MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “penguins”

Island Hopping

It was the trip that I thought was never going to happen. It was supposed to be simple enough. The flights, though expensive and drawn out, were easy enough to book, as was the tour I’d signed up for at the beginning of the trip. But when all I’d wanted to do was help out and do some voluntary work, the Ecuadorian Government seemed intent on making things especially difficult for me. First, there was only 1 visa. Simple enough, and organised on my behalf. Then suddenly the rules changed and a second visa was demanded, and this proved very complicated to get, especially when nowhere in my home country of New Zealand could issue it, and it was insisted that it had to be applied for in person. But after making some enquiries, and nervous at letting it out my sight, I packaged up my most prized possession, and sent my passport to Australia, unsure if it would return to me in time for my trip to Bangkok earlier in the year, and whether it would contain the much needed visa. It took 6 months of phone calls, emails and waiting to finally be in possession of both the visas I needed, only for 1 week prior to my leaving for Ecuador, to be told that I no longer needed the visa that had been so difficult to obtain. And so it was, that I found myself no longer looking forward to the trip, having been so frustrated with the build up.

Following a day of soaking up Ecuador’s Capital city, Quito, and an early morning rise to head to the airport, we flew south to Guayaquil where we sat on the runway for what felt like forever, before taking off again and finally heading west over the Pacific Ocean. There was little to see for most of the trip, but finally some land appeared in a break in the cloud and we touched down at San Cristobal airport, not far from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, our first stop. There were giant bugs in the terminal building whilst we waited to go through passport control, and out the other side we were picked up by our guide and taken to our hotel. Finally, my Galapagos adventure was beginning.

 

After lunch in a local restaurant where we were introduced to the Ecuadorian habit of adding popcorn to soup, we walked as a group along the waterfront, past sleeping sea lions, basking marine iguanas and a plethora of crabs. To my excitement, I saw my first ever marine turtle. Within such a short time, we were all so giddy and excited with the wildlife spotting. On the outskirts of town is an Interpretation Centre which is free to enter, and gives a really good overview of the geographical history of the islands and also a human history of the islands. Soberingly, at the end, it also highlights the potential future concerns for the islands, as a result of increased tourism, population and construction.

 

From the centre, we drove to the opposite side of town and out to Playa Loberia for the first of many snorkelling trips. We stumbled upon some large marine iguanas on route to the beach, and then the beach itself was littered with loud and smelly sea lions. It was interesting to see that there were security guards in place, ensuring that people respected the 2m rule that is widely publicised on arrival, to prevent people disturbing the wildlife. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few places it was enforced, as so many tourists (including myself ashamedly on one occasion) get overexcited and eager for the (sadly) all-important ‘selfie’. Even after dark, it was easy to spot the wildlife as the sea lions hauled themselves ashore, and often found their way to one of the many park benches that littered the promenade in town. It made for an amusing wander to and from dinner to see these large creatures sleeping under the street lights.

 

The following morning was the part of the trip I was dreading. Having grown up in a country where swimming is limited to a pool, I don’t have a lot of confidence with swimming amongst waves or out at sea. In fact, I have a moderate fear of drowning in the open ocean, so when the itinerary included a trip out to sea to snorkel in deep water, I was quietly terrified. Our group had been split up due to numbers so 3 of us headed off on an earlier boat up the west coast of Santa Cruz where we saw our first blue-footed boobies, to Kicker Rock, one of the archipelago’s most well-known landmarks. Steep-rising cliffs jutted out of the water, and the choppy sea rocked us as we prepared to get in the water. I love snorkelling, but I can feel uneasy at the best of times if I’m out of my depth, and here I was expected to jump in the water with only the depth of the sea below me. I failed miserably to get in on my first attempt and ended up banging my elbow when I eventually swung in, and straight away I had a mild panic attack. I started swallowing salt water and couldn’t clear my snorkel to breath properly. One of the boat crew who spoke no English tried to calm me down and encouraged me to breath slowly and then stick my head under water to have a look below. I did and this only upset me more as there was nothing but darkness below me. My instinct was to swim fast back to the boat and get the hell out of there, but with the help of my companions and the crew, I forced myself to calm down and stay in.

