Stewart Island

What, a blog post about a convention that was only two weeks ago?  What is this madness??

So, yes, the Aus/NZ Bookcrossing convention (or unconvention, technically) was the weekend before last, on Stewart Island.  Stewart Island is not the most obvious place for a convention (for the foreigners, it’s that little island at the very bottom of New Zealand, with a population of a few hundred, one tiny town, and pretty much no roads).  But after the success of the Queenstown convention, which was very much run in an uncon style (i.e. minimal organisation, just gather everyone together in one place for a weekend and play it by ear), and proved that Bookcrossing conventions don’t have to be held in cities, CrafteeCod (who was living on Stewart Island at the time) offered to organise the next convention, and the idea was seized on with great enthusiasm.

In the intervening two years, life happened, and CrafteeCod ended up having to move back to the UK, so the organising reins were taken up from a distance by EdwardStreet, who (after an initial unsuccessful attempt to arrange group bookings for various potential activities) pretty much told us what date to arrive, booked us all in for a meal at the (only) hotel, and left us to organise the rest ourselves.  A very sensible approach, and one that worked out incredibly well in the end.

Lytteltonwitch and I left Christchurch on the Thursday morning (with Albert in the back seat, of course) and had a leisurely drive down to Dunedin.  In theory we could have done the whole distance to Bluff in a single day, but it’s a very long way, so it was much nicer to break the journey with a night in Dunedin.  We arrived early enough to be able to visit the Otago Museum – we’d hoped to go to the butterfly house there, but it’s closed for renovations at the moment, so we just explored the rest of the museum.  I haven’t been to the Otago Museum for many many years, and a lot has changed since I used to visit as a child (it was definitely among my most favourite places), but I was thrilled to discover that a few of the galleries are pretty much unchanged.  The cases full of stuffed exotic animals up in the attic, which were always my favourite, have been thinned out a bit (presumably some of the animals got too moth-eaten), but they’ve preserved the Victorian style of the gallery, so it brought back wonderful memories.  Lytteltonwitch was particularly impressed by the model ships on display in another unchanged-since-the-70s gallery on the floor below – I was just pleased to see that the whale skeleton still dominated the centre of the gallery.

Next stop was the supermarket to stock up on snacks – the forecast for Stewart Island wasn’t looking good, so just in case we were stuck in the hostel playing board games all weekend, we wanted to be well prepared.  We of course made sure to get plenty of truly kiwi treats (chocolate fish, Pinkie bars, Buzz bars, Whittaker’s L&P chocolate, pineapple lumps…) for the Australian contingent :-)

We knew MeganH was staying at the same hotel as us, so we’d left a message for her at reception.  We weren’t expecting her to arrive until late, because her plane wasn’t landing in Christchurch until afternoon, and then she had to drive down to Dunedin, so we headed out for dinner.  When we got back, the receptionist told us she’d arrived and gave us her room number, so we headed up to say hello, and spent the rest of the evening catching up.

The next morning we were all up bright and early, and had breakfast together in the hotel’s dining room… accompanied by Albert, of course, much to the amusement of the staff, and of the tour bus full of elderly people who were also having breakfast (though I think we may have knocked a few years off the lives of some of them, after they walked into the dining room and saw a skeleton sitting at a table!).  Travelling with a skeleton is definitely a good way of getting strangers to strike up a conversation with you!

We travelled in convoy to Bluff, because MeganH hadn’t been that way before, so didn’t know the road.  Apparently she wasn’t impressed by me telling her there aren’t any really big hills between Dunedin and Invercargill – in my defence, to a New Zealander, those aren’t big hills!  But yeah, to an Australian they might have seemed slightly larger…

The weather had been looking steadily worse all morning, and we could see a very obvious southerly front approaching.  As we reached Invercargill, the front hit us in a massive downpour.  Things were not looking promising for the ferry :-(

At the ferry terminal in Bluff, we immediately spotted a contingent of Bookcrossers:  Skyring, Fiona and her husband.  The ferry crew were just as amused by Albert as the hotel staff had been, and gave permission for him to sit in the cabin instead of being consigned to a cargo bin.  I opted to sit out on deck despite the weather (I’ve been across Foveaux Strait on the ferry before, so I know how rough it can get, and I also know how seasick I can get even on a calm day if I sit inside).  It was certainly an exciting crossing , with the boat being tossed all over the place, and spray being thrown right over the deck.  I even had to sit down for part of the trip.

After the horrible weather on the crossing, we reached Stewart Island and the sun came out.  It very quickly developed into a glorious day, with no sign of the southerly.

As we got off the ferry, we spotted EdwardStreet and KiwiInEngland sitting outside the hotel (which used to hold the distinction of being the southernmost pub in the world, until they opened a bar in Antarctica) enjoying a drink in the sun. We stopped to chat for a while, but knowing how fickle the weather can be on the island, I suggested a walk before the rain returned, in case it was our only opportunity to get out in the bush. Most of the others had booked on a bus tour (I was amused by this idea, as other than a couple of short roads to the next bays over from Halfmoon Bay, there really are no roads on Stewart Island!) so declined, but after dropping off our bags (and Albert) at the hostel, Lytteltonwitch and I set out to walk the track to Horseshoe Bay.

The first section of the walk was along the road (with a slight detour into the cemetery, where Lytteltonwitch was in search of a geocache), but then we turned off onto a walking track. It was a really lovely walk (though it involved some serious hills!), round lots of little hidden bays inaccessible other than on foot or by boat, and the weather stayed amazing. Random photos from the walk:


Cemetery with a view (and someone walking on the beach)


Black oyster catcher


Looking back across Halfmoon Bay to Oban


Onionweed flowers – not very exciting (or native), but they looked pretty in the sunshine


As a child, I used to call the native fuschia trees (kōtukutuku) “paper trees”, because of the thin bark that flakes off them.


Yes, the water really is that clear (way too cold to swim in without a wetsuit though – that’s the Southern Ocean out there: next stop Antarctica!)


Lytteltonwitch released a book on this beach – and (despite it being about an hour’s walk from the road) got a catch before we got back to the hostel!


The entrance to Horseshoe Bay


You can just see the South Island through the haze (that’s Bluff Hill)

Most of the walk was through areas with a lot of fuschia, so we saw hundreds of tui (which feed on the nectar). I decided the tui were teasing me, because every time I pointed my camera at one of them, it would immediately fly away, turn its back, or hide behind a branch. I took many many photos before I finally got a few decent ones. A typical sequence of photos:


Hiding in the darkest part of the tree


After much patience, he finally comes out, and immediately flies to a tree at the limit of my zoom (and then only because I blew the photo way up and cropped it – otherwise he’d just be a tiny speck in the distance)


Now why would you do that just when I’ve finally got close enough to get a better photo?


Success at last (though a bit blurry – see comment above about blowing photo up to prevent speck-sized bird)


See, now he’s definitely just laughing at me!


Finally got one to show off his plume of neck feathers (and the reason early European settlers called them parson birds) properly!


I think this was the closest I got with a camera in my hand (when I wasn’t holding a camera, they got much closer, of course – they were swooping right past our heads!)

We walked back from Horseshoe Bay by the shorter route along the road (and were passed by the “tour bus” full of the other Bookcrossers along the way – the driver must have been confused when all his passengers suddenly started waving out the windows to a couple of random people walking down the side of the road!), but even so Lytteltonwitch’s fitbit was still registering a total of 15 km walked by the time we reached Oban – so not bad for a little walk!

That night we all met up for dinner at the hotel. I opted for blue cod, of course, as I did every night we were there – I had to make the most of it while I was far south enough to get the good stuff (it really has to fresh-caught from the cold southern waters to taste right – I make it a rule to never eat blue cod north of Oamaru). But I didn’t say no when Fiona’s husband offered up the remains of his crayfish for the rest of us to pick over – he’d left all the best bits behind in the legs and claws!

It was Friday the 13th, so Lytteltonwitch had planned a spookily-themed book tree. So after dinner we all trekked up to the top of the hill, to the only suitable tree we’d been able to find (the island is covered in trees, but a book tree requires a certain sparseness (and bareness) of branches, which native trees aren’t good at. The wind was picking up, but we managed to tie all the books to the tree. The planned photo-shoot with Albert wasn’t so successful, though – the wind sent him flying onto the muddy grass before anyone got a decent photo of him leaning against the tree.

One of the activities EdwardStreet had attempted to organise was a guided tour of Ulva Island, a predator-free nearby island. There were several different companies offering tours, at wildly varying prices, but after talking to the staff at the backpackers (who were fantastic about ringing around the different tour companies to get details for us) we decided to go with the most expensive option, as it seemed to offer the best value for money in terms of how much time you’d actually get on the island. At dinner that night we confirmed numbers, and (the backpackers staff having made the booking) arranged to meet up in the morning so we could all walk over to the tour guide’s office to pay. At breakfast though one of the staff told us she’d been rung by the guide asking if we could come and pay earlier than arranged, because she had to go out on another tour. So we quickly gathered together everyone we could find, and I put the fees for the late sleepers we hadn’t managed to get hold of on my credit card (that’s the nice thing about bookcrossers – I knew I could trust everyone to pay me back later!).

That bit of organisation out of the way, Lytteltonwitch and I decided to walk over to Golden Bay, where we were going to be meeting the guide that afternoon, to see how far it was (I’d been there before, and thought I remembered it being only 5 or 10 minutes walk from the hostel, but we thought we’d better check before we told everyone when to meet up). It did turn out to be only 10 minutes, even given the giant hill we had to walk over, and the little harbour there was just as beautiful as I remembered.

