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!

A Slice of Good Luck!

Before we picked up our campervan we had a couple of days spare, which gave us a great opportunity to visit Christchurch city centre and see the sights.

Christchurch is New Zealand’s second biggest city, but is still pretty small by international standards, which means it is compact and easy to get around.

A novel way to get around town.

Twelve years ago the city was struck by a series of major earthquakes with the final one resulting in wide ranging destruction and the loss of 185 lives. The evidence of the quake is still very much to be seen in the partly demolished buildings, the empty gravel plots where buildings once stood, the memorials to the deceased and the new buildings which have hastily been erected to bring some sort of normality back to the city and its residents.

After the disaster numerous shipping containers were brought in to act as makeshift offices and commercial premises. Many of these containers are still there scattered around the city. Most are now disused but some have been innovatively adapted and are now used as takeaway food and drink outlets.

Christchurch did have some beautiful older buildings, one of these was the University which appears to have survived mainly intact. The old cathedral with its dominating spire was not so lucky and is still in the process of a lengthy rebuild. However, a ‘Transitional Cathedral’ has been erected close by and has been constructed predominantly from cardboard.

Inside the “Cardboard Cathedral”

A plain but beautiful memorial wall has been erected down by the river with the names of those who lost their lives inscribed for all to remember.

The White Memorial Wall.

There is also an unusual piece of art which is made up of 185 different shaped chairs, all painted white, depicting the 185 different people lost in the earthquake. You are encouraged to sit in one and reflect.

Unusual, but effective.

About a third of the city centre is taken up by Hagley Park an expansive green area which contains the cricket ground and the botanical gardens, which makes for a great walk.

Steve pretending to be interested!

In the botanical gardens is a café and as in one or two cafés in the past, a plan was made. With two coffees, two scones, a paper napkin and a pen, we plotted out a route for the next couple of weeks based around where we wanted to visit and the predicted weather. Sarah used the reverse of the napkin as a food shopping list for the following day. Waste not want not.

Another lovely place to wander in Christchurch is down by the river which flows through the city. The Avon, as it is called, is one of many areas and street names in the Christchurch area which share names with UK places. The city itself shares its name with the small Dorset town. The River Avon (NZ version) is also home to another very English tradition, more associated with Oxford and the River Thames. The pastime of punting on the river. It’s quite strange to see the punts slowly moving along the river, with punters in traditional straw hats. You could easily imagine yourself in Oxford by the University. All very English.

Are we back in England?

The next morning we were up nice and early, so armed with our napkin we went to collect our campervan. It’s peak season, campervans are in short supply, demand is high, so simple economics means prices are high too. Because of this we had booked the smallest van we had managed to convince each other that we are able to realistically live in for two months. It was going to be cramped but we could manage…. couldn’t we?

We were just about to have a huge slice of good fortune. Our van was brought to the front of the rental premises and we were led outside and given the keys. However, this was definitely not the van we had booked! “Please don’t say a word Sarah, just get in and drive off”, was Steve’s only thought. Funnily enough it was Sarah’s only thought as well. So that is what we did.

Two happy people, driving fast!

There were plenty of the super small vans around, so all we can do is put it down to an admin error. We’re sure if it would have been an intentional upgrade they would have told us and made a bigger thing of it as the cost would have been double the price.

We are sure some people might think the campervan we have is still quite small to live in for two months. But you should have seen the one we were supposed to have!

Home for the next two months.

So with big smiles on our faces we headed South, out of Christchurch and towards a supermarket. We now had a fridge, a stove top, a microwave, loads of storage space and a napkin with a route and a supplies list, which Sarah was furiously adding to now we had all this new space!

This is going to be so much more comfortable.
You bet it is !!

The Springs and The Springer.

We drove away from the town of Motueka and The Tasman region with a certain amount of sadness. It had been a fantastic month.

The weather had been amazing. The house had been super comfortable and Whiskey had been great fun, but it was now time to move on.

We had rented a car for four days to get from Motueka to Christchurch where we had another house sitting job arranged for over the Christmas and New Year period. On the way we took the opportunity to see a little more of New Zealand.

Our first stop was in the Alpine resort of Hanmer Springs. Because of its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is a hotbed for geothermal and volcanic activity. As such, many of the interesting places to visit are centered around this theme. Hanmer Springs is one example.

Resident of and visitors to the small town have been bathing in its hot spring water that bubbles up from subterranean rivers for over a hundred years. It is also a ski resort in Winter and a mountain biker paradise in Summer.

Sarah has a flashback to home.

As the tourism has increased so has the visitors to the thermal springs and today, what was once a couple of rock pools, is now a huge pool complex which keeps people entertained for hours.

38 degrees. Very inviting on a chilly day.

There are pools of differing temperatures, some are adults only, some are natural, some man-made. There is a play pool with two huge waterslides to entertain the kids (and wannabe kids, yes we did have a go!) There was even a lap pool for Steve to get some swim training in.

We had planned to spend the morning at the pools, but when lunch time came we got dressed, visited the on site café and then afterwards got back in the water for a couple of more hours. We had a great day.

It was a great facility which got really busy as the day wore on!

We were staying at an old forestry worker’s site which had been converted to an educational outward bound facility which also catered for passing tourists. It was rough around the edges and our accommodation was basic, but it had a great communal kitchen and a lounge where we sat both evenings chatting to some really interesting people from different walks of life. Some were born in New Zealand, some had emigrated here, and some were visiting like ourselves.

“I know. Its just like my Dad’s shed”

After our short spell in Hanmer Springs we continued South. One thing we are quickly learning about New Zealand is that once you leave even a small town it can be quite a way before you arrive at the next one. Facilities are minimal but the scenery is amazing.

Our next stop was just South of Christchurch on the Banks Pennisula. We had never heard of this place but it looked really interesting when we looked at a satellite image of the area. We found a Bed and Breakfast place which looked interesting, perched high on the peninsula. The experience, however, was not what we were expecting.

When we arrived the property was, as we had thought, at the top of a very steep road. We were greeted by Brenda, a lady in her early 70’s. She showed us to our beautiful room with a totally amazing view out over Christchurch and the Cantebury Plains. A few steps up the accommodation ladder from our place in Hanmer!

The view from Brenda’s place.

Brenda then invited us through into the house for a cup of tea. Sometimes you meet people and gradually get to know them and become friends over time. Sometimes you meet people and within 10 minutes you know they are going to be great fun and your kind of person. Brenda was in the second category.

We instantly liked her and in no time at all we were all laughing and joking together. She had lived an interesting life and was genuinely interested in our travels.

It turned out she was hosting a dinner party that evening for some of her old college friends who still meet up on a regular basis. We met them as they arrived and Brenda introduced us to her wonderful friends, all of whom wanted to know our story.

Brenda’s place was super comfy.

Brenda cooked us some chicken to go with our pasta and we mixed into the chaotic but friendly kitchen. We decided to eat separately so as not to invade their Christmas dinner party, but as it was rounding up two other guests arrived for the second B&B room. Brenda called us in to meet them. Janet and Brent were two Kiwis from a small town down near Queenstown who were meeting up with family in Christchurch for Christmas. Our 30 second “hello”, quickly turned into a half hour plus chat and we got on instantly with them. They had recently retired and were looking for inspiration on what to do. The eating at the dinner party was winding up and somehow we got sucked back into the conversation. They were all interesting people who had led different but successful lives.

Eventually we escaped to bed and awoke the next morning to a wonderful breakfast spread put on by Brenda. Janet and Brent joined us but Janet was not too happy, complaining at Steve that she had wanted an early night but had stayed up far too late reading our blog! She had really enjoyed it.

Our quick breakfast turned into a two hour plus affair chatting away about travel and the current state of New Zealand. When we spend a significant amount of time in a country we like to visit the well known, and not so well known places, but we also like to see how the country works. It’s amazing how a lot of countries are so similar in many ways with the same problems and concerns. They are just on different scales and dealt with by different methods. Economy, Crime, Education, Health etc. are issues everywhere. Sometimes people seem so different and in the next breath so alike. It’s strange.