 

Between the rocks is a channel well known for hammerhead sharks and turtles. Also the walls of the rocks below the surface offer a hold for many algae, lichen and other organisms which in turn attracts fish. This was our promised reward for doing something crazy. Unfortunately, the sky was slightly overcast, and the water rather murky, which limited the visibility quite dramatically. Despite this, I had a private moment with a marine turtle which appeared briefly out of the gloom, swam below me, and disappeared again. There were large shoals of fish visible at depth too, and as we rounded the far side of the rock structures, the sun broke through and illuminated the underwater life. Nobody saw any sharks, but we all managed to swim into an expansive swarm of miniscule jellyfish. Stung from head to foot, the little zaps were like little static shocks, and eventually we all got out the water because they were driving us crazy. In the end I was proud of myself. The visibility had been a little disappointing but I had made myself stay in the water and I had kept myself sane after the initial panic. That was a big achievement for me.

 

But the trip didn’t end there. On our way to a beach spot we came across a humpback whale mother and calf. Estimated to be a few weeks old, the mother lounged at the water’s surface while the calf lazily swam around her. We must have spent an hour with them, which as a cetacean fanatic was incredible, but at the same time, I felt slightly irked by the captain constantly circling them with the engine on. It will always be a conundrum: letting people see wildlife in their own environment whilst not getting too close nor disturbing them. The whales didn’t seem bothered but we literally spent the hour going in an arc around them, and when finally we did stop it was for the totally wrong reason: two of the crew jumped in the water to go and swim with them. I was not impressed. In many countries this would be illegal, and I was not sure what the legality was in the Galapagos but given the 2m rule signs everywhere else, I doubted it would have been encouraged. The mother whale herself said it all, as she made it very clear that enough was enough. Taking an extreme back arch, she slapped her tail below the surface and sent a shock wave behind her, as she barrelled away from us. The calf followed suit, delighting the other passengers by breaching several times. When the two crew got out the water, they were grinning from ear to ear, and one proclaimed it as a bucket list item checked off. She had been right behind the tail and was lucky she didn’t get knocked out.

 

Following a delicious lunch, and some time on a nearby beach which in the sunshine looked so tropical, we headed back towards Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and happened upon a pod of bottlenose dolphins who joined us for a while frolicking by our side and bow. It was scorching by the time we reached the town. We had the afternoon to ourselves, so myself and one of my companions took a walk around the coast to Punta Carola, a beach full of sea lions and marine iguanas, before heading up the hill to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill) which overlooks Darwin Bay, the spot where Charles Darwin first set foot on the islands. Below us, people snorkelled in the pristine bay and we could see a turtle come up for air and some sea lions frolicking around the people. Standing above it all is a large statue of a young Charles Darwin, and a short coastal walk leaves from here. Heading back into town, we bumped into some friends and grabbed a cocktail at a local bar, before venturing to a local restaurant for some Ecuadorian cuisine, followed by a walk along the promenade to see the sleeping sea lions at the beach.

 

We left early the next day for an interesting 3 hour boat ride west to Floreana island, the smallest of the four inhabited islands. Under the cover of a large speedboat, there wasn’t much to look at, so I attempted to sleep the journey away, but it was a bit rough for some people in the group who did their best to grit their teeth and get through it. It must have felt forever for them, and even at the other end, we had to jump on a panga (water taxi) to get to the pier. There was a good swell by this point, and it took a few attempts for our panga driver to time it right so we could get off. Again, there were marine iguanas, sea lions and crabs everywhere, and we watched them being lazy whilst we waited for everyone to be ready.