Just to show you how changeable the weather is on Stewart Island, only a few minutes after I took that photo, this happened:

Luckily there was a little shelter by the wharf where we could wait out the rain, or it would have been a very damp walk back to the hostel!

We had lunch at a cafe that technically wasn’t a cafe, because they only did takeaway coffees… except you could eat them on the premises. It was a wonderfully Stewart Island way of getting around regulations set by the local council in Invercargill. The owner explained to us that in order to run his business as a cafe, the council’s regulations required him to have toilets. But the little shed he was operating out of didn’t have any, and it would cost a fortune to install them (building anything on the island is incredibly expensive, because all the materials need to be shipped across on the ferry). But if he only offered takeaway coffees and food, then he didn’t need toilets. So he served everything in takeaway containers, and told his customers if they wanted to consume their takeaway purchases inside his shop (and sit at the convenient tables and chairs he just happened to have there), then they were welcome to do so.

After lunch the eight of us going to Ulva Island walked over to Golden Bay to meet the guide, and the boat that was taking us across to the island. Our guide seemed very bossy at first – giving us instructions about how to walk so that we’d make the least possible noise, and telling off anyone who dared speak at the wrong time or rustle a food wrapper. But it quickly became evident that she was doing so because she wanted to give us the best possible chance of seeing all of the rare native birds that the island is known for (many of which have been driven almost to extinction by predators in the rest of NZ). We spent an amazing four hours on the island as she showed us birds that we’d never have seen if we’d just been wandering around on our own, and told us all about them, and the trees, and the ecosystem that supports them. She definitely knew her stuff, and I learnt a huge amount.

I had as little success photographing most of the birds as I had with the tui, but that didn’t really matter, because it was so cool just getting to see them in the wild that taking photographs was very much secondary to the experience. I did get a few cool photos from the day though:


Stewart Island weka. They’re much smaller than their South Island cousins, but just as curious – as you can see, this one walked right up to us on the beach to find out what we were up to.


Keen photographer Skyring and keen birdwatcher MeganH in their element


A yellowhead (mōhua) – best known for appearing on the $100 bill


Robins are easy to photograph – they’re even more inquisitive than weka, and all it took was the guide scratching at the ground to get one flying down to check if any tasty insects had been disturbed.


A tiny native orchid – the first time I’ve ever seen one flowering


And an even better example


Saddlebacks (tīeke – one of the endangered species (super endangered, in this case – at one point there were only 36 of them left) that are thriving on Ulva Island) proved particularly hard to photograph. They specialised in positioning themselves exactly behind closer branches and leaves that my camera would decide to autofocus on instead of the bird (I really must practice being faster at switching my camera from autofocus to manual for situations like this!). There’s two saddlebacks in this photo, somewhere in the blur behind that perfectly sharp leaf…


I finally get a saddleback in focus, and he’s silhouetted against the sky, so you can’t see the distinctive colouring that gives it its name


At least kererū (wood pigeons) stay still for long enough to get a photo, though he was very high in the tree, so my zoom was at its limit


Stopping for a chocolate break…


…where we were joined by another very inquisitive robin, who sat on a branch just above my head, and took a great interest in me as I took his photo (many many photos – now that I finally had a bird up close and sitting relatively still, I made sure to take advantage of it!)


Not the best photo technically, but definitely my favourite :-)


Finally, an elusive saddleback without any branches in front of it (just his head stuck inside a punga as he searched for insects). And then I took a couple of steps to the side and…


A decent photo of a saddleback at last!!!

Back at the jetty, we sheltered from the rain (it had rained off and on all day, but we were under the canopy of the trees most of the time, so it didn’t bother us), and watched the weka who came to investigate while we waited for the boat to come back and take us back across the inlet to the main island.  As the wind had got up quite a bit and the sea was too rough for us to stay out on deck for the trip back, we all crowded into the wheelhouse where Discoverylover kept the skipper entertained by putting on an impromptu version of the “Baby Bounce” programme from her library, complete with a reading from a Dr Seuss book, and an action song (no babies though, which was disappointing – we wanted to know how well they bounced 😉 ).

We all agreed the tour was well worth the money.  If you ever find yourself on Stewart Island, I highly recommend doing a tour with Ruggedy Range – for $135 per person we got a private tour for our group that was tailored to exactly what we wanted to see (we discussed beforehand what our interests were), with an incredibly knowledgeable guide (I think she said she had a degree in ecological science?), and an overall fantastic experience.  There are cheaper options, but from what we could tell, they didn’t offer nearly as much value for money (the ferry company offers a trip to Ulva Island for $70, for example, but it only gave you one hour on the island, and we were told that the guides were just ordinary ferry crew members, with little specialist knowledge).

That night we ate at the island’s only other restaurant (there is a “kai kart” which sells fish and chips, but it was closed for the off season while we were there), a much more upmarket place than the hotel (but it’s still Stewart Island, so it’s definitely not black-tie – no noses were turned up at us bunch of scruffy backpackers :-) ).  They don’t like to book large groups, because their kitchen is quite small, so we had to go in two separate seatings.  But it was actually nice to eat with a small group, where everyone could be part of the conversation, instead of the big long table full of people we’d had the night before.  The food was very impressive – I had a starter of paua ravioli which was amazing (and the paua was actually tender – a very tricky thing to achieve!), and then blue cod (of course :-) but cooked in a different style than the “battered with chips” I’d had at the hotel).  Then, all too full for dessert, but still wanting to try them, and none of us able to make up our minds which dessert to choose, we ended up ordering one of each and sharing them around the table.  I think we spent about three hours at the restaurant (we ended up overlapping with the group that came later, so we did kind of get to have another big group dinner :-) ) just enjoying the food and the company – a really great evening.

The weather got worse, and by Sunday morning it was obvious that it wasn’t going to improve in a hurry.  In fact, it was bad enough that all the ferries and planes back to the mainland were cancelled (luckily Goldenwattle was the only one of our group who had booked to go back that day, and she was able to change her travel arrangements reasonably easily).  So we spent most of the day sitting in the lounge at the backpackers putting together a jigsaw of a Paris street scene (to get us in the mood for next year’s world convention), eating the lollies Lytteltonwitch and I had provided, and generally relaxing.  At most conventions I would have been frustrated by the enforced idleness, but it had been such a casual, laid-back weekend that I actually enjoyed it – it was nice to all just enjoy each other’s company with nothing in particular we had to rush off and do.

The main reason we’d all opted to stay until Monday was so we could attend the famous quiz night at the hotel (which came to the world’s attention when Prince Harry took part when he visited the island a couple of years ago).   The pub was crowded with all the people who had been stuck on the island by the weather, but we managed to squeeze ourselves in round a couple of tables, and formed two quiz teams.  It was a great quiz, with the questions actually written by the two young guys who were running it, rather than being one of those horrible commercial quizzes that so many pubs use these days. It was all very light-hearted, with spot prizes awarded to people who could tell good jokes, or do a convincing Russian accent. And a lot of laughter when one of the quiz-masters inadvertently gave away the answer to one of the questions :-) Of course, our two tables were fiercely competitive (against each other, at least – we didn’t particularly care how we came in relation to the rest of the pub!), but I’m sad to say the other table won the day – they came second equal, whereas our table only got fifth place.  It was all a lot of fun, and a great way to end the convention.

The next morning the weather had cleared enough for the ferry to be running (although it was still pretty rough – 30-40 knot winds, and 4 metres of swell), so we all boarded our respective ferries or planes and left the island.  The crossing was another exciting one, though I didn’t think it was as rough as it had been on the way over – I was able to stay standing up the whole time this time, and it wasn’t nearly as wet out on the back deck.  At Bluff we farewelled all our Bookcrossing friends, and Lytteltonwitch, Albert and I headed up through the back roads of Southland to Central Otago (with a slight detour to visit the town of Nightcaps – well, we had to really, I’d had the book Nightcap sitting on my bookshelf for years, waiting for the next time I was in Southland and could release it there!).

We spent the night at Mum’s place in Alexandra, so I finally got to see her new house, and the changes Brother and SIL have made to the shop (it looks amazing).  Mum invited Brother and family round for pizzas for dinner (the kids didn’t know we were visiting, so it was a cool surprise for them when they turned up at Granny’s and I was there – though I think Niece was more excited to see Albert again than she was to see me! :-) ), so we had a lovely family evening (and Brother and I had a long debate about gender identities – we may not agree, but at least I know he’s trying to understand).

We ended up not leaving Alexandra until after lunch on Tuesday, having spent a nice relaxing morning chatting with mum over many cups of tea, so our drive back to Christchurch had to be much more direct than our normal meandering road trips, but at least it meant we got back to Christchurch at a reasonable hour.  It was a struggle to wake up in time for work on Wednesday though!

So that was our Stewart Island adventure.  And that was an entire convention blogged and photographs posted in the same month that the convention happened.  Yeah, don’t hold your breath for me to manage that for the next one…

Athens Travel Journal – Part 4

Saturday 23 April, 11 am, at the convention

We’re about to have a guest speaker, and I’m not sure whether they’ll be speaking in English or Greek, so this seems like a good opportunity to catch up a bit.

