Taking the Back Roads

With our month in Apt sadly over it was time to get back to what has become the norm on our journeys across Europe, a loaded up car and a tent!

On our way South to The Luberon we had avoided the motorways and instead taken the back roads of France. We had enjoyed it so much, we decided to continue on that way as we made our way back North.

We found that we saw much more of the country as we passed through villages and along rural roads. It was also much easier to stop at scenic points, interesting sights or just for a coffee. Although this way of travel takes much longer, time is our friend these days, and it is certainly a more relaxing way to drive.

First stop was the Ardeche Gorge, only a short hop from Apt. This was the third time in the last five years we have stayed in the tiny village of St Martin d’Ardeche. It is definitely a beautiful location, positioned right next to the river, with a pebble beach and the steep walls of the gorge on either side.

Sarah rented an electric bike and joined Steve on the 80 kilometre cycle around the gorge. Everything was going great until a couple of kilometres before the longest, steepest hill on the route and Sarah’s bike developed a problem and lost power. Panic set in, as although Sarah could probably have slowly made it to the top on her own bike, the heavy electric bike was a no go.

She cycled on the flat furiously pressing every combination of buttons and switches possible, as the climb out of the gorge loomed closer. Then, with only a couple of hundred metres to go Steve heard a big shout of relief and saw Sarah throw her arms in the air as power was restored. Although she encountered the same issue a couple of more times on the way, we arrived back in Saint Martin pretty much unscathed.

The other advantage of taking the back roads is it takes you to areas you may not normally venture because they are not too well known and are a fair distance from the motorways. The Ardeche National Park fitted this scenario.

Many people visit the Ardeche gorge but few venture further into the National Park. We rented a basic log cabin for a couple of days by Lake Naussac and explored the region. It was so peaceful and the scenery was stunning, definitely worth the stop.

Next on our route was as stop in The Gorge du Tarn. We had visited the Southern end of the gorge a few years ago, so this time we stopped in the unbelievably pretty village of St Enimie at the Northern end.

We seriously considered not mentioning this stop in the blog. We don’t want too many people to know about it. We can’t understand why it is not much more popular than it is. Maybe it’s because it is that little bit more inaccessible, but if you like scenery that includes roads cut into the overhanging rock, twisting alongside the river, passing through picture perfect medieval villages. This place should certainly be on your itinerary.

The area is also home to one or two alternative communities and some of the villages have a historical circus connection. As such the communities occasionally put on theatrical shows which tend to feature some form of high wire act. It is quite a sight watching someone walking a tightrope across the gorge, high above the river, while playing a trumpet!

At this point we headed North to the small village of Volvic. Not to sample the famous water, but to watch the Tour de France which was scheduled to pass through. On the day of the race we packed a picnic, our camping chairs and sunscreen (like most of the past month the mercury had been hovering in the mid 30’s) and we set off to join the thousands of others on the route.

The main group of almost 200 riders normally take about 8 seconds to speed past. So in order to entertain the crowds it is preceeded by a seemingly endless line of support vehicles and the famous (well, famous among cycling fans) Tour Caravan. This is a line of extravagantly decorated floats representing the Tour sponsors which speed along at around 50 kilometres per hour, handing or more accurately throwing out all manner of free items, known as ‘Tour Tack’. It takes about 30 minutes for The Caravan to pass and Sarah was in her element, diving here, there and everywhere, pushing small children and climbing over anyone in the way to get her hands on anything from an air freshner to a key fob!

Eventually the cyclists came past and fortunately for us they had split into three groups. So we were able to experience the noise and speed on a few occasions.

At the end of a long but entertaining day we made our way back to the campsite for some food and for Sarah to model some of her ‘Tour Tack’.

With our Tour experience over, we headed to the Dordogne, an area popular among both French and Foreign tourists alike. The Dordogne does not have the dramatic scenery of mountains and gorges as some areas of France, it is more rolling and forested countryside. But it is still an area well worth visiting.

Pretty villages, and dramatic looking castles, follow the meandering Dordogne River as it snakes its way through South Central France. We rented a converted barn for a few nights. Well actually it was a tiny quater of a converted barn and the other three quarters were still derelict, so it sounds a lot grander than it was. However, although small it had been renovated to a high standard and was perfect for our stay.

We spent our time in The Dordogne pretty much the same way as we had done in Apt. Steve cycling in the mornings and then exploring the area together for the rest of the day. Although on one day we had slightly less time than we had planned when Steve was enjoying himself too much and took a wrong turn making his planned 130 kilometre route into almost 200!

Probably our favourite villages in the area were Sarlat de Canada, Beynac and La Roque – Gageac. Although you can’t really go wrong wherever you visit.

Our final stop on our route North following the backroads was in The Loire Valley. We chose to stay in the town of Amboise, which is where Leonardo de Vinci spent his final years and is buried in the town.

Amboise was a great location to explore this part of the Loire. The region is pretty much pancake flat and perfect terrain for Sarah to get out on her bike. On one morning she accompanied Steve as he went for a long run along the side of the Loire River. Coming back into town it was almost lunch time and the roads had become quite busy. We had to cross the main bridge to get back to our campsite and it was heaving with cars. Sarah, who was behind Steve, went to join him on the much quieter pavement. Suddenly Steve heard a crash and turned around to see Sarah had clipped the pavement and fallen entangled in her bike half on and half off the pavement.

We quickly established it was only superficial grazes and potentially bruised knees and hips and, with a big dose of embarrassment, she remounted the bike. The cuts and bruises will definitely be there for a while to come!

Luckily we had already done most of our sightseeing in the area with Chateau Chenechau being the outstanding highlight.

This is a beautiful Chateau which spans the river, set in amazing gardens, and has a bucket full of hundreds of years of history. We spent most of the day there, wandering around inside and out. It was an enjoyable and relaxing way to finish off what has been another fantastic couple of months in France.

Lazing in The Luberon

We have been away from this blog for a few months now due to all sorts of reasons. The first one being we just needed a break from it. Well Steve did anyway!

We had been talking about having some static time for over a year now. We move about a lot and although neither of us would swap our way of life right now, it does get tiring sometimes. There is always plenty of research and admin to do and then the travelling itself can be tiring especially the trips where we move on every couple of days.

Initially we said a three month stop would be good. Then we thought that might be too much so we dropped it to two months and then to just one month. In the end it was a mistake. We should have stuck with the three month option or even stayed longer.

So where did we stay? Well you could say we were a little boring. We went to The Luberon in Southern France. It’s somewhere we’ve been going to since before we finished work and where we came to prepare for our cycling trip from Canada to Mexico, so we know the area relatively well.

We had always wanted to spend some time inside the walls of an ‘Old Town’ as we have always enjoyed visiting them throughout Europe. So we rented an apartment in the centre of Apt, the largest town in The Luberon but still quite small with a population of around 10,000.

The apartment was on the third floor of an old building accesed via a winding set of 50 stone stairs, which presented a challenge to say the least when it came to unpacking a car completely full of clothes, camping equipment and three bikes. A job that was made even harder by the lack of nearby parking!

But after a strenuous hour and a half and with the car parked on the edge of town, we sat down and looked forward to the next month.

The apartment was a great size, more than we needed to be honest, which made storage easy. It was so nice to actually unpack and hang up clothes. Everything about it was perfect and it even had a decent sized roof terrace, which overlooked the higgledy-piggledy terracotta tiled roofs of the Old Town.

We settled in very quickly. We shopped at the fantastic Saturday Market which was so close we had to squeeze past a stall holder as we walked out of our front door. We soon found our favourite bakery for fresh bread and croissants. We practiced our French to the amusement and appreciation of the locals and Sarah visited the local coiffure for a ‘short back and sides’. Everyone was friendly towards us.

We quickly settled into a routine where Steve would cycle some of his favourite routes in the morning and either meet Sarah in one of The Luberon villages or come back to the apartment and we would head off in the car exploring together.

The villages of The Luberon are almost without exception, picturesque and beautiful with each one having something slightly different to offer. They all have a weekly market so it is possible to go to a different market every day for probably three weeks!

We did have a few favourite markets but we also found the villages quite different on non market days too when they would take on a sleepy, very quiet atmosphere.

All of the villages were worthy of a visit, however, we did have a few favourites. Loumarin was fantastic on both market and non market days.

Loumarin is a sleepy town with a small maze of narrow stone streets, which come to life on Fridays when hundreds of stalls and thousands of shoppers cram the streets as art and crafts, fruits and veg, clothes, meats and all manner of local produce are bought and sold.

Our other two favourites were the smaller, less visited villages of Saignon and Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt. The first one seemed to have everything great about the area crammed into a small space. A beautiful square, fountains, narrow cobbled streets, a derelict castle to wander around, a café selling coffee in bowls and a fab ice cream shop.

Saint Saturnin was similar but it was surrounded by a medieval wall which you could walk along and the village was set high on the hillside with a church at the very top, where the view over the valley was incredible. Saint Saturnin also had a great public swimming pool where Steve became a regular visitor and very friendly with the staff who enjoyed his schoolboy French!

We also had a couple of trips out of The Luberon. The first was to the Gorge du Verdon. What an incredible place. The drive to the gorge itself was worth the trip.

The river through the gorge feeds into a vivid blue crystal clear lake. Perfect for lazing around and even more perfect for swimming in.

Our second day out was one which Steve, as a cyclist, could not miss. It was a ride up Mont Ventoux. Being 21 kilometres long, with gradients regularly over 10%, it is one of the most visited mountains in The Tour de France. Consequently, it is a place frequently visited by cyclists of all levels and Steve has done it on several occasions in the past. For some people it is an all day affair. For one or two professionals it is possible in under an hour. Steve huffed and puffed his way up and managed to do it in just over an hour and a half in an all out effort. Then took almost twice as long to recover!!

It seemed in the blink of an eye our time in The Luberon had come to an end. Neither of us were anywhere near ready to leave. But we saw this as a good thing as we now feel confident that, in the right places, we can settle for a few months at a time which is what we hope to do in the future. We know we can’t continue our current way of travelling for ever, but we have a while left in us yet though!