 

Puerto Velazco Ibarra is very different from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. With just a few streets making up the town, it was quiet and subdued and it felt like we were the only tourists there. We were staying in little lodges by the sea, and from our patio we could see multiple turtles in the surf. There were insects and lizards everywhere and it was hot and humid outside. We got a ride in a Chiva (truck) up into the highlands where we took a walk through the vegetation whilst learning about the history of the island. Floreana is an island steeped in human history with a good bit of mystery and intrigue to add, thanks to the mysterious disappearance of some previous inhabitants. We came across some caves and a rock carved like a face before having our first encounter with the famous Galapagos tortoise. Thanks to early settlers, there are no native Floreana tortoises left in existence, but an enclosure contains some introduced San Cristobal tortoises which we could wander amongst as they went about their business of generally doing nothing or munching on the vegetation.

 

Back in town, a few of us waited for sunset at the pier surrounded by iguanas and sea lions. We added our postcards to the self-mailing mail box, and swung in hammocks at the restaurant before dinner time. At the restaurant we were introduced to the delicious snack that are chifles, a salted snack made from plantains, that I found myself munching on for the rest of my trip. Back in the lodge we tried and failed to get the lodge cool enough for a good night’s sleep. But the morning heralded a beautiful day – calm sea, blue skies and another boat trip. Leaving the iguanas and sea lions behind we endured another 2 hour ride on the same speedboat, heading west to Isabela, the largest and one of the youngest islands in the group. There were lots of sea birds as we passed the neighbouring Tortuga island, and as we motored into the sheltered port of Puerto Villamil, we were surrounded by blue-footed boobies, large frigate birds, and to everyone’s delight: penguins.

 

For me, it was impossible not to fall in love with Isabela. The water around the pier was crystal clear and full of wildlife, and there was a serene calmness about the place that just sucked you in and chilled you out. That afternoon, we headed out to Las Tintoreras, a group of islets not far off shore that were made up of ‘aa’ lava, a type of rocky lava that juts up sharply in spikes. On route, we passed hundreds of the beautiful blue-footed boobies, saw the pirates of the sky, the frigate bird, soaring above us, and watched penguins sunning themselves on the rocks whilst a juvenile heron spread its wings on its nest. The lava had created some marine channels which white-tipped reef sharks liked to rest in, and we saw one from the shore, as well as being surrounded by lava lizards, and marine iguanas. We were even lucky enough to spot a night heron amongst the bushes.

 

But what beat all of this was the snorkelling. We started off in the deeper water, before heading into the more sheltered and shallower water around the islets. I was excited to see several marine turtles up close, including a couple who ignored the 2m rule and swam right up to me and past me right in front of my face. There were tropical fish everywhere, and the highlight for me, and indeed all of my snorkelling trips, was the inquisitive sea lions. Like puppies, they are playful and inquisitive, and love interacting in the water. They would blow bubbles and spin, and swim towards you before changing direction at lightening speed at the last minute. The rest of my group had swam ahead and I found myself alone with 3 juveniles who seemed as keen to play with me as they were with each other. It was utterly magical, and I stayed for a long time enjoying the moment before eventually my guide called on me to catch up. Even with multiple snorkelling trips after this, that day remained my favourite snorkel of the entire trip.

The main street of Isabela is sandy and low-key with a scattering of restaurants and bars. A few of us headed to a pizza diner where we were amused by our waiter who somewhat endearingly managed to cock-up our order multiple times, before we spent our evening relaxing in the hammocks in the garden of our hotel. The neighbourhood dog joined us for a while and seemed to love the attention. Somewhere nearby there were roosters who proceeded to crow from an early hour and wake us up far too early. We had a day of exploring ahead of us, and we headed first to the tortoise breeding centre out of town, where there were hundreds of tortoises of varying ages. With introduced predators on the islands, those tortoises younger than 25 years were at risk of being killed, so eggs are now routinely collected and the youngsters are reared in captivity until they are big enough to fend for themselves. By the age of 25, they are usually of a size when they can be released. It was a chance to get up close with the tortoises and see some very small ones that were only a few weeks old. The small ones were very active and capable of moving quite fast, but the older ones were very sedentary in comparison.

 

Just past the breeding centre, an old quarry was home to a few flamingos which we were able to see on our way to the highlands. It was misty, damp and muddy for our 1hr hike up Cerro Negro, an active volcano. We followed the ridge line a little way which gave time for the mist to lift and we were lucky enough to see the full extent of the crater rim, and the black crater within. The last eruption had been 10 years prior and we could see the site from where it had occurred. Just a couple of months prior to my trip, one of Isabela’s other volcanoes, Wolf, erupted, a reminder of the archipelago’s origins.