We got on so well with Janet and Brent that we were invited to visit them on our road trip and we will do our utmost to make it happen.

As evidenced by our lengthy breakfast we were in no rush to move on. We were not expected at our house sit until late afternoon and other than a few bits of shopping to do, we had no plans. So Steve offered Brenda two hours of his time to do any jobs she needed doing in her big garden.

Brenda had no hesitation on taking him up on the offer and set him about moving a massive pile of wood chippings that had been left near the entrance, to a better location so she could use them to create a path at a later date.

Steve looked at the job, did a quick calculation, and thought that if he had an extra pair of hands to pull out some weeds, help spread the chippings, and if both people worked fast they could pretty much get the chippings moved and the path done in a couple of hours our so. “Now, who could help me”, he thought. “Sarah”, came the shout.

” No time to rest, get back to work”

Soon we were both hard at it and Brenda came out to supervise and help. By lunch time we had all but finished and Brenda was over the moon saying Santa had sent her two elves to help her.

Although we had only been at Brenda’s for 24 hours it had been a thoroughly rewarding stop. We had met some great people and had some great laughs.

It was now time to go and meet Baxter, the Springer Spaniel, who we would be looking after for the next couple of weeks.

“Hi Baxter, pleased to meet you”

The best way to describe Baxter was a loveable rogue and was a real character. We loved our time looking after him but it was sometimes hard work, especially for Sarah as she did a lot of the walking while Steve was out working hard on his bike.

The house, which was very comfortable, was situated only a few minutes drive from a fantastic forest and also a long, wide, rugged beach.

Baxter was in his element in both locations and we loved them both too. The forest was criss crossed by what seemed like a labyrinth of pathways for walking, mountain biking and horse riding. Although we had a map of sorts it was still difficult to navigate. In fact, one day an hour’s walk turned into three hours! It did seem a common theme as we met others who were totally lost.

“Any idea where we are Baxter”

The beach was probably Baxter’s favourite. His three passions in life seemed to be a ball, getting wet and stealing food. The beach provided unlimited access to the first two as he constantly chased a ball through the sand and into the waves. His energy seemed endless.

Great catch!

When we got him home it was no problem cleaning him up though, as he loved being washed down with the garden hose and then rolling around on the lawn to dry off. Yet again we were very lucky with the weather which made it all very easy.

Drying off in the sun after a good hose down.

We took him further afield to Akaroa and The Banks Peninsula, both of which offered incredible scenery, probably the best we have seen in New Zealand so far. Utterly stunning.

What an amazing place to walk

When in the house Baxter employed the three second rule. In that anything left unattended for more than three seconds was fair game. Including raw chicken, a ham sandwich, Steve’s protein bars, flip flops, socks, the list goes on and on. “Baxter, No!”, was easily our most used phrase.

Even with his naughty streak we really bonded with Baxter just as we had with Whiskey up in Abel Tasman. But our dog and house sitting days were coming to an end and it was time for us to get out and really see New Zealand. It was time to get back to the style of travel we loved so much in Australia. We are getting back in a campervan for two months and, hopefully, there are plenty of adventures to be had.

Brilliant!

Whiskey & The Rock

Chiang Mai to New Zealand proved to be an arduous journey with a series of delays for all sorts of reasons. We spent so long in Kuala Lumpur airport that we started to feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. At one point we were even taxiing for take off and had to return due to low tyre pressure. In general, over the last 20 years or so, we have been pretty lucky with flight schedules. So I suppose we were due some setbacks.

Eventually we landed in Auckland at 2am, about two or three days after we left Chiang Mai. By this time we had stopped trying to work out what day of the week it was! Unfortunately, Auckland was not our final destination. We still had to get to the town of Nelson on the South Island and the first flight out wasn’t until 7am!

On our way at last.

The only thing open in the International terminal was good old Macdonald’s and the Domestic terminal wasn’t even unlocked until 4.30am. So it was a coffee and fries for us!

Luckily it was only a one hour flight to Nelson and on arriving there we only had to wait for one hour until the hire car company was open. That gave us just enough time to get a proper breakfast and coffee.

We then collected our car, loaded up the luggage, and were on our way. Independent again, at last!

So, what are our plans while in New Zealand? Well, we plan to stay here for three and a half months. Essentially a week of Spring, a week of Autumn and the whole of Summer!

The downside to that is New Zealand is quite an expensive country and we are here over Christmas, New Year and the main school summer holidays. So, several months ago, we arranged a couple of housesitting jobs, similar to what we did in Australia. The first one is for almost a month and the second one the best part of three weeks. This should take us over the festive period and the first half of the holidays, without blowing the budget too much. But most importantly it gives us our doggie fix. We both love dogs, especially Sarah, as she spent a lot of her childhood around them. We had a rescue Border Collie together for six years but our life now is not conducive to owning a dog.

After the housesitting we have then rented a campervan for a couple of months and plan to do a pretty comprehensive tour of both islands. Sarah’s sister emigrated to New Zealand about 8 years ago so we will definitely visit her and Sarah’s mother will be visiting at the same time so that should be great.

Then it will be a race for Steve at Ironman New Zealand before heading back to South East Asia in March.

It all sounds fantastic.

Our first housesit was only 40 minutes drive from Nelson in a little town called Motueka at the gateway to The Abel Tasman National Park. We arrived, said “Hi” to the owners, and then went to bed. Talk about knackered! We could barely speak. Thankfully the owners, Gareth and Sarah, completely understood. They were preparing for their own impending monster journey to travel back to the UK with no stopovers. I think they looked at us and saw themselves in a week or so!

Gareth and Sarah and their four teenage boys, weren’t leaving for almost a week but they had kindly put us up in the holiday cottage in their garden. This meant we could have a good handover and get to know Whiskey, the seven month old Hungarian Viszla we would be looking after.

“I’m Whiskey, pleased to meet you”

We had rented the car for three days, so after a little snooze we were up, straight out, and spent the next two and a half days exploring some of Abel Tasman National Park and the Takaka Valley.

Sarah on a beach in Abel Tasman.

It is an absolutely beautiful area. It’s incredibly scenic with a back drop of mountains, which when we arrived still had the last winter snow on top. The mountains are only a stone’s throw from the coast which is littered with small bays of golden sand and striking blue water. Between the sea and the mountains it is just green, everything is so green.

Looking across The Takaka Valley

We visited ‘Split Apple Rock’ reputed to be the second most photographed rock in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s very unusual but not quite on the same scale as the rock holding the number one slot, the huge Uluru in the centre of Australia!

Split Apple Rock.

We ventured over the mountains into the Takaka valley for more spectacular scenery and stopped in the very small “alternative community” of Takaka itself. It’s a lovely, tiny town that feels like it is still stuck in the “Woodstock” era of the late 1960’s. We stopped for a coffee and the girl serving us turned out to be from the same town in the UK where Sarah was brought up. She came out on holiday four years ago and is still here, now going through the citizenship process. You get the feeling a few people do that in Takaka.

Bright and colourful Takaka

After Takaka we continued on to Pupu Springs, which is reputed to have some of the clearest freshwater in The World. As you can see from the photos, even taken from a phone it still looks amazingly clear.

The water was pretty clear.

It was soon time for Gareth, Sarah and the family to head off and for us to move from the cottage in the garden into “The Big House” as Steve called it, and big it most definitely was.

“Who gets to mow that lawn?”
“You do, and the rear lawn is even bigger”

It has five bedrooms and all the other rooms to go with it. It is a beautiful home, set on a huge plot with big lawns front and rear and mature borders all around. It looked like a full time job to manage the house and garden, never mind looking after a young active dog, four teenage boys and working full time. No wonder they need a month’s holiday!

We quickly settled into a routine. Steve cycling in the mornings while Sarah walked Whiskey around a scenic inlet. Then in the afternoon we had ball throwing in the garden and trying to entertain the World’s most energetic dog. By the time it came to the evening we would all flake out in front of the TV!

“Does she ever get tired?”

