Friday, 5 October 2012

Getting to Yellowstone

OK, I'm playing catch-up again. We're now well over 1,000 miles into our US roadtrip so I thought I'd better start putting up a few of the photos.

Our first day of driving took us through Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest paved roadway in the USA.

We discovered the ghost town of Jeremy, Wyoming, by accident. We stopped for a coffee, and ended up staying two hours to explore. It was a boom town until the cold war ended and military grade uranium mining became a less profitable business, now only 50 people remain where 5000 lived in 1988.

There was sooooo much good stuff to photograph in Jeremy, we could have stayed there days. This is the new 14-24mm in action :-)

Our route then took us up to Red Lodge (great town, definitely want to return) and along the length of the Beartooth Highway. It really lived up to the billing - "America's most scenic road".

We wound up the side of a steep valley, then popped over the top into another world entirely - an alpine plateau dotted with lakes and glacial morain. 

We slowly wound our way down towards Yellowstone through stunning pine-drenched valleys. This was the last day of good weather - the highway shut for the year the day after we drove it due to an incoming storm and the first snow of the season.

The fall colours were stunning, you really cant beat aspens at this time of year.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year from Christchurch

Hello from Christchurch! We got here Friday night, after touring across South Island one last time. We saw Aoraki Mt Cook and loved the lake country - definitely the best sunsets of the trip, if not the best weather.
Aoraki Mt Cook sunset
We met up with Jenny and Rob when we hit Christchurch, their camper van parked next to ours in the little campsite we found. We spent the day today tidying out the van and then exploring central Christchurch. Really weird vibe there - most of the CBD is fenced off and undergoing demolition/repair due to the earthquakes so the place is pretty empty. Much of the damage dates back to the big quakes in Nov 2010 and Feb 2011, but quakes continue daily and the most recent damage we saw was a bar that had been terminally damaged on Dec 9th (three weeks ago!). Liquifaction is a big problem further out, the ground turning to mud and everything sinking in - a load of that happened last Friday when a mag 6.2 hit.

Central Christchurch, one year on

Downtown, just outside the "red zone" exclusion area, a couple of blocks have been cleared entirely and replaced with shops and cafes housed in brightly coloured shipping containers - "RE:Start". Very cool, and some good bargains in the Kathmandu store. We had some good coffee and cake and enjoyed the free wifi before heading back to camp with J&R for a BBQ dinner.

We felt one quake in the afternoon, a magnitude 4.8 that struck while we were in the Kathmandu store, shaking the displays for a few seconds. No-one batted an eye-lid. Checking online it seems that this was the fourth quake of the day, and that's pretty average. Living with this daily, with the odd bit of damage hitting every week or two, must be really weird, siege-like. The media say that 1 in 10 locals plan to leave Christchurch permanently if/when they can sell up.

After a BBQ at the campsite - replete with hand-assembled strawberry pavlova for dessert, kudos J&R - we headed back into the centre for the free NYE celebrations - some live bands and fireworks in the park.

We're now all packed and just about to drop the camper van off before heading to the airport. It's been fun, probably time for just one more coffee…

Happy new year!

River sunset

Thursday, 29 December 2011

NZ catch-up: Christmas in South Island

No blog posts for a while now, sorry about that. We've been out in the wilds exploring South Island, having a totally awesome time. Here's the quick summary…

Headed down to Kaikoura and surprised K with an early Christmas present - swimming with dolphins. Totally amazing and well worth getting up at 5am. We had five or more of the little critters circling us at a time, all at arms length. Totally wild too, and just intrigued to come and play with the strange clumsy humans.
Kaikoura - Spot the dolphin
After that we headed over Arthurs Pass - spectacular alpine scenery, plus our first encounter with the Kea, NZ's cheeky mountain parrot. These guys are extremely inquisitive and love to steal stuff from right under your nose - or off your plate. Definitely my favourite NZ wildlife so far (no offence dolphins, you are great too).
Kea attempts to steal my laptop
Cruising down the mountainous west coast we took a helicopter ride over Franz Josef glacier. This was brilliant and, as we took our ride from a ways north up the coast, we got to see a whole lot of the mountain range and a couple of other glaciers; much better than the "up and back" tours you get at higher cost from the glacier resort towns themselves. Floor to ceiling windows meant we got some good photo ops :-)