The Ha Giang Loop

We left our hotel room in Hanoi at 6.30am and boarded a relatively luxurious bus for the 8 hour trip North. We had already come to realise that traffic rules in Vietnam are, at worse non existent, and at best open to interpretation. So we soon became accustomed to the constant blaring of the horn as we sped through red traffic lights with not the slightest intention of slowing down, and we winced as we carried out the multiple vehicle overtaking on blind corners where oncoming traffic was just an inconvenience and forced off the road.

If only it could have continued so slow.

A couple of comfort breaks en route gave us some respite from the death race and when we finally arrived in the city of Ha Giang we felt it was more by luck than judgement. However, the bus was the only way of getting back to Hanoi, so we were going to have to endure it all again in 4 days time.

Ha Giang is a smallish city by Vietnamese standards and is not really set up for tourism which, after our previous week, we were quite happy with. Steve made friends with some of the locals helping out with the road sweeping!

“Remember you don’t have a working visa”

Before we left town though we did want to get some calories in the bank as we were anticipating the food not to be that great. Sarah managed to find a hole in the wall pizza place down a side street. It was run by a Spanish guy and the pizzas were not half bad.

The following morning we made the walk across town to the meeting place for the tour and for a brief introduction on how it would all work.

There were twelve of us in total and we made up a real international bunch. Most did not actually live in the country in which they were born and the group as a whole possessed way more passports than there were people.

Our group on the loop.

If you were a competent motorcyclist (which we certainly aren’t) it was possible to ride your own bike and two chose this option. An English guy living in OZ who had his Filipino/Australian girlfriend on the back and a Russian girl living in California. The rest of us opted for what is known as an ‘Easy Rider’. This is a local Vietnamese guy who knows the roads and the bikes pretty well and you just sit on the back and enjoy the ride. This proved to be a great option as the ones riding themselves were concentrating more on staying on the roads than taking in the views.

So with our backpacks strapped to the bikes and our ‘Easy Riders’ ready to go we hit the road in convoy out of Ha Giang.

None of the ‘Easy Riders’ spoke a single word of English with the exception of Lee, the tour leader who spoke great English. It just happened that he was Sarah’s ‘Easy Rider’ and so she was always lead bike, flying ahead, blazing a trail with her bright red Vietnamese flag T-Shirt standing out as a good marker to follow!

Follow that flag!

It’s going to be hard to describe what the next three days were like. For us personally it saved Vietnam. We had been sitting on the fence undecided as to whether we gave it the thumbs up or thumbs down. Almost everywhere we had visited up to now had been undoubtedly incredibly scenic but some of the areas had been choked by over tourism coupled with over commercialism.

The Ha Giang Loop made the previous Vietnamese scenery seem almost bland. It was spectacular. They say there is no bad time to do the trip as the views change with the seasons. At certain times of year the rice fields are green and at other times vibrant yellow but it can also be very wet and cold at these times of year.

It was beautiful up here.

We did it in 30 degree heat with either blue skies or hazy high cloud. We didn’t get the vibrant colours but we had expansive views and great riding weather.

The road itself is a 350km long, twisting, winding route that weaves it way up and over mountain passes, then down into a valleys and then immediately back up again. It does this over and over and over again. You can often see the road for miles in the distance. Sometimes when it is below, it is difficult to work out and visually how you are going to get down there, as it doesn’t seem possible. Then you turn a corner and drop down a series of ridiculously steep hairpin bends and you are suddenly directly underneath where you were a couple of minutes before.

We were loving it.

Sometimes you can see the road run along the side of the mountain ahead and realise there are no safety barriers and you can see a 500 metre drop straight to the valley floor. A few minutes later you are on that section of road putting enormous faith in your ‘Easy Rider’.

The road conditions are also very varied. It’s never really wide, just different levels of narrow! The surface also changes and although the majority is asphalt, it is often uneven with endless potholes. There are sections of gravel where extra care is needed and sections of sand where extra extra care is needed.

At one particular section we pulled over and were told the next segment was particularly dusty and we were all given plastic ponchos, trousers and boots to protect our clothing. We put on our new outfits and set off again.

The things we do.

Now it must be pointed out that the temperature at this point was hovering around 33 degrees and pretty soon Steve started to melt inside his plastic bag. He and three others got stuck behind a lorry for a couple of minutes and got separated from the red Jersey of Sarah leading the tour. Steve’s suit was slowing filling with sweat and he decided enough was enough, “I don’t care how dusty I get, I need to stop sweating”.

So he ripped the front of his poncho open. Just as Janus, a guy from Germany living in Australia, appeared alongside also slowly disappearing into a pool of sweat. He saw Steve rip open his poncho, gave him the thumbs up and did the same. They were quickly followed by the other two in the detached group and they all spent the next 30 minutes slowly demolishing their plastic suits while riding along in the cooler air.

When they arrived at the next stop they were cool and fresh even if their protective attire was a little worse for wear. They found the rest of the group swimming in their own sweat, gasping for air and water. They soon de-kitted and we all set off again.

Steve and Janus compare whats left of their outfit!

The next section, however, was the real dusty part. We rode through clouds of dirt and dust kicked up by bikes and lorries coming in the opposite direction and for probably the only section of The Loop Sarah ended up not being at the front and was getting the kick back from the bikes ahead of her. By the time we stopped again we were all covered in dust from head to toe!! It was hilarious.

Along dusty roads.

We stopped on the first evening in the most Northern town in Vietnam, Dong Van. To get there we had passed only 2km from the Chinese border. Dong Van was a strange little town and we quite liked it. The main street was typical of most other non descript towns we had passed through in the last couple of weeks. But it did had a small old section around a town square which was different from the harshness and rubble strewn streets and uneven broken pavements of the main area.

In the evening we all went out as a group to a local family owned and run restaurant. If you eat in the local restaurants in Vietnam you almost always get the same food of rice, noodles, chicken, beef or seafood in a pretty bland soup or sauce depending on if it is breakfast or dinner. We have never found the food in Vietnam to be anywhere near as tasty as it is in other parts of Asia, especially Thailand.

But the evening was never going to be about food. It was about the two great passions in Vietnam, ‘Happy Water’ and Karaoke.

Our group together for dinner.

‘Happy Water’ is the local alcoholic spirit made from either rice or corn depending on the time of year and the location within the country, and more often than not brewed and fermented on site. Up in the North they are particularly mad about it and we soon learned the Vietnamese for “cheers” and “drink up”! It is served in tiny shot glasses and with most of the Easy Riders and hosts offering up some form of toast or another the volume soon started to add up. “Be careful not to spill any on your clothes”, said Steve, “It will burn straight through them!”

After the food and the ‘happy water’ it was off to the main square and the town karaoke bar. It is hard to explain the passion Vietnamese have for karaoke. It is almost the National sport. We have literally walked past bars, on more than one occasion, with just a single customer singing karaoke to an audience of zero. I, of course, use the term ‘singing’ very loosely.

This bar, however, was packed and a the effects of ‘Happy Water’ were too much and wore down Steve’s resistance as he was dragged up by Tirza, a Dutch girl living in New Zealand, for a duet. It was ugly to say the least!


On the way back to the hotel we saw a crowd of locals gathering in the main square around what looked like a large fire about to be lit. So we wandered over to have a look. There was a lot of shouting and cheering in Vietnamese and the fire was lit. Sarah stepped back to take a photo and the crowd all started to circle the fire and Steve suddenly found himself the only non local dancing around the fire in what can only be described as a Vietnamese ‘Conga’!

The second day was even more scenic than the first. As Steve’s ‘Easy Rider’ spoke no English whatsoever and Steve’s two Vietnamese words for “Thank you” and “delicious” didn’t contribute much to extended conversations, he began listening to music as we rode along. He was in his element with great weather, amazing scenery, flying around the twisting mountain roads with music blaring in his ears. Life was pretty damn good. It might have been perfect if he had been on his road bike instead of the motorbike.

“I wish I had my road bike”

Every 45 minutes or so we would pull over at some great view point for a drink and some photos and this was probably the only downside to the tour. Although tourism is just in its infancy here there are still a fair few different tours on The Loop at any one time. It obviously looks busier than it actually is because for each person there is also a motorbike and an Easy Rider. But everyone wants to stop at the best of the best spots for photo’s and when two or three groups are there at the same time it can look pretty busy. Once you set off again though it doesn’t take long to re-establish distances and we were soon all alone in your little convoy of twelve.

“Take a look at this view Sarah”

Once word starts to really spread about this place and the roads are fully constructed and paved it is only going to ger busier. If it goes the way of some other places in Vietnam it will just become a litter strewn traffic jam which is a crying shame because it is so amazing.

Our last stop on day 2 was along a 3km track which no way qualifies for a road even in Asia but we bounced and bumped along it and arrived at a small waterfall and swimming hole. We were the first group there and were surprised to see a Tiki Bar in existence with music blaring out. Lee, the team leader, jumped in from the rocks above the waterfall and Steve being Steve followed suit!

In he goes.

It was great to cool down in the chilly water but it wasn’t long before it started to get busy. It was obviously the last stop of the day for all the tours and by the time we left there must have been well over a hundred people taking up every inch of space. “There will be a waterside, a ferris-wheel and a fairy light grotto here by next year”, was Steve’s comment.

We spent the night in a homestay and were lucky enough to get one of the rooms. It pays to be the oldest in the group sometimes! Those who didn’t get a room slept on mattresses on the floor separated by curtains. But after the next round of ‘Happy Water’ it didn’t really matter. The rooms were super basic with plyboard walls and windows that didn’t close but the view was to die for and we both had a fantastic nights sleep.

The view from our window.

Our final day continued where the other days had left off and it was a hard call to make as to which was the better. The incredible scenery or the motorbike ride through it. But when you add them together with a great bunch of like minded people it was turning into an unforgettable experience.

We eventually dropped down into a long valley riding alongside a wide river and passing through several villages which were home to the H’Mong people going about their daily business. They were dressed in their colourful, traditional dress and, as is common in a lot of Vietnam and other parts of Asia, the women seemed to be carrying out a lot of the hard work. They were carrying huge amounts of crops on their backs and working the fields with really primitive style tools.

Off to work.

As the children saw us coming they shouted and waved and sometimes lined up for a high five as we slowed down to pass them.

Gimmie 5

Late on the third afternoon we descended out of the Dong Van Karst Plateau, which is the official name for the area we had been touring, and back into the city of Ha Giang.