 

After lunch near an orchard, we gathered our rental bikes and set off along the beautiful expanse of Isabela’s main beach and headed west to the entrance to the National Park and the start of the track to the Wall of Tears. Human habitation on this island had begun as a penal colony, and the prisoners had been forced to build a large wall of lava rocks, which now remains the only remnant of the prison. I don’t think a single one of us had a decent bike, and through flat tyres and poorly functioning gears, we laboured our way along the 4km winding track before coming across two wild giant tortoises. Up till now, every tortoise we had seen was in an enclosure of some kind, but finally these were ones in the wild. I’m ashamed to say that I broke the 2m rule to get a photo of one, and was told off by my guide when he spotted it. Leaving our bikes at the end of the track, we walked to the large wall, and headed around and up past it to reach a viewpoint. It was rather overcast which limited the view but we were surrounded by vegetation and birdsong, and finally got to see the Galapagos Mockingbird, a particularly beautiful-sounding bird. Heading back to civilisation, a few of us stopped at a lava tunnel by the sea, before it was time for more food and relaxation.

 

Concha Perla is a small lagoon near the pier that offers protected snorkelling and we headed here the next morning before leaving Isabela behind. The reward was a very large stingray, getting close up to a penguin on a nearby rock, and tons of colourful fish and starfish. With the Panama current switching to the Humboldt current, the water temperature was dropping, and being further west in the realm of the penguin, it was noticeably colder in the water. For the first time, I started feeling cold, and after spending a good time exploring the lagoon and the surrounding lava channels, I had to get out. From here, we had a 2.5hr boat trip east to the most populated island, Santa Cruz, my base for the next month. It was a bumpy ride and one of the engines failed on the way, but everyone felt relatively good, and we turned up to the busy port of Puerto Ayora hungry. I wasn’t the only one who was excited to see our restaurant had a barista and several of us enjoyed our first decent coffee in several days.

Our hotel was near the waterfront and we walked from here to the Charles Darwin Research centre which lies just outside of town. Quite compact, it houses a small collection of giant tortoises of various species as well as a couple of land iguanas, a rather yellow version of their black cousins, the marine iguanas. We had plenty of time to ourselves to explore the overly commercial town who’s front street is an array of tourist shops, restaurants, travel agents and the local fish market which drew a crowd of birds and people. It was so very different from the other islands, and with little wildlife near town, I was missing the peace of Isabela already. But at least we had options. Keeping away from the tourist restaurants, we headed to a back street which was lined by food kiosks where we settled amongst a mix of locals and tourists to enjoy some delicious Ecuadorian street food.

 

Finally it was our last morning as a group. From town we took the hour-long walk to my favourite spot on Santa Cruz: Tortuga Bay. Walking through vegetation swarming with paper wasps, it feels like forever before the path breaks out at a beautiful surf beach. Past blue bottle jellyfish that lined the long sandy beach, we headed to the far end and through some mangroves to come out at a beautiful sheltered lagoon where we went kayaking. Hugging the mangroves first down one side and back along the other we saw rays, a white-tipped reef shark and a marine iguana swimming in the sea, the first time any of us had actually seen one in the water. Although slightly overcast, we enjoyed a bit of relaxation on the beach before heading slowly back to town.

In the afternoon, we drove out to Rancho Manzanilla, one of a few ranches in the highlands offering up close encounters with semi-wild tortoises. On the long drive there, we came across the largest giant tortoise that I saw on the whole trip. It was just sitting at the side of the road and we stopped to take photos before negotiating the gravel road around it. There had been rain recently and we needed to wear welly boots to negotiate the muddy grounds, but it was a nice wander around amongst the vegetation and there were many tortoises of various sizes hanging out around mud pools and bushes. In the main building, we had fun trying on tortoise shells for size. Climbing inside them, they were surprisingly heavy and it was a struggle to try and stand up with one on my back.

