, it rained all night. And it was still raining when we were picked up by the Abel Tasman Kayaks shuttle that took a bunch of us to their depot in Marahau. We crossed several rivers brown and swollen by rain - the Wairau was particularly impressive - but as we drove past farms and vineyards into the hills, the sky gradually cleared and by the time we were introduced to our kayak, it was, hooray, a lovely sunny day. The depot was also flooded along the middle, but fortunately they had all their kayaks stacked up out of the water (haha) and there was a bit of grass for us to practise our drills on. I hand it to AT Kayaks, they're certainly thorough. Positively American. 
It wasn't just how to paddle a kayak and put on a lifejacket - rather terrifyingly, it was also how to escape a capsized kayak and then climb into it again. Plus pumping, flares, all that. And then there was the waiver to sign. Pretty nerve-wracking stuff, even if cheerfully delivered. It's not as if we were going in a guided group - oh no, we were heading off out to sea, solo. Yay. Five minutes later, at the beach, we had to demonstrate we could paddle, steer, turn and reverse - and then we were off, and were straight away on our own.
The Baby and I were sharing a double kayak so the work was halved, and we were able to chat which was nice, and reassuring - once we'd established trust re steering, etc. It was a bit choppy, and there were rocks to avoid, but we soon got into the rhythm and, looking at the map, realised that it was very large scale and that in fact today's distance was very do-able, despite not setting off till mid-morning. It helped that we'd been advised not to try to go round the off puttingly-titled Mad Mile today in the wind - no argument from us - and to camp a bit closer than scheduled tonight.
So we pootled along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, with its bush and rocks and occasional yellow sand beaches, its shags and seagulls, and got to Watering Cove in time for a late lunch of rolls and salad (all catering done by the Baby, good for her). The site, just above a sandy beach, was flat, but very small given that a number of other kayakers were heading there to overnight too for the same reason as us, so we pitched our tents straight away. Good thing, too - when we came back later from our walk, it was elbow-room only. No big deal, but not quite what I'd expected. This is New Zealand! We don't do crowds in the bush...
Anyway, the afternoon we spent walking to Anchorage on the other side of the headland, which was even busier: long beach, big DOC campsite, masses of kayaks lined up on the sand, water taxis buzzing in and out, people swimming and sunbathing... So we wandered on along the impressively well-maintained track and took a detour to Cleopatra's Pool, where there's meant to be a natural rock slide between pools in the river. But with all the rain we've had, the water was gushing down and - sorry to sound feeble again, it's really not my usual state - it didn't appeal to me, though the Baby did her best to give me the willies.
Back at Watering Cove - which is surrounded by picturesque sea-sculpted rocks, one of them just like an elephant's head (with eyes and ears carved in by some anal type who didn't trust anyone to see it for themselves) - we (she) cooked our boil-in-the-bag dinner which came with wine tonight. Very impressive. Other people were cooking up their meals too, not all of them as efficiently as the Baby, who has had long practice with her kit. I heard one young boy, clearly a novice, asking loudly "Where's the kitchen?"
We ate by the beach, the sun lowered behind more cloud, we settled down for the night in our tents, arms and legs equally tired from the day's exercise, and it seemed odd to me that we were in a remote location, far from a road, and yet it was busy and noisy with people chatting right up close. And then, quite quickly, it went quiet and all I could hear were the waves on the beach and the occasional hooting of some unidentifiable night birds.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Willing and Abel

Although I'm a Lego fan from way back, inducted my daughters into the cult, have trodden on my share in bare feet, and have crates of it still in the cupboard, unable to get rid of it because it's an investment - and also, well, LEGO! I was still surprised to get this present from the Baby for Christmas. But it was a symbol: the real present was a 3-day kayaking/camping/tramping trip with her in Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island. Brilliant!