We were seriously hungry with our diet over the previuos 3 days made up primarily of steamed rice and soy sauce…. oh and the occasional Happy Water. We headed straight for the Spanish pizza maker for another calorie fest and a celebratory beer. A job well done and finished.

Or so we thought. We still had our 8 hour bus ride back to Hanoi the following morning. The crazy bus driver who had driven us up to Ha Giang turned out to be more towards the safer end of crazy. Our return driver seemed like he had a death wish and spent at least 25% of the trip on the wrong side of the road and 50% on his mobile phone. Plus, it started to rain heavily and he didn’t alter anything about his driving style. We considered getting off but our options were pretty much non existent, maybe pay a local to take us to Hanoi but how reckless might he be.

We did arrive back in Hanoi in one piece but the journey definitely became number one in our scary bus ride table. Knocking our 5 hour trip across Panama in a 22 seater with 50 passengers off top spot!

With about 10 days left before returning back to the UK, we had to decide what to do. Our initial plan had been to spend some time in Borneo seeing the Orang Utans and other wildlife, but the weather was seriously miserable over there. We toyed again with the idea of Ha Long Bay but it doesn’t really seem to be our thing.

We looked at each other and almost simultaneously said “You look knackered”. It’s been a fantastic 6 months in South East Asia and New Zealand but we have been on the go, moving around, hiking, doing Ironman races etc etc for most of the time and we just wanted to sit on a beach. So we got out the map, checked the weather around the nearby counties and ended up on a beach in Langkawi, an Island off Malaysia. Just enjoying being static and the sun.

Back on the beach……
…..and in the water.

So it’s now back to the UK. We’re finishing this blog sat with a coffee in King’s Cross Station and it’s bloody freezing. As Steve looks across at Sarah he sees she is on her phone, searching the Internet…….. planning our next trip!!!

“Pass me some earplugs!”

After our spell in Da Lat, it was time to hit the road again. We took a short fifty minute flight to the coastal city of Da Nang. This was in order to connect with the Reunification Line which is the main railway in Vietnam connecting Ho Chi Minh in the South and Hanoi in the North.

It was due to take around 18 hours by train to Hanoi but we planned to break the journey a couple of times, firstly in Phong Nha.

Our connection from plane to train went smoothly and according to plan and gave us enough time to grab a drink and for Sarah to stock up on snacks from the station kiosk.

We won’t go hungry on this trip.

There are about five trains each day which run South to North and planning your arrival and departure times can be crucial, otherwise you could find yourself arriving in a city in the middle of the night and we didn’t really fancy that.

We had booked ourselves on a train departing mid afternoon, arriving late evening and Steve had managed to get us the last remaining two berth 1st class cabin.

This was a fantastic way to travel and although we didn’t need the beds for sleeping, it was great to have a quiet space to relax and watch the World pass by outside. The first couple of hours were the most scenic as the line was built about half way up a jungle clad mountain with fabulous views of the coastline.

OK. Just a little snooze!

We pulled into the small city of Dong Hoi which was about an hours drive from our final destination. We had arranged a car to pick us up through our homestay accommodation and the driver was there and waiting.

Phong Nha is just appearing on the travellers’ radar thanks to a relatively recent discovery of the World’s largest cave, Son Doong. This cave can be explored on a four day expedition! We are not that mad about caving so we visited two of the other caves in the area instead.

On the way to Phong Nha cave

The first was Phong Nha cave which involved a 40 minute boat ride along the river. You then enter the cave via the river before getting off for a 15 minute walk inside.

We are noticing many things about Vietnam which differ significantly from other countries in South East Asia. The first one is the noise, mainly from the locals. They never seem to stop talking and they talk over each other in an ever increasing volume until it becomes a shouting competition. Then, almost always, someone is on a video call where no earphones are used and so ultimately the volume is turned up as the conversations around increase to deafening levels.

Unfortunately, we ended up in boat with a Dutch girl and a family of nine Vietnamese. At one point Steve seriously considered jumping out of the boat and swimming back but the water didn’t look too inviting! But despite the incessant noise the cave was still pretty good to see and probably just about worth the trip.

The following day we decided to visit Paradise cave. This was touted by many as a must visit and so, in the hope that it would not be as noisy, we rented mopeds and set off on the hour ride to the cave.

The scenery was beautiful.

The ride there alone was enough to justify the trip. We rode through rice fields and between limestone karsts on narrow twisting roads in a fabulously scenic area. The women worked in the fields, and the men didn’t, and the water buffalo grazed in that slow lethargic way only water buffalo seem to do.

We arrived at the parking area for the cave to be faced with a 30 minute walk to the entrance. To be fair although the walk was mainly uphill and it was an interesting walk through the jungle with not too many people around.

We entered the very small hole in the rock face, down some steps and into a huge cavern. What we saw stopped us in our stride and it took a few seconds to comprehend what we were seeing. The cave was immense, it was pretty well lit and illuminated a vast array of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations on a scale of which we had never seen. We had previously visited a cave in Australia which we had found impressive but this was on a whole different level.

Just a small small section of an amazing cave

It is possible to do a few days expedition in the cave to explore the whole 31 kilometers or a 7 kilometer full day walk. We, however, just did the first kilometer and found that to be outstanding.

It went on into the distance.

The other thing we noticed was how quiet it was. Then we realised that there were very few Vietnamese there. We would come to realise over the next couple of weeks that unless the excursions run from the centre of town or there is a coach to take them to the entrance and they step off the coach onto some form of transport to whizz them around, they just aren’t interested. The thought of making their own way there and walking, just doesn’t seem an option.

We made our way back to town via an even more scenic route than the way out, having a great time riding on the quiet roads. It had been a throughly enjoyable day.

For the time being, Phong Nha is all about the caves. So after seeing two of the big ones, it was time for us to move on.

We made our way back to Dong Hoi to catch the midnight train. We gave ourselves a few hours to see the city, but that was probably a mistake. It was just an old run down seaside town with not too much to offer other than some take away pizza!!

Pizza from a box. Our highlight in Dong Hoi.

Our next train journey was almost 10 hours and with no two berths available we ended up in a four berth with a German couple who were already in bed and asleep when we boarded.

The beds had plastic mattresses and a blanket but we carry our silk sleeping bag liners with us most of the time, so we were in them in a flash and slept pretty solid for almost eight hours. Before we knew it we were pulling into Ninh Binh, our next stop.

Waiting for the midnight train.

The area of Ninh Binh, or more specifically the villages of Tam Coc and Trang An, come with a big reputation of having some of the best scenery in Vietnam. We would say this reputation is probably deserved, but it comes with a huge caveat.

It really is a special area.

The area is popular and as such you can do many things from the town. There are coaches to take you everywhere and there is no necessity to walk anywhere. Consequently it is busy. No it is very busy. Well actually, it is completely and ridiculously mobbed. It was our first big introduction to the over-tourism that many would say is ruining Vietnam. The situation is made worse by the fact the huge city of Hanoi is only two hours drive away making Ninh Binh accessible from there on a day excursion.

Heading out on the quiet route!

It is a very difficult situation to understand. From ours and many western visitors’ perspective Vietnam knows how to ruin its own natural beauty. Flashing coloured lights, deafening music and ridiculous childish features and settings litter the most beautifully scenic locations. There appears to be no regulation or control as to who erects what and where and as such everybody wants a slice of the tourist dollar.

Mayhem at the Mua Cave

However, we are part of the masses and therefore part of the problem. Probably more importantly the Vietnamese absolutely love it. It certainly appears that what we would call ‘tacky’ they would call paradise.

Stonehenge might benefit from something like this?

So for three days we endured Ninh Binh. We jostled with the hundreds, if not thousands, of boats in the National Park, taking the least popular of three routes and doing our best to take decent photos. We queued with the hoards to reach the view point at Mua Caves and actually gave up on reaching the very top as another Vietnamese passion, that of taking the perfect selfie, was causing a complete blockage. We also endured the chest pummelling volume from the fleet of neon light covered ‘Karaoke’ buses stationed in the centre of town as we walked out to dinner each night.

I’ve got to get out of here!

We saw as much as we could and vowed never to return!

We jumped on an early morning bus to Hanoi and watched the endless stream of day tour coaches heading in the opposite direction full of deafening chatter and selfie sticks.

It is beautiful though.

We have been to Hanoi previously and roughly know the lay out of the city and how it works. Our favourite area is The Old Quarter. A real mix of old rickety buildings and various eateries mixed in with small modern boutique hotels all vying for space amongst the maze of narrow streets.

Sarah in search of our hotel in Hanoi.

It’s easy to become disorientated in The Old Quarter as it seems like every other shop is selling exactly the same thing, ‘fake’ clothing by The North Face. T-shirts, sweatshirts, trousers, jackets etc etc, all at absolutely ridiculously low prices. Some of it is not too bad but the majority of it is pretty low quality, so don’t expect it to last too long. We met someone whose jacket had started to disintegrate after a couple of days and I suspect more than one person has turned up at the airport to depart, only to have a trouser leg fall off. Steve is watching Sarah’s new purchase with interest!

Steve looking tall.

At one end of the Old Quarter is a lake. It’s about a mile around the outside and it is a popular activity for locals and tourists alike to wander around in the evening. On weekends the road is closed and all manner of activities take place with one of the most popular being groups of women participating in a cross between line dancing and aerobics.

Dancing by the lake.

There are also food stalls and exhibitions going on and we saw what looked like quite a big junior dance competition. The music, however, was soooooo loud we found it reminiscent of a heavy metal concert where you could feel the music physically vibrating your chest. It was impossible to stand and watch.

After Hanoi we had to make a decision as to what to do next. We were planning to head to Halong Bay. This is one of the most famous areas of Vietnam with its limestone karsts jutting out of the bay. However, we had heard and read about how busy and polluted it had become, how a theme park has been built there, and with over 900 vessels registered to tour the bay most of them advertising music cruises, it was all looking like a nightmare for us. So we decided to leave it alone and go somewhere else.

We had been hearing more and more of The Ha Giang Loop. This was a three day, 350km motorcycle trip around the mountains on The Vietnam/ Chinese border. When we discovered the most popular way was to do it as a pillion passenger, we decided to give it a go.

What happened next was elevated straight in to one of the top five things we have ever done!

A new exhibit for outside The Tower of London maybe?