On one of Steve’s cycles he was heading up a 14km hill nearby. Although he’s getting on a bit in years he still doesn’t like it when he gets passed. So when another cyclist came past him like a rocket Steve was out of his saddle and sprinting after him. Could he catch him? Not on your life, the guy was flying! Steve continued on and a few minutes later came across the guy on the side of the road breathing very heavily. Steve, being concerned, stopped and asked “Are you alright mate?”. The guy said he was fine and just doing some hard training as he was trying to get back in shape after “the off season”. “Off season?”, Steve thought and started to put two and two together. It turned out the guy was called George Bennett, New Zealands number one cyclist! He’s a regular at the Tour de France and winner of quite a few races in Europe!! “Are you alright mate?” … I bet he thought “Cheeky bugger”.

Motueka or “Mot” as it is referred to, turned out to be a lovely place to spend a few weeks. It’s a great town, with friendly people, extremely scenic and brilliant weather. To say we are on the South Island we have only seen one full day and two half days of rain in almost a month. We can understand why it is a regular front runner for the title of ‘sunniest place in New Zealand’.

“Hurry up with that coffee, I’m bored”

Sarah and Whiskey became regulars at a couple of the local coffee shops, and Steve found some great places to run.

On some of Steve’s longer runs Sarah would borrow Gareth’s mountain bike and accompany him for an hour or so before heading back to Whiskey, while Steve carried on. At seven months Whiskey is still a pup and into everything, so joining us on a run was not possible. With all the smells on the off road trails it was all a bit too much. Even just walking one day she darted down a small embankment towards the water and caught Sarah off guard planting her straight on her backside!!

A beautiful place to run.

Our time dog sitting in beautiful Motueka is now over. We are hiring another car and spending four days heading south to the big city lights of Christchurch where we are dog sitting again over the festive period.

Christmas in Christchurch, now there’s a thing!

Elephants & Temples.

We were both a little sad at leaving Phuket. Everything had gone well and we were becoming comfortable and settled. At the same time we were looking forward to, and excited about, visiting Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. This was another place Steve visited many years ago and it would be a new location for Sarah.

It was out of luck rather than good planning that we arrived on the holiday of Yi Peng. The city was decorated with lanterns and people were sending small decorative floats into the river which runs next to the old town. These floats were made of palm leaves, colorful flowers, and had a candle in the middle which were religious offerings.

Colorful floating offerings.

The main attraction of the evening was a long parade of various sections of the community, including people from outlying towns and villages. They were either dressed in traditional clothing or the clothing of the sports club or department they were representing. Each one was accompanied by a heavily decorated float, all competing for the prize of best turned out.

One of the many floats in the parade.

Every so often part of a marching band was interspersed with the parade and each group provided its own, very loud, accompanying music. It was all a sight to be seen for sure.

The local WI?

We were entertained by the parade for a couple of hours but with our stomachs rumbling and the line of floats still stretching into the distance we left in search of food, so we never did find out who won the grand prize. Steve thought the one that looked like a cross between The Lord of the Rings and The Little Mermaid was a definite contender.

Accommodation options for our first four days in Chiang Mai was thin on the ground, obviously due to the holiday weekend. We managed to find a hotel room which was nothing special but suited our needs and was a 15 minute walk to the old town.

The moat and old city wall.

Chiang Mai is an ancient city and is almost 800 years old. The city limits have expanded over time to make it the second biggest in Thailand. At the very heart is The Old Town, almost a perfect square with each side measuring a mile in length. Parts of the original wall and the four entrance gates still remain and the moat which surrounds The Old Town is still intact.

The Old Town is a fascinating place to wander around. A mix of Thai buildings from what seems like every year since the city was formed, all jumbled in together in a myriad of streets. The buildings contain everything from backpacker hostels to 5-star boutique hotels, from the ever present 7/11 convenience stores to upmarket fashion shops, and from street food vendors to high quality restaurants.

But probably the stand out feature of The Old Town is the vast number of exquisitely decorated temples. There are over 300 in Chiang Mai and a large proportion of them are in The Old Town.

A colourfully decorated temple in The Old Town

Around every corner is another temple seemingly more impressive than the one before. You really have to be selective or you could spend weeks checking them out.

Another impressive temple.

After the first four days we moved to an apartment close by. This was quite compact but was very modern, had everything we needed, and the added bonus of a roof top infinity pool. We were starting to feel like we might never leave Thailand.

A great place for sunset watching.

Chiang Mai sits in a valley surrounded by mountains with the highest ones being only three miles from the centre. This meant that with only a few minutes of fighting the city traffic Steve could be out on perfectly smooth tarmaced roads, that twisted their way up and up into the thick jungle with virtually no traffic.

Up above the clouds and the jungle.

We quickly established a routine of Steve cycling in the mornings while Sarah wandered around exploring the Old Town, doing bits of shopping and spending some time on her online Spanish course.

In the afternoon we would lay by the pool and then on most evenings we would venture into the Night Bazaar area. This is a big expanse, over several blocks, which contains markets, street food and entertainment. To be honest just strolling around was entertainment in itself.

We had planned, as normal, to cook for ourselves in the evenings but the street food was so good and so cheap it was silly not to do it. We could eat a ton of great food and have change out of £5 for both of us! Sarah became addicted to Thai Yellow Curry, rice noodles and corn fritters. The woman who ran the stall had already started her order when she saw her coming each night.

Delicious food everywhere!

Everyday that went by we enjoyed Chiang Mai even more. We could understand why it has become a favourite for digital nomads and expats.

There were a couple of things we wanted to do outside the city though and one of them was to visit an elephant sanctuary.

Some of our best memories from travel have been through wildlife encounters. But we are extremely conscious about doing this in the right way. We are very aware how in many places animals are exploited for tourism and are made to work in terrible conditions.

When we saw humpbacks in Australia we did it with a conservation project accompanied by marine biologists. We swam with Whale Sharks where tour licenses were strictly controlled and protocols were enforced. We try to put ourselves in safe situations where we see animals in their natural surroundings such as Big Crocs, Cayman, Sea Eagles, Cassowary to name a few.

So when we decided to try and see elephants in Thailand we carried out a ton of research before we committed.

We eventually decided on a sanctuary an hour outside of the city with only six elephants, (five adults and a four year old!). All had been rescued from either the logging industry in Thailand or Laos, or from a circus. The sanctuary effectively take any profits from the tourism and save until they can afford to actually buy the elephants from the logging industry.

They are then brought back to the huge area of the sanctuary where they are free to roam around the jungle at will. They are not forced to interact with visitors but when you spend 20 hours a day eating and there is easy bananas and sugar cane on offer at the main centre they are pretty much guaranteed to turn up.

We made the journey up to the sanctuary in the back of a songthaew (more on those later) and what a day we had.

From start to finish it was incredible. You get up close and personal with the elephants and also get to feed them. You are encouraged to carry as much as you can hold as they are big eaters.

Sarah with a hungry baby.

Once the food is gone the elephants are free to wander off back into the jungle. However, there is a mud pool nearby and the elephants sometimes like a dip in there to cool off. We were lucky that three of them chose this option and we were encouraged to get into the mud pool and help cover them in mud. One elephant in particular seemed to be enjoying this and almost completely submerged herself with her trunk sticking up like a snorkel.

“A bit more behind the ear please”

After the mud bath it was time for the swimming pool to wash off. So we followed them to a large natural pool and all jumped in together.

Do you visit this spa often?

It reminded us of the equivalent of a top spa day. Some nice food, a mud bath treatment, a refreshing swim and then off to relax for the afternoon. “Not a bad retirement home after a life of hard labour”, said Steve.

The day had been so much more than we had expected and Sarah in particular was in her element.

Mudding it up!

Lunch for us was part of the deal, but this had a bit of a twist to it. We were given a cooking demonstration and then told to get on with it and cook our own Thai chicken noodle soup. Luckily it was pretty straightforward and only one or two over did it on the spices!

When we look back at our travels in the future, there will be some days which will really stand out above others as being amazing experiences and we are sure our day with the elephants will be one of them. It was awesome!

In many of the countries we visit, getting around using local transport is all part of the fun. This is no more true than in Thailand and South East Asia as a whole.

Chiang Mai has its fair share of the ever present tuk-tuk, found all over Asia. But it is also home to a large number of Songthaew (pronounced songtail).