So, after Zeus’s temple we wanted to try and find the Lykia where Aristotle taught.  It was quite a distance away, but we worked out the route on the map and set off confidently.  And of course, got it completely wrong, and ended up walking about a kilometre in the wrong direction before we realised.  (In my defence, the map showed a stadium, and we did pass a small stadium, so I thought we were on the right track.  But it turned out that the stadium on the map (which was just one of those cheap tourist ones you get for free at the airport) was actually meant to be the Olympic stadium, which is a wee bit bigger than the one we passed.  (Also in my defence, you try reading street signs written in Greek and matching them to a map that’s written in English and see how well you do!)).  Eventually though we figured it out and backtracked.  The detour wasn’t entirely a waste of time though, because we came across the site of an old temple (can’t remember now which god – they all start to blend into each other after a while – it might have been Artemis, I think?), and another little Byzantine church.  That’s one of the cool things about Athens – it’s never boring, because there’s interesting little spots scattered all over the city.

Anyway, we set off on the right road this time, which took us past the parliament buildings, guarded by the guys in skirts and pompoms.  We stopped to take some photos, and were about to move on when the two guards started thumping the butts of their rifles on the ground.  It turned on we were just in time for the start of the changing of the guard ceremony.

I’m sure it’s intended to be a very solemn and dignified ceremony, but I’m afraid we got the giggles.  They did this elaborate march towards each other (even weirder than the stomp shuffle of the flag soldiers up at the Acropolis), with a combination of high kicks and a movement that looked exactly like they were trying to scrape dog poo off their boots.  The combined effect was very much John Cleese doing his Ministry of Silly Walks routine, but with the added bonus of bouncing pompoms on their feet and knees, and skirts that were way too short to be doing high kicks in.

When the guards met in the middle there was the usual military pomp of presenting arms and being inspected (by a guy in normal camouflage style uniform), then they stood and waited while another three guards approached from across the road, all doing the Silly Walk.  Then everyone presented arms yet again, one of the new guys escorted the old shift back across the street again, the other two new guys were inspected, and they Silly Walked their way back to the guard posts.  Definitely worth stopping to watch the ceremony, even if only because we got such a laugh out of it (with no offence intended to the Greeks, of course – I’m sure you’d find just as much humour in some of our traditions!).

I feel like the guy in front isn’t as committed to the silly walk as the other two.

The dog is supremely indifferent to all the stomping and scraping going on behind him – he just wants a shady place to sleep.

We found Aristotle’s Lykia not far from the parliament buildings.  All that is left of it are the traces of a few walls, so not a lot to see, but it was still really interesting to imagine (helped by the descriptions on the information boards) the buildings that would have once stood there.  And anyway, just the thought that you’re standing where Aristotle once stood is so amazing!  There’s so many places like that in Athens, that make you realise that people whose names you only know as legends actually existed, and lived right here.  It makes them all seem so much more real.  Like on Friday, when Katherine took us past an otherwise unremarkable wee square, and mentioned that that’s where Diogenes had his home (according to legend, in a large pot).

The site was surrounded by gardens, and a gardener was working on them as we walked around, but otherwise we had the place pretty much to ourselves. I suppose it’s not as spectacular as the big name tourist sites, hence the lack of crowds.  I don’t mind, it was to our advantage to have the place to ourselves, because we could take our time looking around.  As we were leaving, the gardener came over and presented us with a rose each from the bush he was pruning – I got the impression he was pleased to see visitors actually interested in the site.

We walked back to the Plaka area, which is very touristy – pretty much every shop that isn’t a cafe is selling souvenirs.  Amongst it all we found a little shop selling prints and watercolours.  I stopped to have a look and found a nice little pen sketch of an Athens street.  When I went to pay for it (only €15 – did I mention how cheap everything is here?) I realised that the shopkeeper was actually the artist.  So that was cool, to not only have another picture for my wall of art, but also to have bought it direct from the artist.

While we were in Plaka, I thought I might as well take advantage of the cheap prices to buy a few wee presents for the kids.  So I got Nephew #1 a t-shirt with the Pythagorean Theorem on it (written in Greek, of course), and Nephew #2 one that says “This is Sparta!”  And for Niece, a bag with cats on it (ok, so I may have ended up buying one of those for myself as well… :-) ).  Hopefully they should appreciate them.

By that time, we were starting to feel walked out (Lytteltonwitch calculated we’d walked about 21 km in total that day), so we headed back to the apartment to sit down for a while and get organised for the official start of the convention in the evening.

The convention venue is just around the corner from our apartment, in a little museum.  The evening was the usual business of registration, browsing (and contributing to) the book buffet, raffle tickets and supply store, and of course, lots of catching up with friends I hadn’t seen since Melbourne (or even Dublin!).

Tuesday 26 April 2016, 11 am, Athens airport

So much for keeping this journal up to date, but the last few days have been so packed, I just haven’t had time.  So, where was I up to?  Friday night at the convention, I think?

The highlight of the evening (other than seeing so many old friends, and meeting new ones) was a shadow puppet show.  Shadow puppets are a traditional Greek art form, with (I gather) a few regular characters that show up in every story and behave in predictable ways (a bit like Punch in the English tradition).  The one we watched was written specifically for the convention, and was all about one of the regular characters, Karagiozis, learning about Bookcrossing, and being carried by an owl to China to find out the fate of the books he’d released.  The plot involved a dragon and a monkey and was pretty incomprehensible even with the aid of the English surtitles (the play was performed in Greek, of course).  Despite not entirely understanding what was going on a lot of the time, it was still great fun to watch – the puppeteers were very talented, handling a dozen or so different puppets (actually, I think they said it was about 30 actual puppets, representing about a dozen characters – each character had multiple puppets, depending on what they needed it to be able to do), each with a unique voice.

Sorry, not the best photos, because I was a few rows back so was trying to take pictures between the heads of people in front, while simultaneously trying not to block the view of the people behind me. But hopefully they’ll give you an idea at least of what the puppets were like.

There was an author talk on Friday too, by an author who is also a translator.  He talked (in English) a bit about the challenges of translating, and of having his own books translated, which was really interesting.

And of course, being Greece, there was a tonne of food.  Each of the Greek bookcrossers had brought along a few dishes, and as almost all of them were traditional Greek dishes, I wanted to try as many as I could, so even though they were all just bite-sized snacks I was still feeling seriously full before I managed to work my way all the way down the table.  Among many other delicacies were the biggest olives I’ve ever seen (I’ve discovered that even though I don’t usually like olives, I do in Greece – they taste much nicer here! :-) ), and all sorts of little pastries and cheese balls that we got to know pretty well over the next few days (the snack table seemed to be being continually refilled).  There was only one dish I didn’t like: a sort of tasteless mush that apparently is traditionally eaten with dry bread leading up to Easter (which of course is later here than in the rest of the world – Orthodox Easter is next weekend) – I suppose it’s the equivalent to Lent (which I suppose makes sense that it doesn’t taste very nice – if it’s meant to be for Lent then you’re probably not supposed to enjoy it).

Saturday started with a yoga class on the balcony.  As expected, I was terrible at it – every time the instructor said “turn to the left”, I’d get confused and turn right (yay for dyslexia), and then get the giggles because I was facing my neighbour who’d turned the correct way.  Not really the most conducive to being calm and focussed.  Plus, having had so little sleep, I had to struggle not to just fall asleep when we did the meditation bits.  Yeah, I don’t think yoga is for me, really.  But it was interesting to try.

Next was another author talk.  The author (who spoke in Greek, but had a translator repeating everything in English), wrote children’s books, and mentioned how most of the schools in the distant islands don’t have libraries because of funding shortages, so it’s difficult to get books into the hands of children.  (As a result, the NZ and Australian bookcrossers have been talking to the Greek bookcrossers about whether we could sponsor a school to help buy them some books.  It looks like it might be a complicated process though, so I don’t know whether we’ll manage to do it.  We’re certainly going to try though – even a few hundred dollars would go a long way here.)

Athens Travel Journal – Part 3

Friday 22 April

Another long and super busy day.  Last night, of course, was the pre-convention dinner.  We made it there only a few minutes late (at the expense of not having had time to go home and get cleaned up and changed first, as we’d hoped to), and quickly spotted the other bookcrossers. Of course, we weren’t the last to arrive by a long shot, a large group being guaranteed to be impossible to completely organise, but eventually everyone was assembled and the food began to be brought out.  I won’t even attempt to list what we ate, because there was so much of it!  Every time we all thought it must be the last dish, something else would appear, until finally, when we must have sampled every traditional Greek vegetable dish there is, they announced that now we’d have the meat (!).  Not a lot of meat got eaten, despite it being delicious – nobody (except the Greeks, of course) had any room left.  And then, when we insisted we couldn’t fit any more in, the waiters cleared the tables… and brought out desert, and orange syrup cake.  I think I ate about one mouthful of it before giving up.  One thing for sure, you’ll never go hungry if you let the Greeks do the ordering!

It was a very late night, with us not getting home until after 11, and we had plans for an early start this morning.  Bronwyn and Robyn opted to sleep in, but Lytteltonwitch and I headed out early to find breakfast, then went back to the Acropolis as it opened at 8, to beat the crowds.

It was so worth going back! It was wonderfully crowd-free at that time, so that it was actually possible to pause and admire details without having someone with a selfie stick get in your way.  An unexpected benefit too was that we got to see the flag being raised for the start of the day. A group of soldiers slow-marched in with the flag (they had a weird lopsided sort of march, with one leg being raised and stomped down, and the other sort of shuffling), then after much ceremony and presenting of arms, the flag was raised as they sang what I presume is the national anthem (though they sang it so tunelessly, it was hard to tell – they sounded like a bunch of rugby players)… and then was lowered again because they’d got the rope tangled.  But they got it up smoothly on the second attempt, then did their stomp-shuffle slow march back out again.