Da Lat.

We left New Zealand excited about the next leg of our journey, although we had set ourselves what was potentially a tiring start.

We left on an eleven hour flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur at 1am and then grabbed a couple of hours sleep in an airport hotel (most Asian airports have several onsite facilities which allow for this). We left Steve’s bike and most of our luggage with the hotel (who were happy to store it for a month), and we set off on a three hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam with 7kgs of carry on luggage each.

Don’t worry you have plenty of luggage for a month.

We arrived in HCM City in the evening and having spent three days there a few years ago we felt our time would be better spent elsewhere. In fact, that was our plan for Vietnam in general. Having been lucky to visit the country twice before, this time we were trying to visit places we had not previously seen. So after some food, a sleep and a quick refresher on how to cross the road (more on that later), we were on an early morning flight to the mountain city of Da Lat.

“I know the plane looks a hundred years old, but we will be fine”

The airport was an hour on the local bus outside the city. So by the time we arrived at our hotel we had been on the go, on and off, for almost 36 hours, and we had walked around Auckland for 10 hours before starting out. We were pretty whacked.

However, there is nothing like the excitement of turning up in a new place to re-energise you. So we set off exploring our new destination.

Da Lat is set high in the mountains in South Central Vietnam and at over 5000 feet the air is far less humid than other cities in the country. It is also home to half a million people and although very popular among Vietnamese holiday makers it isn’t all that established on the international travellers route.

Our first day was ‘Crazy’. First stop was ‘The Crazy House’. Where do we start with this one? Designed by an artist/architect with, shall we say a vivid imagination, the house and grounds are a mixture of some form of sprawling giant tree. It twists it’s way around a scene, something vaguely like a cross between a fairytale, the Hobbit and The Little Mermaid.


You walk up and down, in and out, over and under, never quite knowing what is around the next corner. One minute we found ourselves loving it, the next not really understanding it and the next thinking it was all too much. Even now we are not sure about it, but it definitely goes down as an experience!

“I have no idea what it’s all about or where I’m going”

After the Crazy House, we went to The Crazy Bar or Maze Cafe or 100 Roof Tops Bar. Things in Vietnam can sometimes have more than one name, or more than five names. As if things weren’t confusing enough.

We just called in for half an hour, for a drink and to see what it was about. After entering the bar and buying a drink you go down a staircase and into a tunnel network underground.

“See you later, I hope!”

It’s pitch black initially, so we had to use the light from our phones to navigate. Then you come up into a series of dimly lit passage ways that gradually wind up and up passing small alcoves which have seating areas.


Eventually you emerge into daylight on the roof top, but the paths continue on up the hillside until you reach a small patio at the very top with a view over the whole city.

We were joined by a Dutch girl and her recently retired father who were travelling together for five weeks in Vietnam and a couple of Danish guys who were digital nomads making their way around South East Asia.

Three hours later we were still there, swapping stories and experiences. We had a great time and we were all crying with laughter. Steve thought it’s a good job he is now fluent in Dutch and Danish …. Seriously though, it never ceases to amaze and embarrass us how unbelievably perfect some Europeans can speak English, even their accents are great. It’s easy to forget you are speaking with Dutch, or Danes, or Swedes etc etc.

The view across the City

Our second day in Da Lat involved what has become one of our favourite pastimes, travelling on local transport.

“I think this one is ours ….. or maybe it’s that one?”

There are always organised tours available to see the sights. Sometimes these are the only way and sometimes they are the best way as you need the expert information to fully appreciate what you are seeing, especially if it is something you are really interested in.

However, most of the time there is enough information out there to piece together a tour of your own. This is always at a fraction of the cost of an organised tour and invariably throws up some new, unforseen issue or experience. So now we have time on our hands it is our preferred and default method of sightseeing and they have become known to us as ‘Crossley Tours’. “Who knows what you will get!”.

We planned a trip to see The Elephant Falls and the nearby statue of Guanyin, a prominent figure in Buddism.

These were about 40km out of town. First stop was the bus station, which wasn’t really a bus station as such, just a wide part of the street where buses stop. It’s probably a good time to mention that our grasp of the Vietnamese language extends to two words, Cam On, meaning Thankyou and Ngon, meaning Delicious (the last one is used mainly out of politeness!). These, however, are two words more than 99.99% of the Da Lat population can speak in English.

So asking a bus driver if the bus is going in our direction was the first obstacle. Google Maps help, but firstly it’s in English (imagine being presented with Google Maps in Vietnamese! I’ve seen it and it isn’t pretty). Secondly, a lot of people are not good at reading maps.

Anyway, once we are on the bus, the real fun starts. Buses in Asia, as in Central America, are not just used to transport people. They are a sort of postal and courier service for anything and everything including birds (live), fish (live), insects (live), letters, small parcels, big parcels, motorbike (engines), motorbikes (whole). We have seen all these things on buses and most of them on this particular bus. Someone flags the bus down, gives the conductor the item, an address and some money. Then someone flags the bus down further down the line and collects the item. Steve was laughing so much he forgot to take a photo of Sarah helping three locals get a motorcycle off the bus!

Bits and pieces are starting to gather.

Steve was following the progress of the bus on his phone and looking a little concerned and we both burst out with laughter when, after 20 minutes, we turned a corner and we were right back where we started!!

Steve tried to speak to the driver who nodded and gave him a thumbs up. Five minutes later we were off again. This time Steve looked much happier as we left the city and headed off into the countryside, in the right direction. The conductor came and showed us a Vietnamese bank note. We found this to be the way costs are communicated. Steve gave him the equivalent back and the conductor nodded and gave him the thumbs up!

The bus stopped here and there, people got off and on, parcels were delivered and collected and after about an hour the bus stopped and the conductor indicated for us to get off. Steve nodded and gave him the thumbs up!

We then sort of stumbled into the entrance of the falls at the back of a roadside cafe where we paid the equivalent of £1 each for the entrance fee and a coffee.

Elephant Falls

The Elephant Falls were better than we had expected. Other people we had spoken to had visited some smaller falls close to the city and had been disappointed. They had, in true Vietnamese fashion, been over commercialised and they resembelled a Disney theme park. Elephant Falls were still pretty much natural and we enjoyed them a lot.

This was pretty impressive.

The Guanyin statue just down the road didn’t seem to appear in any tours but it was fantastic and the adjacent pagoda and grounds was also impressive.

The journey back was a lot easier as all buses were heading back to the city. So it was just a case of standing by the side of the road, waving at the first bus to come by, then having the visual display of bank notes to establish the price and finally the nod and the thumbs up and we were off.

The centre of Da Lat is taken up by a large lake which has a perimeter of about 6km. A pathway and a wide road run around it and it is a favourite place to walk for locals and visitors alike. So we thought we would join in. After about ten minutes we heard a Police siren on the opposite side of the lake and saw a Police car with flashing lights moving very, very slowly. We then became aware of dozens of Police Officers in cars, on motorbikes and on foot. Then they started putting on road blocks and diversions and the incredibly busy road was all of a sudden deserted. “It must be some sort of visiting VIP”, said Sarah. Then in the distance we saw a runner. Not an Olympic athlete dressed in lycra, but some guy in local Police Uniform. Then another came by and then another, all of them with numbers pinned to their shirts and most wearing some old gym pumps from the 70’s.

Unusual running attire.

It turned out the big operation was to facilitate twenty or so local officers having a race around the lake, non of whom appeared to be serious athletes. In fact, we were a little worried about the condition of a few of them as they collapsed at the finish line.

We continued around the lake visiting the much touted Flower Garden enroute which was a nice stoll around but in all honesty nothing special.

The flower garden was pretty but maybe not worth a detour.

On our way back to the hotel we had to cross a main road. Now, in Vietnam this is a skill in itself, which we thought we had mastered pretty well. The city roads are always busy and the number of lanes is determined not by road markings but by how many motorbikes can fit side by side. There are several things to remember when crossing. Firstly, the traffic WILL NEVER STOP FOR ANYTHING!! Next, when you start to cross you keep going at the same speed and finally do not stop or turn back.

The first step into the traffic is always the scariest and on this occasion we were struggling to commit. Then out of nowhere an old woman appeared, she must have been 80 years old if she was a day. She grabbed hold of Steve’s arm with a fierce grip and dragged him into the road and through the oncoming, swerving traffic all the way to the otherside. Sarah jumped on the procession and we emerged unscathed. Then the woman disappeared as quickly as she appeared. Vietnam is great in so many ways.

Our final day in Da Lat was spent visiting a pagoda on the outskirts of the city. This was a pretty good place to visit and had been very well decorated in a broken glass and mosaic tile design.

Extremely decorative.

However, the parking for the coaches bringing the tours was directly in front of the pagoda, maybe two metres away. So getting a good shot for a few photos took some imagination and patience by Sarah.

“Can we edit the coaches out?”

The highlight of that day was the journey back. We had read about an old train that runs three times a day. We had missed it on the way up because, suprise suprise, the online timetable bore no resemblance to the actual timetable. However, we checked at the station and managed to catch it back.

For £1.50 each we travelled in the VIP section with deep leather seats, dark wood decoration and a big smile on our faces.

Sarah the VIP.

Our final evening was spent strolling the night market. This wasn’t like a lot of night markets we have visited in Asia, it was aimed much more at locals and holidaying Vietnamese. No “Good Morning Vietnam” T-shirts here. Hundreds of stalls lined the main street selling mainly cheap clothes, flowers and food which we could only guess at the content.

A small section of the night market.

After three days here in a City with a population of half a million, we had seen easily less than 30 people who may have been white European and we kept seeing the same few people over and over. It’s a phenomenon we have encountered before and it’s bizarre really, but you find yourself waving to each other in some kind of strange alliance.

We came to Da Lat to have a little bit of down time and to relax, but we didn’t realise how much it had to offer. We felt like we had been at it non stop. Maybe our next port of call might be different …. but then again, maybe not!

North or South?

After our short stay in Taupo we decided to have a few days away before returning again for Steve’s race.

Our options were still limited due to the extensive cyclone damage, which was causing major problems across many areas of the North Island. After some research we decided to risk a few days in The Coromandel Peninsula. This area had been battered by consistent and heavy rain for most of the Summer, which had caused a series of landslides completely destroying parts of the road network. However, it escaped the worst of the cyclone and a road around the peninsula was still passable, so we thought we would give it a go.