Sarah using the local transport.

These are similar in design and function to the ‘Collectivios’ in Mexico but with no fixed route. Essentially they are Toyoto Hilux cabs with a covered back which contains two wooden benches on opposite sides, in which you can squeeze up to 12 people (Thai’s are quite small). They have no fixed route and each journey costs 30 bhat (about 70p).

A songthaew and a temple. It has to be Chiang Mai.

You stand on the street, flag one down and tell the driver where you want to go. You then jump in the back and off you go until someone else flags the driver down whose destination is likely to involve a small detour. On this detour someone else gets in and another detour is taken, and so on, until you arrive at you destination, or as near to it as you are willing to accept! I suppose the tip is, don’t use songthaews if you are in a hurry, but if you’re not, sit back and enjoy the tour.

“I wonder how busy this one will get?”

The other thing we really wanted to do whilst in Chiang Mai was to visit the temple at Doi Suthep. This is an important temple complex and stands on a mountain 3000 feet up, outside of the city.

Steve had already been up to the entrance seven times as it was on one of his cycling routes. But this time we made the climb together once more in the back of a songthaew.

The temple complex is amazing and well worth the journey up. Not only are the buildings themselves visually impressive but the view across the city and the whole valley was amazing.

The view across the valley.
Amazing decoration.

We wandered around the complex and came across a small temple where a few people were queuing. We saw that there was a Buddhist monk sitting inside and the people were queuing for a blessing. Although the rest of the people appeared to all be Buddhist, Sarah decided to join the queue. When she got to the front she was warmly welcomed by the monk who happened to speak a little English and she received her blessing, after which the monk encouraged Steve to take a photograph of the experience.

Sarah and the monk.

A couple of days later Steve made another trip to the 11km hill to Doi Suthep. This time as he approached the start it was incredibly busy with people everywhere and the road was blocked by army personnel. Steve spoke to a few people and it transpired it was part of the local university graduation celebrations. All the students were making the pilgrimage to the temple by foot and the only vehicles being allowed through were support vehicles, mopeds and cycles. Brilliant thought Steve, this should be fun and off he went.

There were well over 5,000 people walking up the mountain that day, maybe even double that. All were walking up in a disciplined line, wearing the shirts of their various university courses, and all looking like they were having a great time.

A long pilgrimage up to Doi Suthep.

Every kilometre or so there were aid stations giving out free water, energy drinks and food, some even had barbecues on the go.

It was another one of those unexpected events that we seem to encounter with what seems like a growing regularity. Travel is great.

It seemed like only yesterday that we met Mike back in Kuala Lumpur, but we have been in Asia for 6 weeks! We have done so much and it has been brilliant from start to finish but it has gone in a flash. Our plan is to return for more of South East Asia for a month next March, maybe to Vietnam and Cambodia. But for now we are continuing ever further South to Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud, or what most people know as New Zealand!

Back On Our Own.

So with Mike on his way back to The UK we headed to Phuket in Thailand. So, why Phuket? Well we did ask ourselves the same question. The island has developed a reputation over the last few years of becoming very Westernised and over commercialised, and this is very much the case in large sections. It is unrecognisable from the island Steve first visited almost 30 years ago. There are, however, still parts of the island which have either resisted the change or been protected from it. You just have to go a little out of your way to find them.

To be honest, if we had wanted quiet beaches and a few beach side restaurants serving basic menus we wouldn’t have gone to Phuket. There are still other places in Thailand that better offer that experience. The big deciding factor was the cycling! We are going to be in New Zealand while a big Ironman Triathlon is taking place. It’s one of the last couple of major races that Steve has not done. So the opportunity to compete was never likely to be passed. Phuket is starting to become a training destination for some top class athletes after a World class sports complex was built in the centre of the island (obviously we weren’t staying there!). With the combination of hills, smooth roads, and of course hot weather, it made for a good choice.

Having some previous knowledge of the layout of the island, we decided to base ourselves in an apartment at the North end of BangTao beach. We had stayed here before about 15 years ago and for us it is in a great location. Any further South and you start to get swallowed by the vast tourism machine that has been created. I’m sure one day it will consume the whole of the island but for now parts do survive. Also, the last time we stayed here Sarah accidentally left 72 Singapore dollars in a bed side cabinet and Steve was hoping it might still be there!

A nice view from the balcony.

Our apartment was beautiful and really brought home how, compared to many parts of The World and with a little searching around, you can still get great value for money in South East Asia. We won’t say how much it was but it was cheaper than a 2km taxi ride in Oslo!

We were perched on the edge of a golf course, five minutes walk from a glorious golden sandy beach, and a small town nearby offered everything we needed. It was perfect. We even watched a group of workers cutting back the palm trees right in front of our balcony. They would skillfully climb up the tree trunk and hang on with their knees as they cut down the leaves and coconuts. Sarah being Sarah managed to go down and talk to them and get a coconut. Steve being Steve managed to get one of them to throw a coconut to him on the balcony!

Steve in action catching a coconut.

We spent a couple of days settling in. A few hours on the balcony, off to the beach, a walk into town for coffee and provisions and finishing off with a swim in the lovely pool. We started to remember why we had made quite a few trips to South East Asia in the past.

Steve did a few miles out on his bike to find the best routes and then Sarah rented a moped so she could come along. We had a brilliant time exploring the entire Island. We even made an early start one morning and rode the 20 miles or so down the West Coast to see the non stop bars, massage parlours, clubs, Burger Kings, KFC’s etc, etc, before it all woke up and sprang into life.

We made a trip off the Island and across the bridge onto the mainland and up to Phang Nga Bay. This place is visually spectacular with dozens of small, tree covered hilly islands, scattered across the vast blue bay. It was made famous as one of the locations for the filming of the James Bond film, ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’.

Sarah looking out over Phang Nga Bay

We toured the Northern interior of Phuket which is so different from the tourist strip that most people see. With lots of small villages on quiet roads through wooded areas which provided much needed shade.

Sarah pushes Steve on up a hill.

We also made the trip to the Big Buddah, a 20 year project which is almost at its completion. Constructed of blocks of white marble from Myanmar, the Buddah stands 45 metres tall at the summit of a steep mountain.

Dark clouds circle Big Buddah

Our trip there wasn’t entirely successful. It was a cloudy day when we set off and even more humid than normal. We had been riding the bike and moped for three hours before reaching the bottom of the Big Buddah road. Steve wasn’t expecting the steepness of the climb which, in several places, was over a 20% gradient. He struggled to the top, hungry, thirsty and exhausted. Then the clouds burst and it started to rain. Boy did it rain. Sarah braved a few photos before we crept back down the steep road, very slowly, as it turned into a stream. We hit the main highway and decided to follow it home as it was the quickest way back. The rain hammered down, the traffic didn’t slow down, and we sped along with the rest of the mayhem. Sarah was getting cold, being drenched and just sitting on the moped. Steve was getting hot as he peddled furiously to keep up.

Here comes the rain!

Eventually we got back to the apartment and dried off. “It’s all experiences”, said Steve. “You will not forget your day out to The Big Buddah in a hurry”.

The next day the sun was out again and we both had a day out together on the moped. Obviously Sarah was driving as we still have the scars from the last time Steve was driving and Sarah was on the back. But that’s another story and a painful one!

Sarah in the driving seat this time!

We made our way up to Nai Thon beach. This is one of our favourite beaches on the island. Set between two steep headlands, it is a wide, golden beach backed by tall trees and a small strip of shops, bars and accommodations.

The beach at Nai Thon.

We have never seen it crowded and it’s a great place to watch the World go by and do some people watching.

The final place of note that we visited in Phuket was Surinat National Park. This is pretty close to the airport, which might put some people off going, but there is much much less noise from the occasional plane than from the bars, clubs and everything else down in Patong.

Sirinat National Park is great.

The beach here is amazing and it is what Phuket used to be like. It is around 2km long and when we were there we saw less than 30 people. There are three or bars at one end serving food and amazing smoothies. It’s definitely the place to come to escape for a day or even a week.

The smoothies are delicious.