I got kind of obsessed with taking photos of this temple – it was so much more interesting than the big Parthenon building. But so as not to bore you too much, I’ve only included a handful of the photos here (ok, so it’s a pretty large handful, but trust me, you’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the number of photos I took!)

This cat was chasing another cat, which you can just see sitting on a branch at the top of the picture.

As an indication of how crowded it was the first time we climbed the Acropolis, I didn’t even notice you could see the sea from up there, because I never got near the railing on that side. This time there was actually time and space to admire the view.

While we were watching, we got chatting to an elderly couple from California.  They were incredibly well-travelled, and had even been to Pitcairn (I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s visited there before!).  Made my own travels seem pretty tame in comparison, but we compared notes on a few favourite places.

After we’d had our fill of the Acropolis (and watched the feral cats chase each other up an olive tree), we walked down to the Theatre of Dionysus on its lower slopes.  As well as the theatre itself (or amphitheatre, though I learnt today that “amphitheatre” actually just means “shaped like a theatre”, so it’s a bit tautological), there were all sorts of other ruins to see on the lower slopes, so we spent quite a long time wandering around them.

The fancy seats at the front were obviously for the rich people (and apparently, just like nowadays, if you paid enough you could get your name on your seat at the theatre).

The tickets that we’d bought for the Acropolis also let us into various other historic sites, so we decided to take advantage of them and see as much as possible. So first we went to the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, which was seriously impressive – massive pillars, the scale of which was impossible to capture in a photo – just believe me when I say they were huge, and felt like they were towering over you.

Hadrian’s Arch (yep, the same Hadrian as the wall between England and Scotland – he got around a lot)

None of the photos I took really show the scale of this place, but trust me, those columns are big. The people in the foreground are quite a distance away from the columns.

Too tired to finish this off now – I’ll write up the rest tomorrow.

Athens Travel Journal – Part 2

Thursday 21 April 2016, 3 pm, Athens

In a seafood restaurant, having just gorged on greek salad, boiled wild greens, eggplant dip, fried zucchini, squid, sardines, mussels… just a light lunch :-)  We’ve been on the go all day, so I still haven’t managed to sit down and write.  But, briefly back to the story now:

After we’d had drinks in the roof garden, and it got too dark for photos, we walked around the area some more, ending up at a souvlaki restaurant.

At the restaurant there was a moment of crisis when Lytteltonwitch discovered her wallet was missing and the pocket of her bag was hanging open.  We figured out what must have happened was that we’d stopped to watch some buskers in quite a crowded square, and someone had obviously pick-pocketed her in the crowd.  A couple of other things were also missing out of the same pocket of her bag, either taken at the same time as the wallet, or fallen out of the open pocket later.  Luckily, she didn’t have much money in the wallet, and a quick phone call back to New Zealand got her cards cancelled, so not too huge a loss (except to her pride in being an experienced traveller, perhaps).

The meal was amazing – we got Panost to order for us, so we had a traditional dish that I’ve forgotten the name of (I knew I should have written this up sooner) that was a sort of filled pasta that I think was fried – it was crispy and very tasty anyway. Then there was fried zucchini strips, and then, when we were already feeling full, huge platters of meats – kebab, doner (which I never realised was a different thing to kebab – I spent too long in the UK, where it’s just called “doner kebab”), pork, chicken, and loads of pita bread to go with it.  Greeks are definitely very big eaters – we were all struggling to make any sort of dent in the platters, and ended up with a few doggy bags to take home.  It was about 11 pm by the time we got back to the apartment (this is on top of the 31 hours of travel, remember), so I was very quickly asleep.

This morning Lytteltonwitch and I decided to try and retrace our steps of the night before, just in case we spotted any of her lost gear.  We didn’t have any luck, but it was a nice walk, and I was pleased we didn’t get lost, considering we’d been so tired the night before when Panost was guiding us around.

The gods of the eight winds. We were meaning to come back and find out which god was responsible for Canterbury’s nor’wester, but forgot…

We’d arranged to meet the others back at the apartment at 9, so we could visit the Acropolis together. We were a little bit late getting back, having been distracted by a little Byzantine church (one of the ones we’d seen last night), which was open, so we snuck a look inside.  It was so amazing inside – everything either painted or gilded, icons everywhere, and so ornate (we weren’t allowed to take photos, so you’ll just have to use your imagination).

And of course we had to stop for a quick breakfast, of something similar to a pain au chocolat from a little bakery we passed along the way.  And then a further distraction when we spotted Skyring and Mrs Skyring sitting in a cafe.  So we never did make it back to the apartment, but the others set out towards the Acropolis hoping to meet us on the way and found us chatting to the Skyrings, so we all caught up in the end.  The Skyrings had only just arrived, so they were off to their accommodation for a nap, but the rest of us, plus a couple of the German bookcrossers who the others had bumped into, headed up to the Acropolis.

5 pm, Tourist Police station

We’re here attempting to report Lytteltonwitch’s pickpocketing, so she has it documented for insurance.  There’s quite a queue, so we may be here some time, so I’m grabbing the chance to sit and write some more.  I’m determined not to let this journal get too far behind (tricky, considering how much we’re packing into each day!).

So, where was I? We’d met up with the others, and stopped for a quick coffee at a roadside cafe (where, due to a miscommunication/miscalculation, we ended up paying twice for some of the coffees, so the waiter must have thought we were very generous tippers!).

A dog watching us from a balcony above the cafe where we stopped for coffees.

Next, we climed the hill up to the Acropolis.  In hindsight, we probably should have gone up earlier, because by 10 am when we got there it was swarming with tour groups. But despite the crowds, it was amazing.  They’re still in the middle of the restoration, so there’s scaffolding around one end of the Parthenon, but even with that it’s still an incredible structure.  And the other temples too are amazing, and the views out over the city, and just the sheer antiquity of it all. It’s amazing to think that these buildings have been here for thousands of years, and that chances are the site was used way before that too.  When you are up on top of it, you can see why the site was chosen for a temple – it feels so high above the city – definitely where you would expect the gods to hang out.

And for such huge structures, there’s so much detail in the carving. Of course, a lot of it has been lost to the centuries, but there’s bits remaining here and there that tell you what they must have been like.

We spent a few hours up there (and took so many photos!), then walked down the hill to Monastiraki Square, where we were meeting up with another Greek bookcrosser Katherine. The square is full of life (don’t worry, we’ve all been watching our belongings closely after Lytteltonwitch’s experience), with buskers, many many beggars (we’ve got quite good at shooing them away, and haven’t yet had to resort to the Greek swearwords that Bronwyn picked up from her kids :-) ), and stalls selling everything from shoes to fresh fruit.  The fruit was incredibly cheap (or, at least, it seemed so to us – I’m sure it’s much more expensive to buy it there than from a less touristy market) – we bought a whole kilo of strawberries (which were amazing – so sweet and juicy!) for just €2, and sat in the sun eating them while we waited.

Katherine took us for a long walk around the city, (Lytteltonwitch’s Fitbit reckons we’ve walked about 17 km in total today!) and to a museum devoted to the jewellery of a famous Greek jeweller.  Some of us was quite spectacular, but I was starting to flag a little, so I was glad when we went on from there to lunch (which I think I described above).  We were all feeling pretty tired, so lunch was long and leisurely (and very pleasant) but eventually we had to move, and set off walking again – I’ve got no idea where we ended up going, but I know we saw all sorts of interesting little churches (including one where the basement was used to manufacture gunpowder during the war of independence, and another where, along with the usual saints, the porch was decorated with images of the ancient philosophers (whose names, I’ve learnt, I’ve been pronouncing completely wrong all this time)), and every sort of architecture from the ancient to the very modern, often right next to each other, and streets lined with orange trees.

Inside the city’s cathedral, which has just been restored following the 1999 earthquake. Hard not to make comparisons with our cathedral…

Apparently this is where Diogenes lived in his barrel (which may actually have been a jar, which is even weirder)

And cats everywhere (feral cats are definitely a feature of the city – they’re everywhere you look, even sunning themselves on the stones of the Acropolis. Most are pretty mangy looking, so I wouldn’t want to touch any of them.  We met a woman this morning who was feeding one colony. She said she has 6 cats at home, and when she can afford it she buys extra food and feeds the strays (I couldn’t help thinking a better form of charity would be to catch them and get them sterilized) – I noticed she was wearing gloves to touch them.)

We ended our long walk by meeting back up with Panost and yet another Greek bookcrosser (whose name I missed).  The rest of the group were going with them on one of those hop-on hop-off bus tours to see some more of the city, but Lytteltonwitch and I opted out so we could come and get a police report.  We also want to go to the pre-convention dinner tonight, which the others are skipping, so we wanted to make sure we’d be able to get back to Thisseo on time (although that’s looking less and less likely, because we’ve been here an hour now, and although Lytteltonwitch has managed to get a statement taken by one officer, she still has to wait to see someone else who’s responsible for actually writing up the report).