 

From the ranch, we stopped at a large lava tunnel on the drive back to town. Caused by the external lava cooling quicker than the deeper lava, it was like a large cave that we could climb down into and walk along for a short distance. It was another reminder of the island group’s volcanic origins. As it was our last night together, most of us went to a nearby hotel for some cocktails before heading back to the street of kiosks to sample something different. It was a lovely night, and despite them all leaving me behind the next morning, I promised to get up early with them to say my goodbyes. It was not to be though. For the third time in my life, I was struck down with the most horrendous food poisoning which robbed me of any sleep and made me feel absolutely miserable. Feeling guilty for disturbing my roommate in the night, I was finally able to separate myself from the bathroom and crawl back into bed at 6.30am when she was getting up. I was touched to have some of my companions for the past week come by to say adios before leaving, and I found myself alone in the hotel waiting till the last possible minute before check-out. Struggling down 2 flights of stairs with my luggage feeling weak and dehydrated, I negotiated a taxi and set off for the rest of my Galapagos adventure

Stories from the South Island

Surprising people is immense fun; the looks on people’s faces when you turn up unannounced or the shocked silence on the phone when you call to say you are not far away makes up for the days and months of keeping a secret and covering your tracks. In 2012, I managed to keep a trip back to Scotland a secret from my family and friends for 10 months. I was immensely proud of myself for managing 10 months of keeping in touch with people without a single lie coming out of my mouth, all the while tactfully dodging the truth about my plans. I also spent a week in February 2012 pretending to my partner that I was going to be in Wellington, when in fact I was booked on the ferry to Picton and had a romantic weekend booked for us in Kaikoura.

The sailing across the Cook Strait couldn’t have been more perfect. Notorious for some foul weather and rough seas, the day I crossed the sea was as flat and calm as glass, and it shimmered under the early morning sun that gleamed with pride from a clear blue sky. Over an hour of the crossing is spent sailing through the beautiful and majestic Queen Charlotte Sound, made up of multiple islands nestled amongst the finger-like peninsulas on the north coast of the South Island. I spent the whole sailing standing on the top deck breathing it all in. Picton nestles quaintly into one of the deepest parts of the Sound, and from here I transferred to the Coastal Pacific train, part of the Tranz Scenic rail network. The first thing that struck me on the journey south was how brown the South Island was compared to the North. Trees were being felled for large stretches of the early parts of the track, and the landscape was of brown rolling hills rather than the greenery I had been accustomed to up till now. By the time Blenheim was reached, green pastures and mountains in the distance had started to appear, and this was more like the South Island that I had been expecting, and have come to love.

 

Cutting past pink salt pans, a sight I never expected to see in New Zealand, the track cut to the east coast and took us south on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, waves rolling gently at our side in the sunshine. The Kaikoura ranges shot up to the right of the train, towering above us, and New Zealand fur seals sunbathed on the rocks on our left, ignoring the passing train. At 3.15pm on such a beautiful day, the train pulled into Kaikoura and I stepped off, ready to embrace something new. After a day of silence, I finally made the phone call to my stunned partner to tell him where I was, and after he got over the shock and realisation, he jumped in his car and made the 2.5hr drive north from Christchurch to meet me.

What the town lacks in size, the location makes up in grandeur. Sitting out on a peninsula, it sits at the base of the Kaikoura ranges, and is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Not far off shore is the Hikurangi Trench, an immense sea trench reaching depths of >3000m, which brings an abundance of marine life and an ecosystem that supports one of the largest creatures on earth: the sperm whale. As an avid cetacean enthusiast, I take great passion from getting out to sea to watch whales and dolphins frolicking and surviving in the world’s oceans. On a return visit to the town for our anniversary, we took a flight from the nearby airport which headed off the coast in search of sperm whales. Spending most of their lives feeding at great depths, they spend only 15mins at the surface re-oxygenating their blood in between dives. It took a bit of time, but eventually we found one, and it was fantastic to get an aerial view of a mammal that I am used to seeing from sea-level. It was beautiful, and we circled above it until it arched its tail and dived to the depths in search of giant squid.