So the time had come to leave or comfortable apartment and move on. Phuket had been super easy and we were almost regretting that we had made plans to head North. With the exception of Big Buddah in the rain everything had been perfect. We were even able to laugh about that now.

But we packed up, made our way to the airport and jumped on a plane to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. “I’m a bit disappointed the Singapore dollars weren’t still there” said Steve as the plane left the runway and a new adventure beckoned.

“Hey Sarah. I’m thinking of changing my hair style. What do think?”

The Three Amigos.

So off we go again. This time we have a six month trip planned to visit parts of South East Asia then on to New Zealand before another spell in South East Asia on the way back.

We are no strangers to this part of the World, having spent our honeymoon in New Zealand 21 years ago, and over the years we have spent quite a bit of time in S.E.A.

Initially, we are doing things a little more settled than normal with no rushing around from place to place. Instead, we are going to a couple of familiar places and staying a couple of weeks in each. We are doing it that way for a specific reason, but more on that later.

Firstly, we are having a holiday for a couple of weeks doing normal things that people do on holiday including staying in hotels, sightseeing, eating out, maybe even having a few beers!! What is the reason for this deviation in routine? Well we are having a visitor. Steve’s son, Mike, is coming out to meet us for a couple of weeks.

Mike has never been to this part of The World so we wanted to show him a bit of variety. Our options were a little limited due to the time of year as October is a transition month in S.E.A. and you can get very wet if you end up in the wrong place. We decided on Indonesia as we thought that would give the best chance of better weather and a few different places to visit.

We met up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and spent a couple of days in the city doing the bigger tourist attractions. The very impressive Petronas Towers were first on the list. From the Towers you get a great view of the city from the 86th floor. Steve and Mike tried to tough out their small bought of vertigo, but jelly legs were certainly on show!

It’s a long way to the top.

A visit to Baku Caves on the outskirts of the city was next on the list. This is a temple complex built into a cave system. It’s quite impressive and to be honest if there was no temple there, the caves themselves would be worthy of the trip.

The colourful entrance to Baku Caves.

The long colourful staircase up to the entrance is dotted with Monkeys which inevitably have become very used to (and totally unafraid of) the human visitors. Beware anyone who brings along a snack in their backpack. We saw several attempts to steal the snacks by the monkeys and if that meant stealing the backpack as well then so be it!

Who’s backpack shall I have next?

Our evenings were spent exploring the street food in the city and we found some great places and stalls. But we all agreed that deep-fried frog was a step to far!!

One of the many street food stalls in downtown KL.

Next stop on the itinerary was Bali. We had been to Bali over 20 years ago and had a lovely time there but it was busy even then with junctions filling up with Macdonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut and we presumed it was going to be even busier and more westernised now. So when we had heard stories confirming our fears we decided to make our stop, not in Kuta or any of the other beach resorts but, in the Mountain town of Ubud.

Ubud was once the destination of those seeking relaxation, yoga and all things spiritual. Those are all still available but the village of 20 years ago is no more as it has grown into a decent sized town. It still has a really laid back atmosphere with plenty of places to eat, drink and shop either in new air conditioned premises or out in the markets that dot the town.

Exploring Ubud.

One of the main reasons we chose Ubud was for the White Water Rafting, which Mike had never done before. Ubud has close access to three rivers, so early one morning Steve and Mike were picked up from the beautiful guesthouse in the centre of town and off they went. Sarah decided to opt out of this one, having done it a couple of times before. She felt that box had well and truly been ticked.

We had a brilliant time. We were very lucky that the other two people in the raft were a couple of American rafting guides! “Looks like an easy day for us then”, said Steve as they all set off down the class III and IV rapids and that is how it turned out. It was probably the easiest rafting Steve had done with all the fun, but with less than half the effort. We had some great drops as we made our way down the narrow gorge with the jungle high above us on both sides. It was a really great setting. Yes, we got wet many times but it was refreshing and that’s what it’s all about.

Mike with his new American buddy.

We stopped off half way to jump into the river from some rocks and have a chat. Then it was back in the raft for the last leg. To be honest, I don’t know which was best, the rafting or the thick jungle scenery, but added together they made a great morning out.

One of the drops along the route.

With only two weeks to fit in as much as possible, ‘rest’ had not featured much in the planning. So after the rafting and a bite to eat we all headed off to the Monkey Forest. This is an old Balinese Temple that has become the home to about a thousand monkeys. It has become a significant tourist attraction and for a nominal fee you get to walk around the Temple grounds and get harrassed by the monkeys. These monkeys are well and truly used to tourists wandering around and have advanced well beyond being prevented access to a bag by simply keeping it closed. If they can’t open the bag, they will try and rip a hole in it to gain entry and they have sharp teeth and nails. If that fails they are not averse to a game of tug of war to gain their prize. If you think leaving a bag behind and keeping your valuables in your well-secured pockets will help, then think again. They are quite happy to bite into your pockets for whatever might be inside. Mobile phones seemed popular. “Maybe they have an Amazon account and need something delivering”, thought Steve.

“Lend us your phone mate”

We did spend some time by the pool at our guesthouse and had a very scenic if hot and humid walk through the rice fields. Oh, and we all managed to squeeze in a totally excellent Balinese massage which left us rejuvenated and ready for the next stop on the mini tour.

The rice fields in Ubud.

An early morning start and an hour in a minibus brought us to the port town of Padang Bai from where we had tickets for the two hour ferry ride to the island of Lombok, which is about the same size as Bali but much, much less developed.

On the way we dropped some of the passengers off at The Gili Islands, a short distance from the Lombok Coast. Visually these three islands are reminiscent of The Maldives and we had thought long and hard about whether to stop here or not. With more time it would have been a certainty and maybe in the future we will return here. But for now we stayed on the boat and made our way to the South of Lombok to the beach at Selong Belanak.

On the ferry to Lombok.

We had a fabulous four days at Selong Belanak. Although it is only 30 minutes from the main Southern Town of Kuta (not the Bali Kuta) it has a quite remote feeling. We had beautiful accommodation with only a five minute walk to the beach where Mike decided to try his hand at surfing. He was an instant success. On his first attempt he was up and riding the wave into the beach. Steve was so jealous as he has tried several times, in different countries, with little success. We met an Australian sheepdog once in California which was by far a better surfer than Steve.

His very first time on a board!

We also took a long-tail boat ride along the coast where our Captain was 80 years old and still very much doing the business aswell as chilling by the lovely pool at our accommodation.

Riding along the coast.

In the evenings headed out to eat but with only a very, very limited number of places about our choice was minimal but they were all good. Our favourite was a small ‘warung’ (these are places set up from someone’s house with only four or five tables offering a limited menu, similar to ‘Sodas’ in Costa Rica). The food at this particular warung was excellent and we ate there twice. On both occasions the bill for all three of us, with drinks, was less than £7 total. This made Steve even happier!

Sarah working hard at relaxing!

Mike had another afternoon on a surf board and Steve couldn’t resist joining him. “Maybe it’s easier here”, he said. To be fair he had more success than on previous occasions but he still couldn’t come up to Mike’s standard.

After the quiet location of Selong Belanak we moved the 30 minutes along the coast to Kuta. This is a nice size town with plenty of restaurants, bars and things to keep us busy for a few days, without being chaotic. Our first day there happened to coincide with Mike’s birthday. So after an afternoon walk on the beach we spruced ourselves up, put on our glad rags and hit the town.

“Oh no. This isn’t a good start “

There is a significant difference between Steve and Mike’s ability on a surf board but this pails into insignificance compared to the difference in their drinking abilities. 5 minutes after leaving our hotel we were in a bar with a table full of cocktails and beer. Then it was onto the next bar for margaritas and Mexican food and then onto another bar for more of everything.

By 10.30 it was obvious that we were fading fast and Mike was just warming up. Lucky for us 11 girls on a tour of Indonesia came to our rescue and abducted Mike. That’s something that doesn’t happen ever day. We headed back to our hotel and Mike headed who knows where. We did receive a video of him doing shots of tequila and then all communications were lost.

We were glad we had left by this point.