So today I ferried and bussed to the airport and flew down to Nelson to meet her. This town, beloved of retirees, normally vies for the top of the nation's Sunniest City poll, but not so much right now - according to the shuttle driver who collected me from the dinky airport, it's all Australia's fault. That's easy to accept at face value, but she did support it with some meteorological science, in that the horrifyingly hot weather there sucks tropical rain down here.

My trip before last, the Kenya/Uganda/Rwanda one, in a truck and tents, helped set me up for the basic level of accommodation on this one. Mostly we'll be camping, but tonight we get to luxuriate in beds at the Prince Albert Backpackers hostel in Nile Street. I can't recall staying in a backpackers before - lost in the mists of time, I'm guessing - but this seemed pretty good: not fancy, certainly, but we had twin beds with an ensuite, and downstairs it was like a jolly pub (complete with English landlord), serving excellent food in huge portions.

Afterwards, lying in bed listening to the rain pouring down, and knowing there's a lot of exercise ahead of me, only a thin yoga mat to sleep on, and no bathrooms at all, I was just grateful for a last night of relative comfort. As well as slightly anxious that perhaps last week wasn't the best time to have a squamous cell carcinoma cut out of my shin... (Yeah, sorry. But watch out for nasties like this, ok?)

Friday 5 January 2018

Post Silver Explorer post

Aaand it's back to harsh reality today - up early for the last breakfast, we got back to the cabin suite to find Ivy and Ralte busy stripping the beds. Our suitcases, put out last night, were gone already (to be next encountered on the carousel at Buenos Aires' domestic airport). The bing-bong on the PA, that up till now has signalled an interesting - even exciting - message from Tim or the Captain, this morning gave us our literal marching orders, and our cards were swiped for the last time as we left the ship with no ceremony other than the expedition leaders lined up to shake our hands at the bottom of the gangplank. No trumpets, no banners, nothing.
It would have been slight consolation to have had the hour and a half that was mentioned at one point for a bit of a look around Ushuaia, bit in the end it was not much more than half an hour. Most of the shops were shut, not opening till 10am, but there was still plenty of interest: brightly-coloured houses, a wide range of architectural styles including half-timbered and Austrian, there were a couple of museums, the waterfront, a Hard Rock Café, various monuments including one to Eva Péron, and to the Malvinas dead. On our bus tour back before the cruise, I'd seen lots of declarations, official and not, about the Malvinas being Argentinian, but had no time to find any to photograph this morning.
And then we were into the tedium of travel: Ushuaia airport, waiting, being bussed out onto the LATAM charter flight and squeezing into a 777-300 with absolutely no leg-room, even for a shortie like me. It didn't help that the Swiss woman in front of me reclined her seat fully straight away, got crabby when I asked her to lift it when the breakfast service began, and then slammed it back the moment the food was cleared. Well. There was my entertainment for the flight sorted. I spent the next three hours randomly poking and pushing the back of her seat as I crossed and uncrossed my legs and genuinely tried to fit them into the tiny space. Of course she objected, increasingly angrily, but I merely smiled and pointed out that if she moved it forward just a bit, we could both be comfortable. She actually shouted and shook the back of my own seat at one point, before eventually and suddenly giving in, and relinquishing the full recline. Win! (Selfish, inconsiderate cow.) (Her, not me.) (Natch.)
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Silversea herded us into different coaches at BA domestic airport and ours headed off to the international airport, Ezeiza, a ring-road journey that the guide said would take 40 minutes "because tomorrow is a holiday". Turned out, because tomorrow was a holiday, everyone was on the road not giving way to anyone else, and the trip took two hours. But that was ok, because we had eight hours before our flight left just after midnight. Sadly, we were too early even to check in, so we parked ourselves at a café upstairs not far from a Malvinas memorial (that explained "The immediate cause [of the Malvinas Islands War] was the fight for sovereignty of these islands, taken by force in 1833 and dominated since then by the United Kingdom.") In contrast, there was also a Hard Rock Café with clothing once owned by Prince, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Elton John.
The airport is new and fancy, and we had ample chance to experience it because the VIP lounge would only allow us in as Priority Pass card holders after 11pm. So we sat and watched as the remaining few Silver Explorer passengers guests (and staff crew) dispersed in various directions, the Americans amongst them grimly anticipating delays and discomforts associated with a storm that was bringing sub-Antarctic temperatures and conditions to shocked eastern cities.