At least I’ve achieved something while we’ve been waiting – I think I’ve got this journal up to date now :-)

Athens Travel Journal – Part 1

Tuesday 19 April 2016, 10 pm (Bangkok time) – somewhere over Indonesia, three hours from Bangkok

I woke up from a half-sleep just in time to see one of the islands of Indonesia below us. It’s pitch dark, of course (according to the flight info screen thing, it’s 11 pm locally), but the islands are outlined in light. At first I thought the moon must be out and reflecting off surf or something, but then my sense of scale kicked in and I realised it’s the lights from villages stretching around the coast in a thin line.

A pretty uneventful trip so far. A very full plane, but it’s Emirates, so pretty pleasant as far as long-haul flights go (this leg is 9 hours, our longest for the trip).

Christchurch-Sydney was 3 1/2 hours, just long enough to watch a movie and have the first of two dinners (we got another dinner at the beginning of this flight (which is actually technically the same flight – Sydney was just a refuelling stop for an hour and a half – long enough to stretch ours legs with a walk around the transit lounge)).  By the time we got onto this flight I was sleepy enough that another movie didn’t appeal, so I listened to an audiobook while eating second dinner, and woke up again several chapters in (oh well, it was only a Shopaholic book, which I’d specifically picked off the menu as being one where I’d be unlikely to care if I fell asleep and missed some of it).

We’re over the middle of one of the big islands now, and in constrast to the coast, there’s almost no lights – I can just see one off in the distance.

Descriptions of flights are always the least interesting parts of these travel journals, so I’ll spare you any further boredom and go back to my audiobook, and write more once we get somewhere interesting.

Midnight, over the South China Sea

So many fishing boats down there – the sea is dotted with lights.  The squid boats are incredibly bright, even from up here. From the map, it looks like we should be passing over Ho Chi Min City soon.

A bit later

Ho Chi Min looks huge! Just a sea of light in the distance.

And a wee bit later again

Directly over the city now. The lights are obscured by what seems to be smog – it’s only of the city (the lights of the surrounding roads are clear) and is darked than the light fluffy moon-reflecting clouds over the sea.

Wednesday 20 April, 4 am (Dubai time), somewhere off the coast of Pakistan

Dawn is catching up with us – there’s a definite glow to the sky behind us. We’ve had a lot of turbulence since just before India, but I’ve still managed to get some sleep despite that.

Bangkok was just another quick refuelling stop.  We were allowed to get off the plane if we wanted, so of course I did, just so I could say I’ve been to Thailand (even if it was just in a transit lounge for half an hour). It was cool seeing all the signage in the Thai alphabet – ok, so I’m a language geek, but there’s something about a different orthography that makes a place seem so exotic :-) It was good to be able to stretch my legs a bit too, but my real reason was to add another country to my count :-)  It was very warm – even at whatever middle of the night time we arrived you could feel the heat through the airbridge.

In another couple of hours we’ll be in Dubai, where we’ve got several hours’ wait, because we’re actually switching flights.

8 am, Dubai

This airport is huge! And incredibly busy and so full of shops. Neither of us being particular shopping fans, we’ve had a quick wander around, had a (very expensive) snack, then retreated to a quiet corner where there’s wi-fi to wait for our next flight.

As far as I can remember, I’ve never been through Dubai before – any other flights via the UAE have been through Abu Dhabi. The two airports are very different – Abu Dhabi is relatively small, and very Middle Eastern in flavour, whereas Dubai seems very western – the food options all seem to be big international chains like Starbucks and Burger King, and the building itself could be any airport anywhere in the world. Even the signage is in English first and Arabic in smaller characters below.  And, as you’d expect from an airport that’s such an international hub, passengers of every nationality, almost all in Western dress (as opposed to Abu Dhabi, where Arab robes dominated – I’ve only seem a couple of people wearing them here).

11 am, just out of Dubai

So much for our uneventful trip. We ended up leaving Dubai about half an hour late, because for some reason our plane was parked way across the tarmac, so we were all loaded onto buses to be taken out to it. And then the buses (which had no seats, only standing) had to wait for ages for various planes and other vehicles to pass. Then, once we finally reached the plane, despite the fact they carefully sorted us into sections of the plane before loading us onto the buses, they sent the buses to the wrong ends of the plane, so (after climbing a very long set of stairs up to the plane – you don’t notice how far off the ground the doors on a 777 are until you have to walk up to them!) there was utter chaos as everyone tried to squeeze past each other to get to the end where their seats were. The cabin crew were trying valiantly to help, but basically all they could do was stand there and occasionally try to stop arguments (like the two elderly Greek men blocking the aisle while they passionately argued about who was allowed to stow their bags in which overhead locker.  Lytteltonwitch and I got the giggles over it, it was all just so stereotypically Mediterranean, and our laughing set off one of the cabin crew, who was trying to stay professional, but kept laughing at them too.  It actually seemed like the crew had all just resigned themselves to the fact that it wasn’t going to be a quick take-off, because they were all exchanging smiles and rolled eyes at the chaos around them.) But anyway, we’re finally in the air, so in another four hours or so we should be in Athens.

The sun was so bright (and the heat already quite intense) when we were out on the tarmac – I’d forgotten just how glaring the light can be in the desert.

Annoyingly, on the one leg of this trip we’re doing in daylight, I’ve got a seat over the wing so I can’t see anything of the ground below :-( I’m sure when I booked the tickets I picked a better seat location than this, but either they’ve changed the seating allocations (I can’t remember exactly which seat number I picked) or I just mis-read the seating diagram.  Oh well, it’s not the end of the world – I’ll miss seeing the Mediterranean from the air, but I can always watch it via the camera feed to my video screen (and anyway, it looks like we’re flying over cloud at the moment, so there’s probably not much to see right now even if I had the perfect seat).  I’ll just have to watch a movie instead.

11 pm, Athens!

We’ve managed to pack an incredible amount into one short (or long, given the time now!) evening. We arrived in Athens half an hour late, as expected, but got through immigration relatively quickly (helped by the fact there was no customs inspection – very weird to us New Zealanders, so used to having everything scrutinised by biosecurity). We managed to negotiate the Metro system to the correct stop (mainly by remembering the sequence of initial letters of the few stops before the one we wanted, because remembering the actual names was impossible! (quite literally all Greek to me…)), and followed the map I’d printed off to the AirBnB apartment we’re staying in. Things got complicated for a bit at that point, because I discovered than the phone number I’d written down for Bronwyn (who’d done the booking for the AirBnB) was wrong (it turned out to be MeganH’s – I had scribbled them both on the same bit of paper in Auckland, so when I copied Bronwyn’s into my notebook I must have somehow swapped them over).  So we couldn’t call her to let her know we were waiting outside.

One of the building’s other occupants spotted us standing on the doorstep in the hot sun and let us in to the shade of the lobby, but as we didn’t know the apartment number, that wasn’t much progress. Luckily though, Lytteltonwitch discovered she still had one of Bronwyn’s emails in her phone’s memory, and it had her number in the signature, so we were finally able to call her and get in.

After much needed showers and cold drinks, I accompanied Robyn, the fourth occupant of our apartment, to pick up a few snacks from a nearby supermarket (it’s such fun looking round supermarkets in other countries – so many weird and wonderful products).  When we got back, MeganH and Leith arrived (they are staying just a few blocks away), and local bookcrosser Panost.

I’m almost falling asleep as I write here, so I’ll finish this in the morning.

Thursday 21 April, 9.30 am, sitting in an outdoor cafe under the Acropolis

The Acropolis is amazing and totally dominates the city. Every corner you turn you see another view of it. Our first glimpse was as we walked out of the Metro station yesterday on our way to the apartment from the airport. I was looking around trying to orientate myself to the map, and suddenly there it was, looming over us on its huge rock. I many have squealed a little bit in excitement…

To continue yesterday’s story:

Panost took us out for a walk. I was struggling to keep up with the group because so often I wanted to stop and take photos – everything is so picturesque. Even the back alleys are gorgeous!

And serious antiquities scattered all over the place (including a couple of churches that seemed like they were sunken into the ground. Panost explained that actually it was just that the surrounding roads have been built up over the centuries, so that now the street level is about a metre higher than it was when the churches were built. That sort of time period is impossible to get your head round!)

He took us to a hotel with a roof garden with an amazing view over the Acropolis, so we stayed there for a couple of hours watching the sunset and taking a million photos.

Leith, MeganH, Lytteltonwitch, Robyn, Panost and Bronwyn.

A little church hidden among the buildings below the balcony where we were sitting. There’d been absolutely no sign of it from the street outside.

The pigeons are different in Athens! (though they do have the ordinary variety as well)

Not a pigeon :-) It came in the fancy drink someone (can’t remember who now) ordered.

The Acropolis reflected in the windows of the bar

(Are you bored with photos of the Acropolis yet?)

Golden Bay Part 3

Sunday

We were up and about way too early for breakfast again, so we decided to make the most of the fine morning and headed back up into the Aorere Valley to the Salisbury Falls.  The waterfall is quite a small one, but you could see from the surrounding rocks that it must be a different matter when it’s in flood.  The Aorere River itself (which the Salisbury feeds into) is similarly prone to huge floods, and in fact I’d seen a gravestone in the Collingwood cemetery the day before for someone who’d drowned crossing the river.