He apparently returned to the hotel at 5.30 am, after exhausting all the bars in town and ending up at the hotel where the girls were staying, The owner there was apparently happy to continue serving them (I bet he was!) as they passed the time jumping in the pool. He walked back to the hotel barefoot along the main street accompanied by the stray dogs as the sun started to come up and fell into bed. We didn’t see him again until approaching midday and the finer details of the evenings entertainment proved difficult to extract. Steve was just happy he got back OK and the girls were continuing on their tour that day. Otherwise it could have been the last we saw of Mike until his flight home!

We spent the rest of that day recovering by the pool at our totally magnificent hotel. We don’t normally stay in top quality places but this place was truly outstanding in every way. For quality and value for money it was definitely the best place we have ever stayed. We couldn’t belive it cost less than some campsites in Europe and The USA.

Still working hard at it!

On our last couple of days in Lombok we decided to hire mopeds and take in some of the surrounding beaches. What a fantastic time we had mixing with the locals, chilling on beach chairs with a cold drink and cooling off in the sea.

Life is good!

Our best experience was out to Maui beach, which had been recommended by a few locals. “It’s not easy to get to, but worth it” was the general message we got. “Not easy to get to”? Has to be the understatement of the year! The tarmac road turned to concrete, the concrete turned to rocks, the rocks became hard soil and the hard soil became mud.

On the way to the beach.

We spoke to a few others along the way who had decided to turn back, but we pressed on. Bouncing our little mopeds over the rocks, avoiding the huge potholes, sliding through the mud. We all got stuck at one point or another, but we helped each other out as we laughed all the way to the beach, and it was certainly worth the effort.

Well worth the effort.

Although we look back now on how much we did, Mike’s time with us was over far too quickly. We all could have easily kept going. But after one more day in Kuala Lumpur, where, just to please Steve, we visited The Upside Down House, it was time to catch our flights. Mike back to The UK and us to Thailand. Let’s see what happens there!

Indonesia was great!!

Where have we been?

It seems ridiculous that we haven’t posted on this website for almost four months! So where have we been? And what have we been doing?

Well, as far as travel goes, we last posted in Finland and since then we have been to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, The UK, Malaysia, Indonesia and our current location in Thailand, which is our 23rd country this year.

So why no updates? Well it’s a combination of a few factors. Firstly, blog exhaustion. It takes time to create and publish a post and we want to do them properly so I suppose we ran out of steam. We read a lot of travel blogs ourselves to get ideas and inspiration. The Internet is littered with travel bloggers posting about, ‘The best 27 things to do in Guatemala’ or ‘How to get the train from Singapore to Bangkok’. Every one is 90% the same. The same things to do and the same train to catch.

This is gold dust and invaluable information when putting together the framework for a trip, but we have always tried to put a personal and, if possible, slightly comedic angle to our posts. Yes, it’s great to know where the local supermarket is in a Mexican town, but the pain and frustration of trying to buy something in there is often omitted! “Hey, I know you have been waiting to pay for 20 minutes, but I’m talking to my amigo, then I’m going to have a cigarette and anyway, I just don’t care!”

So keeping the blog interesting was starting to become a chore rather than a pleasure and we didn’t want that to happen.

Secondly, as they say in South East Asia, we thought it might be sounding a little “Same, same but different”, and we certainly don’t want to have a dull blog!

Another hike, another bike ride, another beach, another photo of a city scape etc etc. To us it’s amazing, we see new places all the time, we meet new and interesting people from all over The World with their different views, opinions and priorities. We encounter different weather, different smells, different languages, different procedures for so many things. It’s often hard to articulate it in a few words or display it in a few photos. A climb up a mountain in Norway and a climb up a mountain in Chile can appear similar but in reality are much, much different.

So Steve in particular decided to have a break from the blog. We started running another travel app a few years ago which Sarah keeps regularly updated. It’s called Polarsteps, which tracks us through GPS and we upload photos to that. It is a sort of travellers instagram.

But now WE ARE BACK ON IT!

So, firstly here is a quick summary of the last four months.

FINLAND: “The Best 27 Things To Do!”…. I’m only joking!

After watching the wild bears we continued North to the city of Rovaniemi on the edge of The Arctic Circle and home to Santa Clause Village. Yes, it was over 30 degrees centigrade, Yes, Santa was home and Yes, we went to visit him.

On the way to see Santa

We also spent a few days sunbathing and swimming in the river in ridiculously hot weather. “Is this really The Arctic”, we asked ourselves.

Steve at the Arctic Circle

Finland had been a real surprise. One of our favourite countries so far. The weather helped, but it was beautiful, clean and fresh, and it had bears and Santa. What’s not to like?

Sarah never thought this would happen in the Arctic.

SWEDEN: After an amazing couple of weeks in Finland we drove further North into the Arctic Circle and back into Sweden. We had enjoyed our time in the South of the country, especially Stockholm which was awesome. The North, however, was slightly different. It was wonderful to view the scenery from inside the car. But get out at your own risk! It was summer and we were in mosquito country. Zillions of them, everywhere. Every outside movement had to have an anti mosquito strategy.

A mosquito free sanctuary.

Camping was impossible, so we reverted to small huts in an attempt to stave them off. We must have looked comical dashing out of the door towards the car and throwing ourselves in with nets on our heads. Then driving to the petrol station. “It’s your turn to refuel”. “No, I think it’s yours”. “OK, I’ll give you a thousand pounds to refuel for me.”

“No way am I getting out”

NORWAY: Needless to say we didn’t last long in Northern Sweden and headed for the Norwegian Coast with the promise of beautiful scenery and much fewer mozzies.

We headed for The Lofoten Islands and spent four days camping there. When it comes to the landscape it’s like nowhere else we have been to.

Right up there with the best …. the view isn’t bad either!
The Lofoten Islands are spectacular with no rain.
But with the rain? Well, what can we say!

You do, however, need the weather and I suppose we were lucky to get two out of the four days with almost clear skies. We were able to do a couple of the good climbs which were very much on the difficult side. We both like our hiking and we would say the climbs here are more difficult than most we have done. Not especially long but steep and rocky. There are a couple of well known ones where the Nepalese Sherpas have been brought in to place long concrete staircases, but where is the fun in that? It does, however, open up some superb views to people with less mobility.

We also camped on the beach in Lofoten and experienced the midnight sun for our entire time there. It was great to watch the surfers at midnight in broad daylight. Weird!

Time for bed in the midnight sun.

We made our way down the length of Norway back across the Arctic Circle. This time at a higher altitude, 25 degrees colder and we had a short snowball fight.

Snow at last.

We eventually stopped in Oslo and camped on the edge of the city. We loved Oslo, compact and friendly with plenty to do in a great setting.

Oslo is a cool but expensive place to spend a few days.

If you do come to Oslo though, bring a little more cash than normal. Wait a minute, no, bring a lot more cash than normal. Even the Scandinavians complain about how expensive it is!

After Oslo our plans changed dramatically.

We had planned to spend a couple of weeks walking and cycling in the Norwegian Fjords and then a week travelling back to The UK through Denmark and Germany. However, the weather took a serious turn for the worst with a long term forecast of single digit temperatures accompanied by rain and even snow (we were sunbathing in the Arctic two weeks ago). So we decided to head back to The UK, spend a few weeks there and head over to somewhere in Europe after that.

It turned out to be a good call with us swapping the rain and snow in Norway for record breaking temperatures in Yorkshire!

It was Steve’s parent’s Diamond Wedding Anniversary in the middle of August and we had planned to go on a cruise together to celebrate ….. ironically, back to Scandinavia. Luckily the weather had improved and we had a totally amazing time. We have not all laughed together so much in years. Sarah being Sarah had organised a multitude of things but the highlight was a congratulations card from The Queen which brought a tear to everyone’s eye. We look back now at the significance of it with the death of The Queen happening just a couple of weeks later.

A really great week.

The last couple of months had all seemed a little fragmented with things not going to plan, which no doubt contributed to a loss of motivation to update this blog.

We needed to take stock, reorganise and get a plan together. We were also becoming more and more aware that pretty soon we will need a couple of months of stability, to allow us to fully recharge. We weren’t there yet but we knew we needed to plan it in.