En route we made a stop in Rotorua, which is apparently the main geothermal hotspot of New Zealand.

Our first stop was to see some boiling mud pools, which we found fascinating. It looked like a scene from a prehistoric age, where dinosaurs could have roamed. A large lake of thick mud and water was simmering away, with steam floating across the surface. On a regular basis the activity would increase and boil over shooting hot mud a few feet in the air, sometimes quite close to where we were standing. No matter how much you were prepared, it still made you jump!

Mud glorious mud.

It was mesmerising, like sitting by a fire watching the flames dance.

While in Rotorua we also did a three hour walk through a Geothermal Valley. In terms of time, this is very much a younger area of activity, with most of the area being created in the last hundred years or so, and the most recent activity was only 40 years ago.

Colorful terraces and spouting steam.

Along the way we passed through colourful sulphur terraces, steaming vent holes and volcanic craters which are now lakes and had steam being blown across them creating strange eerie patterns. It was a throughly enjoyable walk.

Steam blown across the lake looked very eerie.

After Rotorua we continued our way North towards The Coromandel. The scenery returned to the rolling green hills and farmland which had been the main theme since we left Wellington.

When it comes to scenery The North Island is very much the poor relation to The South Island. We had loved being South so much that we were struggling a little with the North. Our advice to anyone visiting New Zealand would be, if possible, to do the North first.

We totally appreciated that the North was not at its best having had such a difficult few months with weather but when most people conjure up images of the country, in general, those images will be of South Island features.

Luckily for us we had allotted much more of our time to spend South and that proved a great decision and the fantastic weather had helped.

We arrived in the small seaside town of Whangamata on The Coromandel on a cold, wet and windy morning and it was Steve’s birthday. If he can he always likes to do a bit of training on his birthday, come to think of it he likes to do a bit of training everyday!

He spotted a sun shade over a barbecue area and set up his stationary trainer using the shade as rain shelter while Sarah went to get breakfast.

Happy Birthday to me.

When Steve had finished he went back to the van and found Sarah had decked it out in balloons and bunting and put some candles in a banana cake!!

Happy Birthday to you.

The rain kept coming and we spent the rest of the day catching up on admin and making plans for the next few days, weeks and months.

The following morning the rain had passed through, the sun was out and Whangamata had taken on a whole new image.

Whangamata minus the rain.

We parked up by the scenic marina, wandered through the nice little town and strolled along the wide beach, which had almost golden sand.

The beach was pretty good here.

We did consider staying longer in Whangamata but with more rain forecast we decided to try another beach and see a little more of the area. We decided the next day we would head to Waihi Beach.

We got up the following morning and checked the Internet for current road conditions and saw that Waihi had been hit by a tornado! “Tornado! They don’t have tornadoes in New Zealand”, was Steve’s response. “They do now”, replied Sarah.

It turns out it wasn’t just a little one either as it had torn down power lines and ripped the roof off at least one house. But as it had passed through and the sun was out we went anyway.

Waihi was similar to Whangamata but with a smaller town and bigger beach. It was Sunday and the place was buzzing. We sat by the van right next to the beach for hours watching The World go by.

Waihi Beach.

Like on so many beaches on a Sunday morning in both New Zealand and Australia the local Surf Life Saving club was out for training. This involves all ages from real youngsters up to adults participating in all sorts of drills and competitions, all designed to improve and practice their lifesaving skills.

Always the highlight for us is watching teams race each other from the beach, run out to a fast boat, get it ready to go, then speed out to sea around a bouy and back to shore.

All ready to go.

With yet another spell of wet weather forecast for The Coromandel, we decided to cut our losses and the next morning we packed up and headed off back in the direction of Taupo.

This time, however, things were going to be a little different. Our friend Sandra was now on her way to Australia and we were taking up residence in her lovely little house for the week. No campsites for us. A real bed, comfortable sofa, and a toilet and shower in the same building! Paradise.

The added benefit was that the house was in the lovely village of Kinloch, about 20 minutes drive outside Taupo.

I think we will be OK here!

Kinloch sits right on the edge of the lake, and has some great walking trails that pass right through it. There is also a section of shingle beach on a sheltered part of the lake with a great general store which served the best gelato this side of Italy. So with the weather set fair we settled down for a relaxing few days.

How good is this?

Just when we had completely switched off from travel, organising and planning, our comfortable and relaxing time was brought back down to earth with a bang as Steve’s race was suddenly upon us.

Although it is Steve who has to go out and swim, cycle and run ridiculous numbers of kilometres, Sarah’s contribution to the day is equally exhausting.

She does so much running around in the couple of days before the race, making sure he is in the right place at the right time for the registration, clothing bag drop offs for the three legs of the race, cycle racking and special needs bags!

The evening before……. If only those clouds had stayed around.

Then on race day she is up with him before 5am, making coffee and bagels. Then from sunset, when the race starts, until almost sunset when Steve finishes, she can constantly be heard above all the other spectators, “C’mon Steve. Keep going. You’re doing great”. Even when he isn’t!

And they’re off!

She seems to pop up all over the course cheering him on. Then when things aren’t going according to plan, as was the case this time, she can always find the positives in his performance to keep him moving forward to the finish.

This is soooooo hard.

Then at the very end when it’s all over and he can barely walk, she is there to half carry him back to some food, a shower and bed.

So when Steve crosses the line and gets his medal and Ironman Finisher T-Shirt, it really does belong to Sarah as much as to him.

All finished.

No matter what length of time it takes to cross the finish line, it is an amazing achievement and Steve sometimes forgets that. He sets himself high targets which were difficult for him 30 years ago never mind now and to meet those targets things have to go pretty much exactly right. So when the wind picks up, the sun shines and the mercury rises, which it most certainly did on race day, those targets realistically become out of reach.

It’s not until the days after the race when Steve looks at the other athletes’ results and speaks to people about town that he then realises most other people missed their targets too. Then maybe he thinks “I didn’t do all that bad after all. I made the top 10% of my age category and almost the top 20% of all the starters, and I am getting on a bit”.

Together at the finish.

Just a couple of days after the race and Steve was completely recovered. This is a little bit unusual and probably down to the fact that for some reason he just couldn’t get going properly in the race. Consequently, he didn’t go so hard to completely flatten himself like he has done in the past.

It probably also helped that we spent the day after the race soaking in the wonderful hot pools at Waikerai Terrace!

A wonderful place to recover.

We were also able to take advantage of his quick recovery and head out on one of the wonderful trails around Kinloch, which wound its way around the edge of the lake through the forest.

We really loved Kinloch.

We stayed on at Sandra’s place as long as we could, which left us with a half day drive up to Auckland where we were due to return the campervan.

As is normal for us, we used every last day of our trip and spent the time exploring the city on foot.

The Sky Tower in Auckland.

Over 10 miles later we had seen all the major sites and we were both a little surprised how good it was. We hadn’t expected too much as it really doesn’t have any World renowned iconic sites, but it was just a pleasant city to stroll around with plenty of different neighbourhoods. Ponsonby was probably our favourite, described by many as ‘hip’ and ‘cool’. “Just like me”, said Steve. “Absolutely”, said Sarah with a big roll of the eyes!

The Auckland skyline.

So at just after 1am in the morning our plane left the runway and our three and a half months in New Zealand were over.

We had enjoyed the South Island enormously and the North Island maybe not as much. The Taupo and Kinloch area had probably been our favourite purely because there was so much to do and it had been mostly spared the ravages of the cyclone. But it had also been fab to catch up with Sarah’s Mum, her sister Louise, her husband Greg and their three wonderful boys. Will we return to New Zealand? You bet we will, probably a few times!

“Did I mention I’ve entered another one?”

A Cyclone and an Earthquake.

After we had such an amazing time on the South Island the North Island was definitely going to have a hard act to follow, and it did struggle.

We were, in truth, a little taken aback by how different the two islands were. Even though we had a flying visit to New Zealand 22 years ago we didn’t really register the differences between the Islands. Back then it was rush, rush, rush, while we hunted out the adrenaline activities. This time the pace was much slower and it was all about seeing the country.

We should mention that a big factor affecting our experience on the North Island has been the weather. The North Island has had the wettest summer on record. Any news we had encountered while on the South Island seemed to be about all the bad weather up North. It had already rained an awful lot since November and then Cyclone Gabrielle hit in mid February causing devastation on a huge scale (more on that later). Meanwhile the South Island basked under beautiful, blue skies in what was to be the second driest summer on record. That’s a bit like Northern Scotland and Southern France swapping weather for the summer! Strange times.

We started our Northern excursion in Wellington with a five day visit to Sarah’s sister, Louise, her husband Greg and their three fabulous boys. Plus, an added bonus was Sarah’s Mum was also visiting at the time so it was a nice reunion. In fact, we couldn’t really remember the last time all three had been together.

Nice house, or is it a mansion?

They live just outside of the city, close to the water, in a beautiful big house with a swimming pool. They made us extremely welcome with Barney, the eldest nephew giving up his bedroom for us and allowing us a lovely respite from the campervan. He also gave us a tour of the City and the impressive Te Papa museum. He starts University in Wellington soon and is well acquainted with the city.

Sarah (on the left!) and Barney at Te Papa

Sarah spent some time catching up with her Mum and walking the family dogs during the week, while Steve explored the area on his bike. Although it was lovely in the immediate area he was surprised at the number of burnt out cars and fly tipping a little farther afield. Something we hadn’t seen in the South.

Someone is having fun.

At the weekend, with work and school out of the way, we spent some time watching the boys at their various sports, Jack at the local tennis club in the morning and Rory in a sailing regatta in the afternoon. Then, in the evenings, Steve and Rory made the most of the pool and hot tub.

Jack ‘smashing’ it!
Rory looking the part.

On the Sunday morning Greg took us all out across the harbour to Wellington for a look around the market in his super fast boat and in the afternoon Louise cooked a wonderful meal for everyone.

Out on the water.
Time for a great meal.

After a really successful five day visit it was time for us to move on further North. So we packed up the van, said goodbye to everyone, and headed off on the road again. Once out of the Wellington area it became much more rural, pretty but not spectacular. We started to pass through more and more run down villages which reminded us a little of some parts of Washington State and North Oregon, when we cycled from Canada to Mexico. These sort of places don’t make you want to hang around, unless you really need to.