Clouds were beginning to gather around the hills to the west again, very much like they had on Saturday morning, so after breakfast we decided to head east out of Takaka and see where the road took us. We assumed it wouldn’t be very far, because the Abel Tasman National Park begins not far from Takaka, with the only way through (other than over the Takaka Hill road to the south) is on foot, a several-day tramp. But to our surprise although the sealed road ended pretty quickly, it was replaced with a narrow dirt road that went a lot further than we’d expected, and took us up over a steep hill to Totaranui, a gorgeous beach on the edge of the park. The beach was quite busy (by NZ standards – i.e. you could only get a few hundred metres away from other people) but so peaceful and relaxing to walk along, with the golden sands (which is how Golden Bay gets its name) and the sea on one side and the bush on the other – I could just feel all my stresses dropping away as I walked along. It was a warm enough day that if I’d had my swimsuit with me I think I would have even been tempted to brave the cold water (it’s still the South Island, after all!) and go for a swim, but I had to content myself with just paddling on the edge of the waves.

(So many photos, but I was fascinated by the contrasts between golden sand, green sea, blue sky and dark bush)


It wasn’t just humans enjoying a walk along the beach – red-billed gull.


This guy was just chilling though – a juvenile black-backed gull.


Kina (sea urchin)


Oystercatchers

On the way back to Takaka we stopped off at another back-of-beyond cafe, a tiny place on top of the hill, down a driveway that was even narrower and steeper than the steep and narrow dirt road we were travelling on.  If we hadn’t had a huge breakfast, we probably would have stayed for lunch, because they were cooking wood-fired pizzas in an oven in the garden, but we were both too full, so just settled for a drink.  It was an amazing place, though – if I ever go back up to Golden Bay I’ll definitely have to go there for a meal.

At the bottom of the hill we picked up a hitch-hiker, a young French man who’d just finished walking the Abel Tasman Track. He didn’t speak very much English, but we managed to establish that he was in NZ for a year on a working holiday visa, and was working at an orchard outside Motueka. We couldn’t take him all the way back to Motueka, but we did take him as far as Takaka, where hopefully he’d be able to get a lift with someone going over the hill.

Back in Takaka, we decided to return to Pupu Springs to get a better look in the full light of day.  Of course, the viewing platforms were completely crowded with tourists, most of whom just took a quick look then went back to their cars – we stayed a lot longer, and were rewarded by seeing all sorts of wildlife in the springs, including eels and giant kokopu (a nearly trout-sized fish which amazingly is the adult form of the tiny whitebait).


All but a few leaves of this plant are underwater, but it’s hard to tell because the water is so clear.


Spot the eel?


Giant kokopu

After we left the springs we headed to Onekaka to visit Fuzzle’s housebus, surrounded by the ruins of the old ironworks. She’s got big plans for the ruins, envisioning walled gardens within the concrete walls of the old sheds, and cutting paths through the bush to even more interesting structures.

Later we walked down to the Mussel Inn, and sat in their garden to eat dinner.  That turned out to be a mistake, because the sandflies were out in force under the trees, and I ended up with my ankles covered in bites (which of course are all right on the sock line, so incredibly itchy every time I put socks on).  Apart from the bites though, it was a lovely place to sit, and again we stayed talking long into the night, and then walked back (in the pitch black – Onekaka has a single street light, and we were nowhere near it!) via a hidden path that Fuzzle knew which had glow-worms living along its banks (no photos, sorry – I didn’t think to take my tripod with me, and although glow-worms look pretty bright when you see them with dark-adjusted eyes, they’re actually so faint my camera would never have picked them up without a very long exposure).

Books released:

Acquainted With the Night by Lynne Sharon Schwartz – cafe on top of the Totaranui road
Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia – Mussel Inn

Monday

We had a slower start the next morning, hanging around the hostel until about 8 am (which felt much later, as the clocks had gone back on Saturday night) and registering a few books for the hostel book exchange shelf.  Then we headed back to the Labyrinth for Lytteltonwitch to find a geocache she’d missed on Saturday, before grabbing a quick breakfast and heading back towards Christchurch.

The reason we’d left our start so late (when logic would say getting on the road early would be more sensible to beat the holiday traffic) was that we wanted to stop off at the Ngarua Caves on the top of Takaka Hill, which didn’t open until 10 am.  We just missed the 10 am tour, but we had books with us (of course) so we settled down in their cafe to read while we waited for the next one, at 11.  The caves were pretty cool, with lots of interesting features, but of course a guided tour through well-lit caves with safe pathways is never as interesting as proper caving – it made me miss my days living on the Coast when I used to go out caving with friends who were serious cavers.  I didn’t bother to take my camera into the cave – it’s always too awkward when you’re with a crowd, and using the flash just spoils it for everyone else.  Plus sometimes it’s nice to just experience something rather than try and capture it for posterity.

It was nearly noon by the time we left the caves, very late to be getting on the road, so we encountered pretty heavy traffic all the way back to Christchurch.  We picked up another hitch-hiker, a German woman, also on a working holiday visa, who’d spent most of her time in NZ so far in Ranfurly, of all places.  She was trying to get to Westport, so we took her as far as Murchison, where hopefully she’d be able to find someone heading west.

Leaving Murchison we got stuck behind a very irritating driver who spent most of the time driving at 80 km/h, except when he got to somewhere with a passing lane, when he’d speed up to 100.  He quickly developed a long line of traffic behind him, and every so often someone would get frustrated enough to pass him in a less-than-ideal place.  It was all feeling a bit too dangerous, so we hung back a fair distance from him, which of course meant that the cars behind us thought that it was Lytteltonwitch who was being annoyingly slow, so she was getting a bit of abuse from drivers passing her (who then immediately got stuck behind the driver who was the actual problem).  He was going so slow that it wasn’t even worth pulling over for a bit to give him a head start, because we caught up to him again so quickly.

Once we did finally get a chance to pass him, somewhere around Springs Junction, we didn’t dare stop again in case we got behind him again, so we ended up skipping lunch and carrying on across the Lewis.  Our plan was to stop for a late lunch/early dinner in Amberley, but when we turned off onto State Highway 1 we hit even worse traffic – a huge line of cars barely moving at all.  We were moving so slowly that at first we thought there must have been an accident up ahead, but it was just everyone trying to get home to Christchurch at once.  So by the time we reached Amberley our early dinner turned out to not be early at all.  But at least by the time we’d eaten it was late enough that the traffic had eased off a bit, so the last 50 km or so into Christchurch was pretty smooth.  But overall a slow, frustrating and tiring trip back (and I was just a passenger – poor Lytteltonwitch must have been exhausted!) which almost destroyed all the good work of the relaxing holiday.

Still, it was a fantastic trip, with lots of adventures, and it was great to get back to a part of NZ I haven’t been to for a very long time.  I’m just glad I’ve got the rest of the week off to recover from my holiday!

Books released (all at the YHA):

Virtual Light by William Gibson
The Metropolitan Critic by Clive James
Where’s My Jetpack? by Daniel H Wilson
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
Ultimate Weapon by Chris Ryan
A Mother’s Gift by Britney and Lynne Spears
Transatlantic by Colum McCann
Critical by Robin Cook
Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain
Vagabond by Bernard Cornwell

Golden Bay Part 2 (with lots of photos)

Saturday:

We were both awake bright and early, and Dangerous Kitchen (which we’d planned on breakfasting at, having perused their menu the night before) didn’t open until 9, so we decided to head over to Te Waikoropupū Springs (or just Pupu Springs, as they’re more commonly called if you want to avoid all those syllables).  The springs are known for their incredibly clear water, which lets you see right to the bottom of the deep pools.

The water looks so inviting, but the springs are considered tapu (sacred) by local iwi, so you’re not allowed to even touch the water.  Probably a good thing, really – imagine how quickly they’d be spoilt if they started being used as a swimming hole.

With the light low over the water, there were a few too many reflections to be able to see into it very clearly, but it did make for some very photogenic scenes (and best of all, no tourists around!).

There’s a short (and very beautiful) bush walk to get to the springs. I wasn’t so impressed with the beauty of the inhabitants, though (Lytteltonwitch liked him, but then she’s weird :-) ).

At least the rest of the bush made up for the odd creepy-crawly…

After breakfast, we decided to head first to Farewell Spit at the far end of the bay, then work our way back towards Takaka, stopping off at anything that looked interesting.  At Farewell Spit we walked across farmland for half an hour or so to reach Fossil Point – and then realised we’d technically walked from one side of the island to the other (take that, all you Coast to Coast athletes!) and were now on the West Coast.

The beach looked very West Coast-y, too:


These guys were snoozing among the rocks at the end of the beach.


You can kind of spot which direction the wind blows from :-)


One of the fossils that give Fossil Point its name. There are seashells embedded all through the cliff-face and in the rocks at its base.


Not a fossil, but still cool – the remains of a wasp nest clinging to the cliff.


Looking north along the Spit. Ok, so it’s actually just a front coming over, but it did look like there was a clear divide in the sky colour along the spit, with grey over the Coast and blue over Nelson :-)

Seals weren’t the only wildlife on the beach – we discovered some mysterious footprints that we never managed to figure out the origin of.  They looked a bit like a sheep’s hoofprints – which would make sense, given the farmland all around – but they started in the middle of the beach with no prints leading up to them, and then disappeared a few steps later.  And they were a long way from the tideline (and relatively fresh), so it wasn’t like the other prints could have just been washed away.  Of course, some might say that a cloven-hoofed creature that can materialise out of nowhere might be connected with the fact that I was travelling with a witch 😉  Or maybe they just have flying sheep in Golden Bay…

As we left Farewell Spit, the front caught up with us and it started to rain, but we were hopeful it wouldn’t last, so we headed inland to the Aorere Valley, aiming for the Naked Possum, a wildfoods restaurant that sounded like it might be an interesting experience.  Which it was – although actually, just finding it was pretty interesting in itself.  It took the definition of “middle of nowhere” to new heights, being at the end of a maze of dirt roads with minimal signage.  We thought we were completely lost at one point, when we came to a junction with no indication on which way to go, but then we spotted a small sign way off down the road – having it actually at the junction would have made a lot more sense! (though from what the woman who served us at the restaurant said when we commented on how hard the place was to find, they kind of did that on purpose – it’s like a test: if you can’t find your way to the Naked Possum, then they don’t want you eating there).  By the time we reached the restaurant it was pouring with rain, but luckily they had some inside tables.  Despite the name, there was no possum on the menu (too much 1080 poisoning going on to risk it), but there were plenty of other interesting meats.  I tried a tahr* steak, which turned out to have a flavour somewhere between goat and venison (kind of as you’d expect, really).