Glacier flight

As Christmas approached we left the West coast and crossed the mountains once again, stopping at the North end of Lake Wanaka. We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on a tiny backcountry campsite right on the lake's edge, watching the sun play across the mountains all around and swimming in the (freezing) lake. It was hot and sunny and we got to BBQ on the beach in solitude - perfect :-)
NZ Christmas!
Since then we've flowing through Queenstown without slowing down and spent today at Milford Sound. Totally amazing scenery down here, definitely a match for Yosemite (my yardstick for soaring cliffs). We've lucked out again with decent weather, actually seeing sun on the Sound and not getting rained on at all.
Moody Milford Sound
Tonight we're in another backcountry campsite, back up the valley a bit from Milford Sound. Surrounded by mountains, we're at the edge of a clearing dotted with lupins. Chicken on the BBQ today, accompanied by asparagus and potatoes. Happy Christmas!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Days 8-9: Goodbye North Island…

Saturday was a driving day. Heavy rain and high winds had whipped around us over night, conditions that persisted as we drove south. We never did get even a glimpse of Mt Edgmont as we drove round it.

We stopped for coffee mid morning and then detoured to Waverly Beach for lunch (mushroom soup - nice!). We checked out the sea arch at Waverly, clambering over the driftwood to get some photos, and then sat in the van at the top of the cliff and watched the waves lash the shore. K thought she spotted a dolphin, but it turned out to be a tree trunk.
Waverly sea arch
The final run in to Wellington was great. The weather had lifted and as we hit Pukerea the road found the coast and threaded along the side of a hill, high above the sea. From there on the views were non-stop, nothing beating the final reveal as we came over the hill to see the city laid out before us, curving around the bay.

We parked up in a car park-style camper van park right in the centre of Wellington. Very convenient, a short walk from all the sites and right on the waterfront.

On Sunday the sun shone and we toured the city. The walk along the sea-front was great, passing cool bars and with views out over the bay. Along the waterfront we found Te Papa, the national museum. Highlights for me were the earthquake simulator, the giant squid and the ethnographic display on immigration into NZ over the last 200 years. K was sorely tempted to check out the wedding dresses on loan from the V&A, but managed to resist!

From Te Papa we headed up and down Cuba Street ("Wellington's creative heart"), ducking into little art and design stores and checking out the buskers. Next we took the cable car up to the botanic gardens. The walk back down in the afternoon sun was really peaceful, threading through stands of fir, fern-drenched gullies and ornamental rose gardens.
Wellington from the Botanic Gardens
Food is definitely a highlight of Wellington. Saturday night's dinner at Matterhorn was great, really high quality food. I had "suckling pig head to toe" - a medley of cuts from cheek, shoulder, belly and leg. Sunday morning saw a huge brunch at Gotham, a coffee shop we discovered on a back street while out wandering. The "Breakfast BLT" turned out to be a sandwich almost a foot long, and the coffee was as good as you'd expect in the cafe capital of a coffee-mad country. We didn't need to eat again until evening, which saw us bidding goodbye to Wellington with gourmet pizzas at One Red Dog - the Shawshank in my case, slow roast lamb, caramelised onion and rosemary. Yum.

So far we've covered 1111km - spooky! As I write this the Interislander Ferry is just leaving port in Wellington, taking us on to the next stage of our adventure. With a bit of luck we'll be cycling through vineyards this afternoon.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Days 5-7: Clutch problems

I'm writing this perched on a cliff on the outskirts of New Plymouth, watching bands of rain rolling in off the sea. Rain seems to be a feature of the holiday thus far…

As it turns out there's a storm system passing over NZ at present. On Wednesday it dumped 2 months worth of rain on the northern tip of south island. In one day. The most rain they've had in 100 years, they say. 

Despite the continuing precipitation, Wednesday morning saw us hit the back-country of the west coast of North island - we figured that the black sand surf beaches would look good in any weather, and how right we were.
A stroll on the beach, umbrella in hand

State highway 3 hits the coast at Mokau, a small harbour town centred around a tidal estuary and the bridge over it. This is the kind of place where the post office, diner, general store and camp site are all one and the same. Still great coffee though.

Exploring the narrow back streets for ways down to the beach we hit a blocked road and had to reverse back up the hill. This was clearly too much for the clutch as, when we got to the top and turned round, it gave a puff of smoke and stuck in first gear. When I say stuck I mean it - couldn't even get neutral - so I turned off the engine and we coasted to a halt partly blocking a junction. Waiting half an hour for the smell of burnt clutch to subside didn't help, so we called the AA for a tow. Thursday morning saw Wilderness spring into action and by 10:00 they'd arranged a replacement vehicle and had it on a truck being brought down.