All the talk in the media was about the imminent arrival of Cyclone Gabrielle. Where was it going to hit hardest? We were tracking its progress very closely and making route adjustments accordingly. On our first day out of Wellington we changed our destination three times! Eventually we ended up in a car park in National Park (that is the name of the village, a little strange and confusing at first). It rained quite heavy overnight and it was a little windy but we woke up thinking the whole thing might have been over-hyped.

Our view after the cyclone ….. little did we know!

Then we checked the news on our phones. Wow. It was certainly not over-hyped. Gabrielle had torn though the North and the East leaving behind a trail of total devastation including floods, the likes of which had never been seen before in New Zealand, leaving miles and miles of agricultural land and crops ruined in a matter of hours. Major arterial roads had been ripped appart by landslides, and thousands of mature trees had been washed away or snapped like twigs. Whole communities had been left without power and some left completely isolated.

The North Island was in a state of shock and the country was placed in a State of Emergency for only the third time in its history.

We knew at that moment that our New Zealand trip was going to change shape. A good proportion of the North Island was now inaccessible, and even if it was they certainly didn’t want tourists getting in the way of what was going to be an emmense lifesaving and clear up operation.

We headed to the West Coast surf town of Raglan. It had escaped the cyclone almost totally and we needed somewhere to take stock and see how the next few days unfolded.

Raglan turned out to be a good call. Not only was it a chilled out little town but, as is often the case with cyclones, the weather that follows can be calm and sunny. We had a similar experience in Western Australia a few years ago.

Raglan was a great place to sit and wait…
….and wait a little longer!

We spent four days relaxing in the town and on the cliff tops watching the surfers. Sarah decided it was time to pay a visit to the hairdresser, so with a little research she found one that fitted the bill and off she went. Well, what a disaster! Honestly, it looked the hairdresser was either drunk or blind. Even Steve, who isn’t the greatest hair connoisseur, could see how wonky and uneven the cut was. A few years ago this would truly have upset Sarah and even though she was far from impressed, travel sort of puts things into perspective. At least her house hadn’t been washed away! Still, she did go back the next day to point out to the hairdresser how she hadn’t cut it quite as requested. To be fair she was horrified and accepted all the blame, sat Sarah down and with nervous, quivering hands set about trying to rectify the problem. Obviously this attempt didn’t last long as Sarah had visions of ending up with a Steve hair style. The hairdresser, almost in tears, wanted to give Sarah her money back, but she felt so sorry for her she declined and put it down to experience.

You should have seen it before it was tidied up.

The following day Sarah decided to put the hair experience behind her and booked a massage. Now, Raglan is a surf town in New Zealand and as such is a little …. how shall we put it?…. rustic! So when she turned up for the massage and it was being run out of someone’s shack of a house she was cautious but not surprised. But when the occupant arrived and was more than a little on the large and sweaty side, she became a little more cautious. Then, when he led her around the back to a dilapidated shed, her thought switched to, “Do I run now?”. But she didn’t run!! Out of curiosity she stayed. “What’s the worst that can happen? Getting locked under the shed with the other idiots that didn’t run!”

Well it turned out there was no under ground cell and the massage was one of the best she has had, just like all the online reviews had said. Appearances can be deceiving.

Just as a reminder as to where we were in the World, the evening before we left Raglan we felt our first earthquake! New Zealand gets several each day but most of them are low down on the Richter Scale and are not felt by the general population.

We were sitting in the van and it started to sway from side to side and the water in a glass could be seen swilling around. Initially we couldn’t work it out. It was a lovely evening and very calm with no wind. Then we both said, “Earthquake”. We checked the National Earthquake site online which updates immediately and saw it had been a 6.0 strong quake about 400km away. Because it had been several kilometres deep it hadn’t caused any damage. It was much nearer Wellington and had shook Sarah’s sister’s house for about 30 seconds. “All we need is a volcanic eruption now and we’ll have had the grand slam!”, said Steve.

After four days in Raglan, a cyclone and an earthquake, we were starting to get a bit of a clearer picture as to where we could think about going next. We had planned to head North of Auckland to visit friends we met in South America but that was absolutely off the cards, so the safest bet, for now, was to head to Lake Taupo in the centre of The North Island.

The shores of Lake Taupo.

Taupo could be described as The North’s equivalent to Queenstown in The South. Located in a gorgeous setting by a huge lake it has a never ending list of things to do. However, school summer holidays were over so Taupo was far less busy than Queenstown and the moment we drove into town the place had a great feeling about it. Plus, it was the location for Steve’s race in a couple of weeks so he was able to check out the course.

We found ourselves a wonderful, spacious, free camp on the lakeside, about 15 minutes out of town and settled down for what turned out to be four days.

A great spot for a few days.

We enjoyed the town, the lake views, the surrounding area and we did some of the tourist sites.

We are not volcano experts but we have learnt a few things about them since being here and the presence of Super Volcanoes is one of those things. It turns out there are about 16 of them on the earth and when they erupt it is a ‘planet changing’ event; end of the dinosaurs, start of an ice age, that sort of thing. Lake Taupo is the top of a Super Volcano and, in fact, the most recent erupting, about 65,000 years ago. It’s easy to look out at the lake and forget what is under there!

One of the more popular attractions around Taupo are the Huka Falls. A narrowing of the river forces the water over a small drop, with impressive volume, and in true Kiwi style you can see it from numerous vantage points, either on foot, in a leisure boat, speeding on a jet boat or overhead in a helicopter depending upon the depth of your pockets!

We chose the view on foot option.

Next on the list was ‘Craters of The Moon’ which was an hours walk around a geothermal area where steam is spouting out of many points along the way. It is quite good to see and at some points boiling water is gurgling and spitting out of the ground. Once again it re-emphasies just how unstable and fragile the whole area is.

You get the feeling it could blow at anytime.

We also visited the Aratiatia Dam, which is opened three times a day flooding the gorge below in rapid fashion. Like so many places in New Zealand, scenes from the movies ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were filmed here. In fact, for fans, ‘Mount Doom’ is just the other side of the lake from where we camped.

Flooding the gorge.

Our final stop in Taupo, for this visit, was to call in on a friend we met in Australia. During the pandemic we rented an apartment for three months in Far North Queensland. One of our neighbours there was Sandra, a Kiwi. She has since moved back to New Zealand and lives 20 minutes outside Taupo.

I’m sure she won’t mind us saying but she is in her late 70’s and is still unbelievably active. She plays golf twice a week, attends exercise classes and is an avid walker in Summer or Winter.

Sandra is the one on the left!

We popped in for coffee and stayed for lunch, then some wine and eventually dinner, catching up on what we have all been doing.

It turns out Sandra was off back to Queensland for a month to help out her daughter whose husband has had a very nasty running accident. Typical of Sandra’s generosity she has offered her house for us to stay in for a few days when we return to Taupo for Steve’s race. Now there is an offer we can’t refuse.

Snow, Sand and Seals.

As ever it has been a busy few weeks, what with seeing the sights, travelling between them and Steve trying to squeeze some training in the gaps. So we have fallen behind on The Blog ….. again!

“Just another couple of miles”

After Wanaka we made a short stop along the Haast Pass, to the Blue Pools in Mount Aspiring National Park. The drive there in itself was worth the trip with stunning lakes, mountains and valleys and all on a beautiful sunny day. We always appreciate what a great adventure we are on, even during the hard, rough, tiring time, but some days we appreciate it just that little bit more and today was one of those days.

The Blue Pools

A lovely little walk led out to the Pools and it was very popular with families, with children and adults alike swimming and jumping off the swing bridge. Steve was tempted with the jump until he tested the water. “I think I’ll give that one a miss, it is freezing”.

Tempted, but the water was just a little too cold!

Next it was on to another National Park. This time Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. We have been trying to get here since we left Christchurch, but with notoriously bad weather everytime we got within striking distance we kept having to pass it by.

Now, the forecast was giving a 36 hour window of fine weather and we were only a couple of hours away, so off we went.

As with many places on The South Island, The Department of Conservation had a fantastically located campsite right in The National Park and all the trails around the area either started there, or passed through. The campsite was very basic but it’s all about the scenery and the accessibility here.

Not a bad location to spend the night.

We had started the day at 6am so by the time we had driven to The Park, found a spot to park up and had a cup of coffee, we were off and walking before 10am.

We chose to do the Hooker Track which is relatively easy and leads to the glacier at the foot of Mount Cook. Consequently it is one of the busier tracks in The Country.

The Hooker Track is truly spectacular.

Although there were more people walking than we had seen on any of our other walks, this didn’t detract too much from the experience. The weather and the route were amazing alongside the glacial rivers, across swing bridges and under blue skies.

View after View as we walked along.

After half an hour or so Mount Cook came into view with its snow capped summit. It looked pretty impressive so we stopped to take photos, which were really a waste of time because what we thought was an impressive sight turned out to be just the starter course as the views just got better and better.

We eventually arrived at the Hooker Lake and sat down to eat some sandwiches and grab a drink. Then Steve thought he would push on a little further, scrambling over some boulders for another 30 minutes, getting even closer to the glacier.

Star jumps before lunch.

The return leg was no less impressive and although Mount Cook was behind us, the only slightly smaller Mount Sefton loomed over us and our campsite.

After a bit of a rest back at the van we did another walk in the early evening which was an elevated walk to another viewpoint of the valley for some more great photos.

Our last look at Mount Cook.

We slept well that night and woke the next morning with the intention of doing another early walk, but the 36 hour window turned out to be just 24. The mountains were covered in a blanket of clouds and heavy rain, so we packed up and moved on. We spent the best part of the morning saying how lucky we had been to have had such a beautiful day.

We only had just over a week to go before our ferry to The North Island and we wanted to have a few days back in Abel Tasman where we had been house sitting back in December.

We plotted a route back which involved a two day detour back to Akoroa and The Banks Peninsula. Steve had enjoyed the cycling there so much, that he couldn’t resist doing some of the rides again.