*Tahr are a kind of mountain goat native to the Himalayas which some bright spark decided to introduce to the Southern Alps, where they promptly became a pest, pretty much like every other animal that the early settlers introduced to New Zealand.

We’d planned on doing part of the Kaituna Track, which starts right beside the Naked Possum, but it was still raining when we finished our lunch, so instead we headed back to the main road.  We stopped off briefly at the Langford Store, a tiny historic store that is half shop, half museum, and half art gallery (yes, I know that’s too many halves, but it was that kind of place).  The groceries for sale on the shelves are mixed in among a display of old tins and boxes, and random items like two boxes full of tea cosies.  Very strange place.

In Collingwood we stopped off at one of the items on our “must see” list – Rosy Glow Chocolates.  A tiny wee shop with an incredible selection of handmade chocolates, but we tried to be reasonably restrained in our purchases (ok, so maybe not *that* restrained, but it was Easter after all – there has to be chocolate!).  The rain had eased off a bit now that we were away from the hills, but it was still drizzling, so we only stopped briefly at the historic cemetery in Collingwood (for Lytteltonwitch to find a geocache) then headed back in the direction of clearer skies towards Takaka.

Our next stop was Labyrinth Rocks, a weird little place just outside Takaka.  It’s a series of maze-like walkways a local man created/discovered among natural rock formations (the local limestone gets weathered into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes around Takaka), to which he added all sorts of little sculptures and ornaments.  When he died a few years ago, the Rocks were taken over by a trust, and they’re now freely open to the public.  Over the years, people have added all sorts of extra decorations, mostly in the form of little plastic toys hidden among the rocks (but also other weird things, like the odd sheep skull).  It makes for a fun game to see how many of the little hidden treasures you can find.

Of course Lytteltonwitch, who always travels with a pocket full of little plastic toys, had to add a few to the rocks, and created (among other things) a spider-infested cave:

I found a cat among her stash, so I made my own mark on the Labyrinth:


(These ones aren’t plastic – I found them growing at the base of a tree)

We were joined for most of our walk through the Labyrinth by a very inquisitive photo-bombing fantail.  Fantails always like to follow you through the bush, because of the insects you stir up while you’re walking, but this one was particularly fascinated by me and my camera.  Every time I lifted my camera to take a picture he’d fly towards me, and passed by close enough for me to hear his wingbeats several times.  I’m sure he was trying to tease me – he’d pose beautifully on a branch or rock just inviting me to take his photo, then fly away just as I clicked the shutter, with his chattering sounding very much like laughter.  As a result, I filled most of my memory card with pictures like this:

But I also got a few like this:

In the last of the daylight we visited the Grove, which is like a super-sized version of the Labyrinth Rocks (but without the plastic toys) – a huge outcropping of limestone with pathways running through cracks in the rock. The setting sun was lighting up the rocks in magical ways:


The view, looking back towards Takaka, from a lookout point part-way up the rock.

Books released:

Watermelon by Marian Keyes – Te Waikoropupū Springs
The Wind off the Small Isles by Mary Stewartc – Fossil Point
The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt – Naked Possum
Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle – cafe in Collingwood
Dance of Death by Lincoln Preston – Collingwood historic cemetery
Liberty by Garrison Keillor – Labyrinth Rocks

Golden Bay part 1

Ok, I know I promised to tell you all about my holiday when I got back, and I really did intend to spend yesterday sorting out all my photos and making release notes and writing it all up, but I ended up having a totally lazy day instead and got absolutely nothing done.  And most of today has been devoted to all those boringly practical post-holiday jobs of unpacking and washing clothes and buying groceries.  But that’s all done now, so time to sit down at the computer and tell you all about our adventures…

Friday:

We got away from Christchurch reasonably early (only slightly later than planned, due to me having prioritised sleep over finishing packing on Thursday night), so the traffic wasn’t too bad on the way up.  The promised police speed blitz was in full swing – we saw many many police cars on the road, and counted five cars being pulled over (one complete with a film crew – presumably for some news item about the blitz).  Didn’t stop everyone from stupid driving, though – we got passed by so many cars doing way over the limit, and there was one particularly scary car we followed through the Lewis Pass that was weaving all over the road.

Our first stop was at Maruia Springs for a quick refreshment break.  Back when I lived on the Coast, you used to be able to walk down to the river from the hotel, but they’ve got it all blocked off now, so our attempt at exploration was limited and we got back on the road to Maruia Falls.

We just missed out on seeing a group of kayakers paddle over the falls – the last of them was just paddling out from under them as we got to the lookout point.  We did see a young man strip down to his undies and jump off the top though, then attempt to convince his friends to do the same.  They all very sensibly declined.

We stopped in Murchison for lunch, and browsed through a really cool antique shop in an old stables.  It was a bit disturbing how many of the “antiques” were things from my childhood!

We headed further north, where Nelson’s fruitbowl reputation was upheld by all the orchards we were passing through.  I was puzzled by tall frames in some of the fields which held the remnants of some sort of vine, until Lytteltonwitch figured out they’d probably held hops, which must have already been harvested.  I remembered then from primary school lessons on what the different regions produced that Nelson’s main products (in the 1970s, at least) were hops and tobacco.  And sure enough, we passed a few small fields of tobacco growing further along the road.  It seemed a bit weird to see tobacco being grown so openly – it’s become so frowned upon it feels like it should be hidden away like some illegal drug, not growing in fields on the side of the road.

In Motueka almost all of the shops on the main street had window displays marking the centennial of World War I.  Lots of poppies, of course, and various displays of historical photographs – some of the displays were very well done.

After Motueka was the dreaded Takaka Hill.  For those of you who haven’t been to Golden Bay, it’s one of the more isolated parts of NZ, only accessible via one very narrow and windy road, which travels over the steep Takaka Hill and is prone to being washed out several times a year by heavy rainfalls, which cuts the area off completely.  It takes about an hour to drive over the hill, so you definitely feel like you’re in the back of beyond when you reach Takaka, the main (“main” being a relative term – the population is only about 1,000) town in Golden Bay.


The view from the top of Takaka Hill, looking back towards Motueka (at the bottom of the hill) and Nelson (on the far side of the bay).


We met this wee guy on the walkway up to the lookout point.

We finally made it to Takaka, and checked into our hostel.  In typical Golden Bay style, instead of the usual adventure tourism brochures you find in most hostels, its brochure rack was filled with adverts for yoga classes and meditation retreats.  The place definitely lives up to its “alternative” reputation :-)

I did some of my teacher training in Takaka, <cough cough> years ago.  The town hasn’t changed all that much since then – the hippies have become a bit more upmarket, and there’s definitely some better places to eat nowadays, but I still recognised a lot of it.  I think I even managed to pick which was the house I’d stayed in for the six weeks I was there, boarding with my supervising teacher.

Once we’d settled in and checked out the main street a bit, we headed to the Dangerous Kitchen to meet Fuzzle for dinner.  She’d recommended the cafe’s pizzas, and they were very good.  It was great to catch up with her (she lives in Onekaka, just outside Takaka), and we talked for many hours, until the cafe staff started pointedly cleaning around us and we took the hint that it was time to leave.  It turned out that Fuzzle and Lytteltonwitch had travelled to many of the same places in Europe, so enjoyed comparing their experiences a decade or so apart.

Books released:

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – Maruia Falls
On the Road by Jack Kerouac – Vault Cafe, Murchison
Disappearing Through the Skylight by OB Harrison Jr – lookout on Takaka Hill
The New Nature of Catastrophe by Michael Moorcock – Dangerous Kitchen, Takaka


As always with writing up a trip, it’s taking longer than I expected, so I’ll have to stop for now and go and make myself some dinner. To be continued…

Wellington notes

As promised, notes from my Wellington trip.  They’re a bit disjointed, because I didn’t keep a proper travel diary, just noted down things that I wanted to remember to include in my blog.  Of course, I could write them up into proper paragraphs and stuff, but where’s the fun in that? 😉

Wednesday

  • There’s a whole herd of giraffes at Christchurch airport – one big one surrounded by baby ones.  Didn’t release a book there though (even though it would have been a great start to the giraffe mission) because they’re inside the terminal – didn’t want to start a security alert!
  • A very bumpy flight (they gave up serving refreshments half way down the plane because the turbulence was so bad), but we crossed through the front around about Kaikoura, so the landing was smooth – one of the smoothest I’ve experienced coming into Wellington, actually.
  • Taxi went what I suspect is the long way round the bays rather than through the tunnel – don’t mind though, because it’s a spectacular way to come in to Wellington.  First glimpse is of the city’s buildings sparkling above the water.  (Helps too that work is paying for the taxi fare!)
  • Hotel we’re staying at is seriously average.  But it’s only for one night, and it’s nice and close to Te Papa, where the awards dinner is being held tonight.  Close to the YHA too – pretty much across the street, so moving over there tomorrow will be nice and easy (a good thing, because I’m struggling to carry my bag long distances, not being able to swap it from hand to hand).
  • It feels weird being in a city with a proper city centre, active and vibrant.  So many people around!  Makes me realise how used I’ve got to Christchurch’s dead centre.
  • My room overlooks the fire station – memories of the Wellington convention :-)  No scantily-clad firemen in sight though – it looks like they’re doing renovation work, so just builders in hi-vis in the courtyard.
  • Awards ceremony: fantastic dinner, though hard to enjoy it while waiting to hear whether we’d won – our category wasn’t announced until after dessert, so it was a long wait!  Dinner in the marae at Te Papa – the neon-coloured carvings look so much better at night – all the garishness is gone, and they’re just gorgeous.  Lots of interesting people at our table, and between us we won three awards!  In total NZ-is-a-small-country mode, sat next to someone who not only works for the company that does our web development (I recognised his name vaguely from emails, but had never actually met him), but turned out to be a friend of Harvestbird’s!