So we packed our camping equipment once again and headed to France. We find France easy, Steve can speak a little bit of the language, the country is set up for camping and on the whole they love cyclists.

Cycling high above the clouds in France.
Lac d’Aiguebelette. A great location to hatch a plan!

We pitched our tent by the beautiful Lac d’Aiguebelette and formulated a plan. Not one of those plans that looks great on paper but in reality is a logistical jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. We have had some of those for sure. “Let’s cycle from Canada to Mexico”, “Let’s travel from Australia to The UK without flying”, ” Let’s drive to the Arctic Circle and back”, “Let’s backpack on public transport around Central America”. All of these I can confidently say are much, much easier said than done. What looks great on paper changes infinitely when you throw a large dose of reality into the equation.

So this is the plan we have formulated for the next six months.

We are heading to South East Asia in early October for six weeks. We are keeping it simple. Steve’s son, Mike, is joining us for the first couple of weeks in Malaysia and Indonesia. Then we are heading to Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand for a couple of weeks in each location. The locations have been specifically chosen by Steve as they are good areas for him to train towards racing at Ironman New Zealand in early 2023.

At the end of November we will head to New Zealand where we have secured six weeks of house and dog sitting in two locations. Then we are in a campervan for two months on a New Zealand road trip. Then it is back to South East Asia for a month (probably Vietnam, Cambodia and Borneo) before returning back to The UK for Easter.

As far as long trips go, in our world, it’s one that is pretty easy to plan and execute. But I’m sure by next summer we will be definitely looking for that couple of months of down time, probably eating tapas in Andalucia or fresh croissants in Provence! We can taste them now!

Edvard Munch and ‘The Scream’

If you go down to the woods today….

After our detour to Estonia, we jumped back on a ferry across the Baltic Sea to Finland. We had been visiting cities for the last couple of weeks and now we wanted to escape the crowds for a while so we charted a course North with our destination being Rovaniemi, a town on the edge of The Arctic Circle. Instead of heading straight there though, we decided on more of a zig-zag route to take in a few more locations.

We headed out of Helsinki into the Finnish Lakeland area. Lakeland is about 200 miles in length and a similar distance wide. There are an astonishing number of lakes here, the amount depends on what definition of a lake you use. There are 55,000 greater than a hectare in size and over 188,000 if you include the smaller ones. Either way, it’s more than enough to keep us busy for a week or so.

“How many lakes have we counted so far?”

The first thing we did was seek out Route 62. Regarded by many as the most scenic road in Lakeland, it twists and turns as it makes its way through pine forests and between lakes. Often the road disects one of the lakes with the tarmac only a couple of feet above the waterline.

It was a great driving route.

We drove the first half and then found a small cabin on a campsite close to a lake and stopped for the evening.

A cabin in the woods tonight please!

The following day we finished off Route 62 and both agreed it was incredibly scenic but, as we were to find out, the whole area is almost as good. We then headed for the town of Savonlinna, one of the major attractions in Lakeland. Our route took us further East and as we followed our progress on GPS we noticed we were inching closer and closer to the Russian Border. Finland shares a border of over 800 miles with Russia, the vast majority of it being unpatrolled forest and forest track. At one point we had to take a swift about turn when our GPS showed us to be right on, or maybe just a little bit over, the border!!

Maybe we should get out of here….quickly.

Our wandering along the border put us in the location of one of many quirky sites that Finland has to offer. Often in the middle of nowhere, and with little our no advertising, are strange pieces and collections of ‘art’. This one, near the Russian Border, was a collection of over 250 life-size figures most of which are in yoga positions.

“I think I will give this lesson a miss.

The figures have an almost menacing look about them which makes you feel they would be quite at home in some zombie horror movie. Just to make it even more strange the artist has left them to be covered over time by the forest, so most of them are starting to be covered by moss and tree roots.

After leaving the Russian Border and the army of ‘moss covered zombie yoga statues’ behind, it took us a few miles to clear our heads and before long we were pulling into the beautiful town of Savonlinna.

Savonlinna was really pretty.

The sun was out, the sky was completely clear, and it was lovely and warm. Not really what we had expected of Finland. Little did we know what was to come.

Savonlinna is home to the most Northerly intact Medieval Castle. It is perched on its own island in the centre of town and is a majestic sight. The town also has a beautiful waterfront promenade and a small beach, which was very popular with the locals trying to cool down in the heat.

We both could have spent a little longer here.

Next on our tour of The Lakelands was Kuopio. It was a beautiful scenic drive from Savonlinna, and although Route 62 had been exceptionally scenic, the three hour drive up to Kuopio was comparable. There were endless lakes connected by bridges which gave you a bird’s-eye view, and roads which skimmed the water and gave you a duck’s-eye view! Whenever the road dragged you away from the water it was lined with purple and pink lupins and a covering of buttercups thrown in for good measure. All the time the backdrop was thick green pine forest and overhead the sun shone down from a clear blue sky.

It’s turning into a great Road Trip.

We have done road trips in many many countries and this one was right up with the best.

Kuopio is the largest town in the area and is set in the heart of the lakes. We were there during Midsummer Holiday Weekend, which is a big thing in this part of the World, so we booked ourselves onto a campsite on the edge of town for three days and settled down to enjoy the hot weather.

The campsite was on the edge of a lake. But I suppose with 188,000 of them, everything is on the edge of a lake. It had a large grassed area with a small beach and it was mobbed. The thermometer was pushing 30 degrees and it was mobbed. It looked like a mini Bournemouth Beach on a hot Bank Holiday. We pitched ourselves up in the middle of it all and soaked up the atmosphere.

At this time of year Kuopio only gets a couple of hours of darkness. So with the heat staying in the sunshine and the holiday feeling in plentiful supply the beach area was still busy until after we left at 10.30!

10.30pm and time for bed!

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Kuopio but we had to leave as we had an appointment elsewhere in Finland that we just did not want to miss.

Our route to Rovaniemi and the Arctic Circle was North West from Kuopio but Steve had found something we really wanted to do which meant heading North East instead and back towards the Russian Border. While doing some research he had come across a Wilderness Centre that apparently organised bear watching trips. This was something we had to investigate.

On our way we passed another of those ‘out in the middle of nowhere’ Finnish art collections. Strange, quirky, weird? Call them what you want but you can’t help but look.

This particular one was a field with 1000 figures made from a pair of crossed sticks, dressed in old clothes, and given a piece of turf for a head! We wandered about in the field trying to make some sort of sense of it all, but failed. We did get a few photos though!

Weird?

A couple of hours further down the road we were still discussing the ‘stick people field’ when the asphalt ran out and we found ourselves on a dirt road. On and on it went and we had to be really on the lookout as reindeer were regular pedestrians here and didn’t like to get out of the road very quickly.

“Can we just squeeze past please?

After 45 minutes on the dirt road we finally arrived at the Wilderness Centre. We quickly pitched our tent and realised we were the only ones camping. We had some food and at 5pm we set off on our bear watching trip with six others and Marco, our Finnish guide.

Marco drove us deeper into the forest until the dirt road ran out. Then we continued on foot until we reached the ‘hide’, which was pretty much the same principle as a bird watching hide.

There’s always one!

Steve checked his GPS and once again found we were only a couple of hundred metres from the Russian border.

We entered the ‘hide’, took our seats and started our wait. We had been briefed by Marco with regards to staying as quite as possible. Essentially, only breath if you have to!

Sarah had brought along some snacks, which we had been advised to do, as we could be there for several hours. However, maybe a bag of pretzels wasn’t the best choice. You could have heard the bag opening in Moscow. Six heads snapped to the right, in Sarah’s direction. If looks could kill!!

After an hour of waiting we had seen ….. zero bears. Steve dozed off and the clock ticked on. After two hours we had seen …… zero bears. Steve dozed off again and the clock ticked on. After three hours we had seen ……… so many bears we had lost count!

About two and a half hours into our wait, something could be seen moving in the trees near the start of a clearing. Out into our view wandered a big brown bear. He looked massive to us but was apparently only a four year old juvenile. He stopped, had a sniff around, looked over his shoulder, and two more bears came out of the trees and joined him.