One day he had been out for four and a half hours of hard cycling and met Sarah in the village of Lyttleton. She had parked on the side of the road, put our chairs in front of the van and had lunch all ready waiting. Steve sat down in the road to eat when a woman stopped in her car and wound down the window. “Here we go”, thought Steve, “I’m bringing the tone of the neighbourhood down”, as he prepared for some abuse. “I noticed you have been cycling”, said the woman. “I live in that house just there, if you want to come in for a warm shower, you are more than welcome”. During 40 years of cycling that has never happened to him in The UK. Some people are just so nice!

We made our way up the East Coast and had a stop in the small town of Kaikoura. This is the place to go in NZ if you want to go whale watching. We came here 21 years ago on a wet and windy day and it was a bit of a desolate, unattractive place. Then six years ago it was hit by a massive earthquake which completely destroyed the town and road network. Like a phoenix from the ashes, Kaikoura has emerged as a fabulous place, with a great atmosphere to just stroll around. With more time we would have liked to have stayed for a couple of nights rather than just the one. But Sarah did manage the time for some good old fish and chips out of the paper sitting by the sea.


We skipped the whale watching this time and instead set off on a two hour walk along the rocky foreshore. We knew there was a seal colony there and we spotted one or two a distance away as we wandered along.

An inquisitive seal family.

The further we went the less and less people were around. Then, all of a sudden we rounded some rocks and found ourselves right in the middle of the colony, in fact, we were in what looked like the kindergarten. Dozens of seals and their pups were playing in a big rock pool, not at all bothered by our presence. We watched for a while and then moved on not wanting to overstay our welcome!


We then drove all the way North through the vineyards of The Marlborough region. We have had one or two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc in the past which had come from those very vines.

We will be drinking those in a couple of years.

Eventually, the asphalt road ended and we found ourselves at a campsite right on the beach. The area reminded us of some of the places we had camped in Far North Queensland, Australia with palm trees and ancient forests all mixed in right on the edge of a deserted beach. The weather wasn’t quite the same though, certainly not a sunbathing day.

Steve, with Sarah down on the beach.

And so our final stop on The South Island was right back where we had started 11 weeks before in the Abel Tasman area.

We initially had a couple of nights at a freedom camp, right on the foreshore in the town of Motueka, where we had been house sitting. It’s a wonderful little town and right up there with our favourite places so far.

Sarah spent the days relaxing with her book and Steve spent the days not relaxing with his bike and running shoes!

“Just a few more miles!”

We then spent a couple of days camping in Abel Tasman and did some walking on the Abel Tasman Track and managed to squeeze some time in on the beach too.

The beaches in Abel Tasman are, in our opinion, far and away the best in New Zealand with golden sand, turquoise blue waters and a back drop of green forests.

Pretty good?

The track is about 40 miles long, but if you don’t want to do the entire length there is an amazing water taxi service which picks up and drops off at five points along the way. So you can do whatever section of the track you feel like doing.

“Wait for me”

The Track is exceptional. It’s not a hilly, elevated track, but it hugs the coast and winds its way through the forest, past waterfalls, over rivers, some which have bridges and some that don’t. Some sections have a high tide route and low tide route, where you can drop down onto the beach and cross the estuaries. At every corner there seems to be a view into the forest or out to the beautiful golden sand and piercing blue water.

“We will never finish at this rate”

We loved the walking in Abel Tasman and Sarah enjoyed the water taxi just as much. You get a great view of the coast and then, at the end, the taxi is dragged out of the water on a trailer towed by a tractor and you stay on the boat as you are driven back through town to the start of the track.

There’s always one!

So our time on the South Island was almost over and we made our way to Picton from where the ferry departs. We took the scenic route along Queen Charlotte Drive, a 40km twisting turning road which precariously hugs the cliff edge. We passed several places where the road was only one lane wide, not through design but because the other lane had fallen into the sea in a landslide!

The views from Queen Charlotte Drive.

We spent the last night at a Department of Conservation site down by the water’s edge and spent the evening talking about all the absolutely fantastic things we had done since we arrived in late November.

The following morning we boarded the early ferry bound for Wellington and a family reunion.

Our transport to The North Island.

“Bye bye South Island, see you again for sure. It’s been a blast!”

“Yes, of course you can come for a run”

A Catlin in The Catlins.

After our hike up Ben Lomond we decided we needed a bit of rest and relaxation, so we headed for the small lakeside town of Wanaka. There were two different routes to get there, one was around the Crown Range Mountains, and the other was straight over the top and is New Zealands highest paved road.

The campervan rental company do not allow their vehicles over the Crown Range Road because it is apparently too steep in places!

“Oh well”, said Steve, “Looks like I’ll see you in Wanaka”, as he set off on his bike up the hill and Sarah put on her music and set off on the long way around!

Wanaka is almost like Queenstown’s little brother. It’s in a lakeside setting with snow capped mountains in the distance, but it has a totally different feel.

The town had everything we needed without the chaos, crowds and traffic of Queenstown. We could even park right on the lake front, open up the back of the campervan, and sit either inside or out depending on how hot it was getting.

You would think all we do is drink tea and coffee.

We had three gloriously sunny days and enjoyed driving along the lake stopping at the little bays taking in the different scenery. One day we pulled off at Glendhu Bay for a quick morning coffee and ended up staying for five hours, just watching the lakeside activities on and off the water.

Early morning at Glendhu Bay, before the activities start.

After a couple of days of lounging around Steve was ready to get his trainers on again and it was time for a long run. He planned a 35km trail route along the lake with accessible places for Sarah to drive ahead, sit out and provide food and drink as he ran past!

Running around Lake Wanaka.

After Wanaka it was time to head to a less visited part of New Zealand, The Catlins. It just so happens that ‘Catlin’ is Sarah’s maiden name so we were always going to visit there. Plus it was just over a year since Sarah’s father passed away so it was good to go there and remember him.

However, on the way to The Catlins we passed through a small but pretty village of Clyde on the banks of Cluther River. This also happened to be the home (well, one of them!) of the lovely couple we met in Christchurch, Janet and Brent.

The Clyde Dam.

We were passing through at a weekend and although they weren’t there on the Saturday they offered their driveway as a campsite to us and also offered to cook dinner for us on the Sunday when they returned.

Camping on the drive.

We spent Saturday and Sunday exploring the town, the numerous riverside trails and the huge, relatively recently constructed dam.

Enjoying a Riverside walk.

Sunday afternoon and evening was spent with Janet and Brent. Janet has had some professional culinary training and worked for a while in the restaurant of a vineyard in Marlborough. She prepared us all a lovely meal of duck with so many veggies straight out of the garden.

They were a super interesting couple having lived in New York and also owning, managing and working a vineyard for many years, before starting, building and eventually selling an I.T. business.

We chatted and laughed for hours before it was time to retire to our little campsite on the drive.

Group Selfie.

We had planned to call in on them again for coffee a few days later at their other home in Dunedin, but unfortunately time and weather scuppered that plan.

So, onto The Catlins. Wild, rugged, remote were all ways we had seen the area described. To be honest, it reminded both of us in many ways of the North Yorkshire Coast in The UK, where both of us spent time as kids.

I really should buy some trousers!

Obviously the forests and vegetation away from the cliffs was very different, but the rock formations were similar and standing on the cliff edge looking out to sea and watching the waves smash against the rocks below, transported us both back in time!

First stop was Slope Point. This is the equivalent of Lands End. Well strictly speaking it’s the equivalent of John ‘O’ Groats taking into account we’re in The Southern Hemisphere and everything in this part of New Zealand has a strong Scottish influence, except the accent of course! Invercargill, Dunedin, Clyde, Alexandra, literally everywhere is named after a Scottish equivalent.

It gets pretty windy down here.

Over a couple of days we made our way across the 100 miles or so of coast that is The Catlins, stopping at the places of interest.

A Catlin in The Catlins.

Wherever in The World we do a roadtrip one thing that is ever present is ‘road kill’. Whether it’s badgers in rural England, raccoons in The States, guanaca in Patagonia or kangaroos in Australia, road kill is always there. We once even saw a camel in Australia.

New Zealand is no different. So it was with no surprise that after an early start one morning in The Catlins, with no other vehicles on the road, on the horizon we saw a lifeless object laying in the road. As we got nearer it became obvious some poor creature hadn’t had a successful night time road crossing. Steve moved to the other side of the road to avoid splattering the remains up the van and Sarah gave the roadkill a good inspection.

Steve then did extremely well to keep the van on the road as Sarah turned to him and said, “Was that a porpoise?”. Steve processed what had just been said, then burst into laughter and started crying! After he composed himself he turned to Sarah and said, “No, a possum”.

To be fair, in Sarah’s defence it was very early in the morning and we were heading to Porpoise Bay!

We have discovered over the years that places of interest vary enormously and are very subjective. In an area where places of interest are high density, London, for example, somethings which would be a highlight elsewhere don’t get a look in. Whereas in outback Australia anything that isn’t red dirt becomes an iconic feature. We have literally seen a broken down tractor left in situ for 30 years and a sign put next to it with ‘Museum’ written on it!

A bit like North Yorkshire

The Catlins are more towards the Ozzie Outback end of the scale. Yes, it is a lovely place to visit and drive through. There are some interesting coastal features, waterfalls, forests and trails and a few sea lions dotted about. It is very much like Scotland and we have been spoilt over the last couple of weeks with some outstanding scenery. But like I said earlier these things are subjective and personal preferences are very different.

Nothing like North Yorkshire.

One place we visited for a short stop and a coffee, stood out as a definite one off. The Lost Gypsy Caravan was unusual to say the least. A collection of tiny gadgets made by the owner over his lifetime, all jumbled together covering every possible inch of space in an old caravan.

Inside The Lost Gypsy Caravan.

Our final stop along The Catlins was at Nugget Point lighthouse. The is an extremely photogenic location and apparently at sunrise even more so. We couldn’t make it that early in the morning due to being too far away the night before and dodging porpoises on the road, but we still got a couple of good shots!

Nugget Point and The Lighthouse.

With The Catlins done we had intended to head to Dunedin and another visit with Janet and Brent. However, Steve’s race is starting to loom big on the horizon and it was time for a few days intense training and with the weather looking non too great where we were, we needed to change plans. So when Steve suggested to go back to Wanaka where unbroken sunshine and high 20’s were forecast, Sarah didn’t take much persuading. So back to Wanaka for another four days it was.

Glad to be back.