Thursday

  • Woken very early by the construction workers at the fire station.
  • Went out for breakfast with Lucy-Jane – given the quality of the hotel, we didn’t think breakfast there would be great, and it was going to cost as much as going to a cafe anyway, so we didn’t feel too guilty about charging it back to work :-)
  • Hotel check-out at 10, but hostel check-in isn’t until 2.  At least I could drop my bag off at the hostel.  Then hit the library to get some free internet (can’t let the blog every day streak drop!)
  • No idea what I’m actually going to spend my time here doing – got a meetup planned for tomorrow night, but otherwise no plans.  At least the weather looks better than forecast, so I might just spend a big chunk of it wandering the waterfront.
  • Yeah, spoke too soon about the weather.  Just got caught in the rain, and my jacket’s in my bag, locked away in the hostel’s storage room.  Oh well, good timing to stop off in a cafe for lunch and linger over my book until it eases off.
  • NZ Portrait Gallery exhibition in Shed 11 on the waterfront – mostly set up for school groups (lots of “What sort of picture would you draw of yourself?” type info boards), but I was amused to see the portraits from What We Do in the Shadows on display.
  • Scaffolding on a lot of buildings.  Some have signs saying it’s for seismic strengthening – does this mean Wellington is finally learning some lessons from Christchurch?  Still lots of yellow stickers on buildings though, saying that they not up to building standard.  For a Christchurch person, it’s weird to see those buildings still in normal use, with everyone wandering in and out and ignoring the signs.  In Christchurch they’d be closed down straight away (and probably demolished before you could say Gerry Brownlee).
  • Wellington has the same effect on me as Melbourne – so many interesting food choices that it’s almost crippling.  I want to try them all, but can only have a meal in one at a time (and worse, only pick one thing off the menu – do I come back to the same place tomorrow and try another dish?  But then I’d have to miss out on trying that equally interesting looking place next door!).  End result, I no sooner finish one meal than I’m thinking about the next – it would be so easy to spend my time here doing nothing but eat!
  • New city, new allergens.  The antihistamines, they do nothing.

Friday

  • Went to the Tyrannosaur exhibition at Te Papa – well worth the $14 entry fee.  Lots of big (and small) dinosaur skeletons, and some seriously clever interactive exhibits.  My favourite was the big touch-screen table with dinosaurs running all over it, that you had to try and herd into the correct places on the evolutionary tree.  I think it was supposed to be for kids, but it ended up with three adults playing with it and trying to solve the puzzle while the bored kids wandered off.  We got very excited when we finally got the last dinosaur to run to the right part of the table!
  • The shadow of the big T-Rex skeleton was fun too – it looked like the skeleton was just casting a shadow on the wall.  But every so often the shadow would move – doing a little dance, or biting the head off a passer-by.  Everyone entering that room got a fright from it, I reckon :-)
  • I felt sorry for the father who only got as far as the first room of the exhibit when his little girl (who looked about 4 or 5) announced, “I think this is too scary for me Daddy, we should go home”.  You could see the conflict run across his face – “I just spent all that money for tickets”, “She’s upset, better take her home”, “But I really wanted to see the dinosaurs”.
  • Wandered around a few more art galleries, just for the novelty of being in a city with actual art galleries.  The City Gallery was pretty boring though – just a few video installations, and a whole room devoted to a single Ralph Hotere.
  • A busker was blowing giant bubbles on the waterfront – had lots of fun taking photos of kids dancing through them (offered to send a copy to one of the parents, because I suspect I caught a really cool photo of his daughter – won’t know for sure until I get home to see them on a bigger screen).  Everyone in the area was laughing and smiling, even just the people walking past – there was something so infectious in the sheer joy of the kids chasing the bubbles.
  • Meetup tonight with Sherlockfan, Edwardstreet and Chicklitfan.  Many books being passed around the table and much catching up of news.  Plus some really useful leads for work (wonder if that means I can charge the dinner to expenses… yeah, probably not…)
  • There was a stag party going on at the the restaurant – luckily in another room so we weren’t too disturbed by the noise.  It looked like they were in for a big night – as they were arriving we spotted they were carrying at least two bottles of wine each.
  • You know you’re getting old when you go into the bathroom to brush your teeth before bed, and it’s full of young women doing their makeup before heading out for the evening…

Saturday

  • So windy!  The wind is rattling the roof above my room – woke me up at some horrible hour of the morning, and I every time I started to drift off again another big gust would hit and rattle it again. Hope it dies down before I have to fly out this afternoon!
  • Ok, so the hostel lets you store bags in their storage room before you check in, but not after you check out?  Had to hire a locker instead.  The people ahead of me in the queue were very confused about how the lockers worked – couldn’t get their heads round the fact that you had to finish locking one before you could open another.
  • Met Edwardstreet at the ferry terminal – she’s going over to Soames Island for the day.  Original plan was for brunch, but in the end we’d both already eaten so just hot chocolate in the least posh of the posh cafes.
  • Spent a very long time walking up and down Victoria Street looking for a gallery that sounded interesting.  I wrote down the address, but the building doesn’t exist – it’s just an empty carpark.  If this was Christchurch I’d assume they’d knocked it down. [I checked later, and I’d just written the address down wrong – as I’m sure you’d already guessed.]
  • Usual paranoia about getting to the airport on time, so caught a bus probably an hour before I needed to.  At least now that I’ve taken the big bandage off my finger and replaced it with a couple of plasters I can carry my bag a bit easier.
  • Plane delayed, presumably because the incoming flight isn’t here yet – no sign of it outside the gate, anyway.
  • Incoming flight has arrived, and Gerry Brownlee the first off the plane, scowling all the way (don’t think I’ve ever seen him with anything but a scowl on his face, though) – wonder if he caused the delay by trying to bypass security again?  Or was it just the plane had to stop and take on extra fuel? ;-p
  • Right behind Brownlee is a notable Christchurch actor – theoretically domestic flights don’t have a business class section, but they still put all the important people up near the front of the plane!
  • At least the wind has died down a bit – now just normal Wellington windiness, not gale-force.  Still pretty bumpy though – they’re serving refreshments, but notice they’re only filling the glasses half-full (and still I almost threw my water over my seat-mate in that last bump!)

Photos will follow another day…

From my travel journal: Monday 26 March, 6.30 pm: Cardigan, Wales

The rest of the trip over went smoothly.  I slept on and off most of the way from Abu Dhabi to London, but was still pretty tired by the time we reached Heathrow.  Then I had a 4-hour wait for the bus (which felt even longer, because I was too tired to read, so spent most of it wandering the terminal aimlessly trying to stay awake).  When I booked the tickets I’d had a choice of 8.30 am or 11.30, and decided to go for the later one in case I was delayed getting through customs.  As it turned out, customs didn’t take long at all (even though the immigration officer gave me the third degree about why I was in the UK, and where I was staying (he seemed very suspicious when I said I was staying with my in-laws – he wanted to know why MrPloppy wasn’t visiting too, and didn’t seem to believe anyone would visit their in-laws by choice (I wonder if he doesn’t get on well with his?))) so I could have easily caught the earlier bus after all.

The bus took me to Swansea, where I caught another bus to Carmarthen, and the out-laws met me there and drove me the final 25 miles to Cardigan.  It was early evening by the time we got here, and by then I was so tired I only just stayed awake through dinner, then went to bed and slept for 12 hours.  After that long sleep I was feeling much better this morning, especially after a shower and a brisk walk round the block to stretch some of the stiffness out.

The outlaws had a flag flying in the front garden to welcome me

The out-laws took me into Cardigan (they live in a tiny village just outside the town), and the first thing I spotted was a charity shop with a bin of books for 10p each.  Needless to say, I quickly stocked up!

We had lunch in a lovely little pub on the riverfront, then wandered around the town a bit longer.

With a pile of books to register, I spent the afternoon sitting at the computer (good thing I brought plenty of labels with me!)  So I’m all ready now for our big trip.

Lytteltonwitch mentioned on the bookcrossing forums that she was planning to spend the night in Poppit Sands, across the bay from Cardigan.  When I told Father-out-law this, he drove me out to the cliffs where we could see it from – he even pointed out exactly which house on the distant hill was the YHA :-)

Apparently that's the hostel where lytteltonwitch is staying