None of that for us. We eventually boarded NZ31, pleased to be in familiar surroundings again, and settled into this much roomier 777-200 for our 12-hour flight (again, a much shorter journey than for many others on the Silver Explorer, which was a nice novelty). We took off over the lights of the astonishingly huge city, flew uneventfully south-west, crossed the Date Line while sleeping and landed around 5.30am. We then took a horrendously, hideously expensive taxi to the city ($80, instead of the $38 out there), had a short wait for the ferry which we shared with umpteen eager cyclists aiming to "do a thousand metres" (total climb) on a 50km route, and got a cheerful taxi back to our house which, despite an exceptionally powerful storm hurtling through yesterday, was still standing unscathed. Always good.

Thursday 4 January 2018

Silver Explorer, Day 18 - Sorry

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
The Captain warned yesterday of a gale overnight, and no-one was quite sure if it was a joke or not, because that’s how he rolls – but in fact so did the waves during what was almost the dark (further south, the sun has been setting around 11pm and rising again before 3am, and the bit in between has never even approached what you might call dark).

This morning though it was calm again, and there ahead of us, too rapidly getting larger, was land: Tierra del Fuego, and the end of our voyage. Everyone is sad about it. It really has been so special, and though some people (mainly the ones who got soaked in the downpour in Stanley while I was in the museum knowing nothing about it) would have liked a bit more sunshine, general opinion has it that we did well, seeing Antarctica in all of its moods. Well, most, anyway. I can cope without experiencing a blizzard.
When we got back to our cabins suites after breakfast, there were our suitcases laid out on the bed – a pretty brutal sort of hint. We had already received disembarkation instructions last night. There was a little note from our butler Ivy offering to do the packing. That’s an interesting concept and almost tempting, but I’m passing it by. Too many decisions that only I can make, really. And thank goodness for my expansion zips, which were the reason I bought this particular suitcase ages ago, and which it’s been ever since a mark of honour not to use. Silversea gives you a puffa jacket as well as an outer parka, both of them very well made, but they’re something else to make room for. Along with the two blouses I didn’t wear, tch.
We took a break to listen to Anthony Smith’s talk about the art of bronze casting – something apparently random but which he managed to link to everywhere we’ve been – Ushuaia, the Falklands, South Georgia and even Antarctica have had bronze busts or statues that we’ve seen. The one in South Georgia was actually by Anthony himself: a bust in the museum, of Ernest Shackleton (of course). It was actually fascinating, to be shown the many stages in the process of creating a bronze, and Anthony is clearly multi-talented.
We’ve been impressed by the depth of knowledge of all of the lecturers, and have particularly enjoyed the talks by Anthony, Luke and Cory, who know their stuff inside out and communicate it intelligently and accessibly. And then it was Denis’s turn, to play the full-length version of the video he’s been compiling and without a doubt going cross-eyed and without sleep during the last couple of days to complete. Of course he has the big lenses, multiple camera bodies, and even a drone – but the talent and expertise help, too. It’s fabulous, and a wonderful reminder of the places we’ve been, the things we’ve done, what we’ve seen.

And so that was pretty much it: there was the Captain's jolly auction of that lovely map (it's gone to Chicago, for US$1300); then some drinks in the Panorama Lounge before dinner, with chairs at a premium as groups of new friends made the most of the last chance to be together; followed by dinner ditto; and then the ritual putting out of the packed and labelled suitcases before bed, and setting the alarm for the last breakfast, and the eviction at 9am as the crew work like crazy to make things ready for the lucky new consignment of passengers guests, who have all those good things ahead of them while we trudge through the tedious bits of flying back home again, our adventure over.


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