We could have easily spent a month there. Not only is it in a great setting, but the list of outdoor activities seemed endless. The town has some excellent individual restaurants, cafés, bars and shops and all the locals we met were very friendly.

Wanaka also has a superb cinema ‘The Paradiso’. It’s as much about the experience as the actual movie. It has three small screens with sofas as well as normal cinema seating. The screen we were in even had a couple of actual cars in there, modified for comfort and the ‘Drive In’ experience.

What a fantastic little cinema.

They have a half time intermission where you get a massive freshly baked cookie and you can even have beer and pizza. It doesn’t matter what you watch, it’s just a great evening out.

Sarah spent time by the lake reading and Steve trained and trained. He almost got so tired he could have fallen asleep in a bowl of spaghetti like he did once in Tuscany!

As much as we could have stayed longer in Wanaka it was time to leave as there was a small period of good weather forecast for Mount Cook National Park and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see that.

Walking Under Blue Skies

We settled back into campervan life very quickly. Our 12 months in a van travelling around Australia certainly helped and with all the unexpected storage, we have loads of space and things are turning out to be easier than what we had prepared for.

Great space for Sarah…..
Great space for Steve! Or maybe the other way?

‘Freedom Camping’ is widespread in New Zealand. There are places all over the country where, as long as you are certified ‘Self Contained’, you can park up for free. Some of these places are in beautiful locations and can get very busy. Unfortunately, the rules of Self Contained seem to get regularly abused. You are supposed to have a toilet on board and have tanks for three days of fresh water and waste water. However, normal estate cars with ‘Self Contained’ certification stickers are common place. We’re sure we will see a ‘Self Contained’ motorbike before we leave!

The Department of Conservation (DOC) also has a network of sites, which mainly seem to be in and around National Parks. These are either free or relatively cheap and can be either bookable online or run on a first come, first served basis.

Add to that, there are also the independent campsites as well as the big National commercial operations with all the facilities you could want. With all these options finding somewhere to spend the night, roughly where you want, hasn’t been a problem, as yet anyway!

Our ‘napkin plan’ had taken us all the way South and West to the area known as Fiordland. This is easily the wettest area in New Zealand with over seven metres of rain each year. Back to back days of warm weather and clear blue skies are very rare. When we saw the forecast for the few days ahead we just had to take advantage of it. We headed first for the small town of Te Anau, right on the lake of the same name.

Lake side at Te Anau

Hiking, or ‘tramping’ as they call it here, is a major pastime. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of marked trails ranging from a few minutes walk around a forest up to multi day, high altitude technical trails. Ten of these multi dayers have made an exclusive list entitled ‘The Great Walks’. The number of people allowed on some of these walks are limited and the demand is so high that securing a slot has been likened to securing a ticket for an ‘A List’ rock concert. It’s an Internet frenzy when they are released.

It is still possible, however, to sample The Great Walks on a single day hike and this is what we did.

Firstly, from Te Anau we walked The Kepler Track. This was a lovely, easy walk which follows the river through thick beech forest on an even path. It was great to get out and start doing some walking which is one of the reasons we came to New Zealand.

Walking along the Kepler Track.

We also had a wander around town and explored the cafés and shops, most of which were based around outdoor pursuits. It was then time to drive, what many describe as, the most scenic road in New Zealand.

Starting the road to Milford Sound.

At 75 miles long the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound, twists and turns its way through forests, grassland valleys carved millenia ago by slow moving glaciers. It then slowly climbs into the heart of the fjords, around every corner is another amazing view more spectacular than the last. The closer you get to Milford Sound, the steeper the road gets and the higher the snow capped mountains become.

Getting higher !

Then it becomes too difficult to build a road over the terrain, so a low, narrow tunnel takes you through the mountain and out the other side and down the steep decent into the Milford township.

We stopped about 50 miles up the road and camped at a DOC site by a river. It was a great setting and Steve took advantage of the light evenings and headed out on his bike for a couple of hours to enjoy the scenery on two wheels.

Parking up for the evening.

The next morning we completed the trip up to Milford Sound in order to do another hike on one of The Great Walks. This time, probably the most famous of them all, The Milford Track.

The start of the walk is not accessible by foot and it’s necessary to catch a water taxi. This meant we had the added benefit of traversing across Deep Water Basin at the very entrance to The Sound giving some great views and photo opportunities.

The Milford Track Water Taxi.
A pretty scenic taxi ride.

We followed the track as far as the Giant’s Gate Waterfall and the swing bridge across the river. It was a lovely walk but it left us wanting more. I’m sure when the trail gains elevation the views would be spectacular. Maybe we will return one day and do the four day circuit.

The Milford Track really is a ‘Great Walk’

We started our journey back out of Milford Sound to Te Anau and it was mid afternoon. We pulled over at the trailhead to the Marian Lake and Waterfall. We walked together the short distance to the viewing area and were treated to a great scene which was more fast flowing rapids than waterfall and much more impressive than The Giants Gate Falls we had seen earlier.

Marian Falls were more like rapids.

The sign at the trailhead said it was a three hour return to the lake. Sarah didn’t fancy another long walk, especially as it went straight up and back down and we had done two long walks already. So Steve said he would run it as he had heard it was worth the trip. A tough run/scramble led to a fabulous location, a lake surrounded by mountains, very similar to areas we had seen in The Canadian Rockies many years ago.

This was a really great place.

He returned 1hr 20mins later with some great photos and in plenty of time to get to our planned stop for the night.

Our trip back down to Te Anau was as scenic as the way up. Would we say it’s the most scenic road in New Zealand? Well it’s early days, but it will certainly take some beating.

It’s mid summer here so the evenings in the South are light until almost 10pm. This gave us plenty of time to make some progress out of Fiordland. We had researched a Freedom camp in the small town of Lumsden, so headed there. The site was essentially the car park of a Heritage Train Station, complete with platform, waiting room, and old steam trains. They had toilets, areas to sit, eat and wash up. It was one of the best free camps we have been to.

We had encountered it several times in Australia where small towns create pretty good free sites which encourages people to stop who otherwise might have bypassed the town. In return the travellers are likely to spend some money in the town on groceries, cafés, fuel, pubs etc. It’s a win for everyone!

“All aboard”

Next stop was Queenstown, probably the top of the tree when it comes to tourist locations in New Zealand. Almost everyone on a road trip stops here and it’s a super popular place for Kiwis to spend their Summer holidays aswell.

When we pulled into town it looked like the whole of New Zealand was there. It was rammed with traffic jams and people everywhere.

There are hundreds of people to the side and behind the wall !!

The reason the town is so popular is its stunning location on the banks of Lake Wakitipu, surrounded by mountains and the fact it is the self proclaimed Adrenaline Capital of The World. Just about anything which raises your heart rate can be done here. Bungee Jumping, Sky Diving, Jet Boating, paragliding the list seems endless. Every other outlet in town seems to be selling some kind of activity, and the ones that aren’t are selling you food for some energy or drinks to celebrate.

A jet boat screams up the Shotover gorge.

Any revenue the town lost during Covid is being recouped now. At one famous burger bar we counted over 40 people in the queue waiting for a table.

We came to Queenstown on our honeymoon over 20 years ago and it was much, much smaller then. It was still an adrenaline paradise and we did a lot of it, but the place has exploded. There is what appears to be a whole new town created called Frankton, providing more shops and accommodation for the masses. But unless you have something booked you are going to struggle. ‘No Vacancy’ was the most popular sign.

We stayed for three nights on a campsite close to town. It was pretty dirty, not very well run, and to be fair it was abused by the younger crowd who were the majority there. The camp kitchen was left in a terrible state and one morning we went in to use the toaster and counted 20 dead cockroaches on the floor!

Don’t get us wrong. We got out of Queenstown what we went for and that was to revisit the town and its waterfront, drive the scenic route along the lake to Glenorchy and most importantly to climb Ben Lomond.

This was a great drive and an even better cycle.

At just under 6000 feet Ben Lomond looms over the town. We set off at 7.30am and walked the 20 minutes to the trailhead. There is a very tempting gondola ride which takes you up the first 1000 or so feet, but we thought if we’re going to do it, then we will do the lot. Plus, it didn’t start for another couple of hours. So off we went into the forest.

Immediately the trail goes up and it’s anything but easy for the first hour up to the gondola station. It was very quiet as the staff were opening up the various adrenaline pumping activities ready for what they hoped would be another busy day.

After the gondola station you emerge above the tree line, the view opens up, and the gradient while still steep, eases a little and you get the feeling of being much more remote.

Well over an hour gone and the peak in the distance still looks so far away.

We had perfect weather with blue skies and it was warm but not too hot. There was also only a handful of other walkers to be seen. One or two ahead and the same behind. We were really enjoying it.

With regular stops for drinks, food and a few photos we plodded on, enjoying the views rather than trying to go too fast.

Time for a drink and a look at the view.

After a couple of hours we reached the ridge which leads to the summit. The gradient ramps up again at this point and the trail is no longer maintained. There are lots of loose rocks and four points of contact were needed in one or two places. Also, the wind was picking up as was the heat. But the views were absolutely outstanding which gave us a great excuse for a few seconds pause to take them in.

Stunning views approaching the ridge.

After almost another hour on the ridge we finally rounded the last corner and the summit was in sight. Our early start was rewarded by incredible views and for a few minutes we had the summit all to ourselves.

We were soon joined by a French couple and were able to take some great photos of each other. Sarah then produced a very welcome bag of sandwiches and a flask of coffee ….. from Steve’s rucksack. “At least it will be lighter on the way down”, he thought.

We hung around on the summit for a while relaxing and taking in the views before starting the decent. The further we walked back down the busier, hotter and windier it got. We were glad we started early as several people were visibly struggling and turning around at the start of the ridge.

What a view from the summit.

When we arrived back at the gondola station it was mayhem. A totally different scene from a few hours before. Zip Wires, Luge Runs, Downhill Mountain Biking, Paragliding were all in full flow. The cafe was struggling to keep up with demand and the ice cream seller was complaining his arm was aching with all the scooping he was doing.

We escaped back into the relative calm of the forest and made our way slowly back into town.

Seven hours after leaving the campsite we returned (5 hours and 45 minutes of which had been walking) and we had climbed almost 5000 feet. It had been right up there with the best we have done.

Someone is happy with life!