Our day waiting for the new wheels in Mocau was far from wasted - it may have been lashed by rain but the long beach looked stunning. The driftwood here is incredible - whole trees lying at the back of the beach in piles, truly a sight to see. That, the jet black volcanic sand and the big waves kept us quite occupied. Our new home turned up on schedule and turned out to be a slight upgrade - bigger fridge, and we now have an extractor fan!

K shows off the latest in water-proof camera cases

This morning (Friday?) we awoke to (OK - partly) blue skies. Still lots of clouds, but definitely gaps between them! We wasted no time in hanging our wet clothes out to dry, and then hit the beach for another walk along the shoreline. We moved south through the day, exploring the coastline until the next band of rain set in, after which we made a dash for our next port of call.

That is where you find us now. There's apparently a stunning volcano here, perfectly proportioned in the manner of Mount Fuji, but we have yet to catch a glimpse of it. This is one of the rainiest corners of NZ, and in a week of record-breaking rain…

Still, we're off to Wellington tomorrow and the forecast is for sun on Sunday :-)

The new van

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Days 2-4: Coromandel to Cambridge

We cruised down from Auckland and up the west coast of the Coromandel peninsula. This is rugged country, steep forested hills dropping straight into the sea. The drive was really beautiful, with the road twisting along the coast under the pohutukawa trees and always with the hills - wreathed in cloud - looming above. We pulled the van in on a stretch of deserted sea shore for our first wild camp, very nice indeed. Being able to stop wherever we fancy is very liberating.

Monday brought showers so we lay in and headed into Coromandel town for lunch. We spent an hour exploring the quirky Driving Creek Railway (thx mum and dad - good recommendation); good fun although dampened a little by the rain and low cloud. I'm sure the views are great on a fine day!

Our first dirt road coated the van in mud, gave us the chance to hug a giant Kauri tree, and deposited us on the east coast where we made camp for the night right on the beach. Not much of a view sadly, due to the ongoing rain situation. Tuesday morning we hit the road to get some miles in and give the rain a chance to clear.

A couple of hours cruising down the coast brought us to the Karangahake Gorge. This was definitely a highlight thus far: The road winds along the side of the steep, forested gorge, above a rushing river, all sweeping curves. Everywhere are the remnants of the gold and silver mining that thrived in this area 100 years ago. We stopped to explore one of the many paths in the area, heading up a side gorge past the ruins of the main mine workings, now all wreathed in ferns and moss. From there the path picked up an old mine tramway that eventually disappeared into the cliff. We went in after it, torch in hand, and threaded our way through the wall of the gorge itself. This was great - regular windows in the tunnel gave us views from high in the cliff wall of the gorge and we even go to see some glow-worms! K was super-brave and actually enjoyed it, I think!

The tunnels

View over the Karangahake Gorge
From here we crossed farming country, what must be the cow centre of New Zealand. Tractor dealerships and industrial dairies were everywhere, and adverts on local radio tended towards "Do you need solar power for you cattle shed? Just call us". Beautiful country though, very green and with cute round hills poking up. Think "The Shire" - this is where it was filmed.

Last night we barbecued ourselves some homemade lamb burgers last night (yum!) and this morning we are debating plans. We had intended to head down the west coast and explore the surf beaches, but the forecast for the next few days is rain so maybe deserted beaches aren't the best option...

Monday, 12 December 2011

Day 1: Kia Ora from Auckland

Saturday 10th - Sunday 11th December

We survived the marathon flight, picked up our motor home and we're now on the road in New Zealand. First stop was to Northern Auckland to drop in on Catherine & Eli for a proper Nz welcome. They treated us to a great lamb bbq and a drop of whiskey before we turned in to sleep off the jet lag. It was great to see them and to meet the boys again - they've grown a lot since we last saw them in London a few years back (the boys, that is!).

View from North Head, Auckland
Sunday morning they took us off on a tiki tour of the local area. First stop was a fantastic cafe for coffee and cakes (we are in Nz, after all) followed by a cruise up to North Head for great views back over the city and along the coast (see the panorama above). It was a windy day but that didnt slow the boys down any - they had a great time sliding down the grassy slopes and exploring the tunnels of the old fortifications that thread through the hill-top.

Catherine, Eli and the boys say hi!
The boys loved our motorhome - mostly I think for the novelty of being able to watch TV in it :-)

Sunday afternoon we said our goodbyes and hit the road for the start of our travels. Next stop, the Coromandel peninsula.