He is a biggie!

It was amazing to see them so close up. You could hear them breathing and munching away as they wandered around looking for food. We were mesmerised as they hung around for about five minutes and then disappeared back into the Forest. Only a couple of minutes later a huge female appeared preceeding two cubs which were only six months old. They were so active, running around, fighting each other, standing up on their back legs and climbing up trees.

Does it get any more cute?

For the next couple of hours it was a procession of bears, females, juveniles and cubs. There were no big males, apparently they do a lot of sleeping now the mating season is over. But we saw well over 20 different bears, come and go throughout the evenin. Marco said was quite unusual as the most he has ever seen is 21 and the least was five, so I suppose we were quite lucky. We both agreed that it was one of the best wildlife experiences we had ever had.

They were so close.

The time flew by and it was 10.30pm before we knew it and time to leave. It was then that it dawned on us as to why we were the only campers at the centre! We were staying in a tent only a few kilometres from a big old family of bears. “Don’t worry”, said Marco, “You will be fine, they only ever come close to the centre in The Spring”. “Let’s hope these bears are pretty good with their knowledge of the seasons”, said Steve as we zipped into our sleeping bags!

“I wonder why we are the only ones camping?”

The next morning we emerged unscathed, packed up our gear, and headed back out onto the dirt track. “Where to now”, said Steve. “I know”, said Sarah, “Let’s go and see Santa Claus!”

OK. Just one more bear photo!

A Tale of Two Cities.

Not the Paris and London William Shakespeare wrote about, but our version features Helsinki and Tallinn.

Whatever was going to follow Stockholm was going to find it a hard act to follow, and to be honest Helsinki struggled. That’s not saying Helsinki is a bad place, far from it. It has a lot to offer and we spent three days seeing most of what the city had to offer at a much slower pace than normal.

Once again we managed to find a campsite with easy access to the City Centre. The site itself was one of the best we have been on during this trip, with plenty of space and loads of facilities including the obligatory Finnish sauna and access to a small beach.

Plenty of space at this site.

Two minutes walk from the site was a Metro stop and in 15 minutes we were in the centre of the city. Straight away we started to notice differences between Finland and Sweden. We had thought they would be very similar considering Finland was part of Sweden for hundreds of years but in many ways they are poles apart.

The first thing that is noticeable is, unlike The Swedes, The Fins aren’t big talkers, whether that is to strangers, neighbours, family, anyone in fact. They are on the whole uncomfortable with eye contact and conversation.

Heavy Metal music is huge here. They have the most bands per head of population than anywhere in The World and this is reflected in their dress which can be quite dark and almost grunge like. Then there is their hair. Not a subject Steve can be really called an expert on, but if he had any it certainly wouldn’t be dyed every colour of the rainbow, which is a very common look around Helsinki.

Helsinki is a relatively new city. Turku, close to Sweden, was the capital until The Russians took over in the early 19th Century and they moved the capital closer to St Petersburg and built Helsinki which was a small fishing village at the time. This is reflected in the architecture, with most of the buildings looking very similar to one another. In fact, some are actually identical. They are, however, painted in more pastel colours which does brighten things up.

The beautiful Helsinki train station?

We joined another free walking tour. Which was good for getting our bearings and identifying a couple of places to revist. It also took us to the Helsinki version of Changing of the Guard. This actually could not have been on any smaller scale. It was a straight one for one swap, literally a changing of “THE” guard!

Ummmmm!

Probably the most impressive two buildings in The City are the two Cathedrals. One is Lutheran and the other Russian Orthodox.

The white imposing Lutheran Cathedral dominates the city. It is set in the centre of town, at the head of a large open stone square and definitely looks the part from the outside. The inside, however, is a completely different story.

Beautiful……on the outside at least.

There is apparently a joke in Helsinki which says they spent so much money building the Cathedral there was nothing left to decorate the inside. Lutheran churches are always plainly decorated and the Helsinki Cathedral epitomises this. Five minutes inside and you have seen it all ….. twice!

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral down by the docks is very different in design, very dark and ornate. Although the inside has more to see than its Lutheran counterpart, you can only access a small part of the building and we were, in truth, left a little underwhelmed. It’s hard not to compare them against the magnificent churches of Spain, Italy and France.

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

Luckily our weather in Helsinki was beautiful and ideal for strolling around the city, people watching and trying to spot a couple having a conversation!

“Someone talk to me…….please”

On our other full day, we made the 15 minute ferry ride to the island fortress of Suomenlinna. Wherever you look this is always number one on places to visit in The City.

Walking around Suomenlinna.

Eight hundred people live on the island and they were getting close to a million visitors a year pre-Covid. It has a long and turbulent history and was a nice enough place to stroll around for a few hours in the sun playing with the cannons. It also had an old, small submarine exhibit and Steve relived some of his dim and distant past.

Steve wanders down memory lane.

After Helsinki we had a few days in hand. We had finished the cycle leg of this trip considerably earlier than we had expected and we were paying for it a little as we were both pretty tired. So we decided to go somewhere for a rest and a break from camping. We had never been to Estonia before so we boarded a ferry for the two and a half hour crossing across The Baltic Sea, booked a swanky apartment, and headed off to Tallinn for five days.

Off to Tallinn.

One thing we can say about travel is that very rarely places are as you imagine them to be. Before visiting a country you build up an image about it, driven by what you have seen, read and been told. Sometimes the image is close and sometimes it is way off the mark. Tallinn was more of the latter.

We knew there would be an Old Town and that lots of cruise ships visit but other than that we knew very little. It was an old Soviet State so maybe it was struggling to throw off that part of its past.

We loved it. One of the first things that struck us was how clean it was. Oh, and people talk to one another. The Old Town was much bigger than we expected and we spent a few afternoons wandering and exploring.

Tallinn was a pleasure to wander around.

One thing we didn’t realise was how technologically advanced Estonia is. Apparently, there are more ‘Start Up’ companies per head of population than anywhere in The World. Two in particular caught our eye, driverless buses and small robotic boxes on wheels moving around the town. At first we couldn’t work them out but after a bit of digging they turned out to be delivery robots!

“OK, I give in, what are you?”

We did another free walking tour where we learned quite a lot about Estonia and its history of invasions and the various Nations who have ruled it, until it gained independence only 31 years ago.

We spent a few days wandering around the Old Town and along the very modern looking seafront promenade which is still being developed with ultra modern apartment blocks and the beautiful city gardens.

In the evenings we relaxed in our amazing apartment in an old converted warehouse, which was possibly the best accommodation we have had this year. It even had a sauna in the bathroom. Unfortunately the weather was so good it was too hot to use for its designed purpose but Sarah did find a great use for it!

Eight loads of washing have to be dried somewhere!

On the whole we took time out, relaxed and recharged our batteries after a hectic and heavily camping loaded six weeks, and prepared for the next six weeks which is very likely to be hectic and heavily camping loaded!

So our Tale of Two Cities didn’t have any unusual incidents or funny stories. It was just sightseeing and relaxing. However, we have been saving one incident for just such an occasion (actually we forgot to include it at the time!).

We need to go back to when we were at Amsterdam airport in May. We had checked in our luggage and our bikes for the flight to Milan and were making our way to the gate. Normally we walk but on this occasion we decided to use the travelators to save our legs for the upcoming bike ride. As we travelled along, enjoying our free ride, we were admiring a series of huge aerial photographs of various locations throughout The Netherlands. We had spotted a bridge connecting a series of islands which we had driven over in the last year. How were we to know the travelator was coming to an end? Where was the warning? Sarah got there first, side on. She hit the end and then static floor, struggling to keep her balance with her legs and arms everywhere. Will she fall? Won’t she fall? must have been the question on the other passengers lips. She was just gaining her composure when Steve hit the end, grabbed hold of Sarah, and we went into some sort of crazy pirouette dancing move which would surely have achieved a ’10’ on a popular TV dance competition. Remarkably we stayed off the floor and on our feet. We regained our composure before walking on in fits of laughter. I’m sure we brightened up a few of the other passengers days!

“Mine is bigger than yours”