 

The following day, we opted for the sea safari. The weather was squally, and there was a high level sea sickness warning. Determined to get closer than the plane had allowed, we opted to go ahead with the trip. I normally have a pretty iron stomach out at sea, having spent months in South Africa doing regular trips out to watch whales, and various sailings in all sorts of weather, but stupidly I doubted myself on that day. Shovelling a herbal sea sickness remedy and some ginger candy down my throat, I almost immediately felt a burning sensation in my throat. This escalated when we got on the boat and headed out to sea, and it wasn’t long before I was throwing up. We stopped to watch some dusky dolphins, and 3 sperm whales, but I could only stand so much in between curling up on the deck and filling sick bag after sick bag. It was not the whale watching trip I had imagined.

 

Walking from the town of Kaikoura round the peninsula, takes you to a carpark from which New Zealand fur seals can be seen everywhere you look. The peninsula walk itself is lovely, following the coast round to the south side of the peninsula and back into town. If you know where to go in New Zealand, the fur seals can be found in abundance on both the east and west coasts.

 

Another favourite place of mine is the French town of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. A 1.5hr drive out of Christchurch, the road winds round then over the rim of what used to be a volcano, until the remains of the volcanic crater, now filled by the sea is visible, and within this lies the beautiful Akaroa. It is a small settlement, but like Kaikoura, it has the draw of wildlife. Reached either by 4×4 over the hills, or on a harbour cruise, there is another colony of fur seals just outside of the harbour entrance. The real draw here though is the Hector’s dolphins. Found only in New Zealand’s waters, they are one of the smallest cetacean species in the world, and unfortunately, they are endangered. On a sunny day, the water around Akaroa is so clear, that it is easy to watch these little dolphins even when they are below the surface, and they are always a joy to behold. On my second trip out on a harbour cruise, I even saw a little blue penguin out fishing.

 

I will always have a slight soft spot for Timaru because I spent a few months there working, but most people would drive through it without giving it a second glance. The beachfront at Caroline Bay with the park behind has been lovingly maintained, and I spent many an hour wandering through here and the coastline around. Further south, the next big tourist draw is Oamaru. It has a few pretty old-fashioned buildings, but for me it held 2 draws: the large blue penguin colony that lives nearby, and as a base to see the Moeraki boulders. In the not-too distant past, the blue penguins came ashore every night to burrow into the hillside by the sea, on the edge of town. Many penguins were killed by drivers and dogs, as they negotiated the road, the railway line, and anybody who came along at the same time. As a result, an area was artificially created to allow the penguins to get to burrows without having to risk crossing traffic, and also to keep nosy people from scaring them. So as a result, you now have to pay to see them come ashore, but it is worth it. My partner and I were there in the dead of winter, and we sat on a viewing stand in the cold dark of an early night, the slipway from the sea illuminated by infra-red light, allowing us to see the penguins, but keeping us in the dark to them. After a bit of a wait, a single penguin negotiated the waves and came running up the slipway only to come across a fur seal that was asleep on the grass. The fur seal didn’t move, and the penguin slipped past and headed towards a burrow. Shortly after, a ‘raft’ of 6 penguins appeared. They hustled each other up the slipway, but this time at the top, the fur seal moved and sent them scattering, 2 towards the burrows, and the other 4 back down the slipway. It was amusing to watch them renegotiate the route back up again, taking small steps then pausing, looking at each other and nudging each other. It was as if they were daring each other to go first. They spent about 10 minutes with this game before eventually they made a run for it. This time the fur seal didn’t bother itself, and they all made it into the burrow area.

 

Immediately south of Oamaru is a beach where the rare yellow-eyed penguin comes ashore. We had been told to go at sunset to see them come in and sunrise to see them leave. We headed to the lookout and waited and waited and waited. After nearly an hour, not a single penguin had appeared so we headed off. The next morning, we headed out a little late, and met a local who reported that the penguins had arrived shortly after we left. We proceeded back to the lookout and sat for a while, but the sun was already quite up by this point, and we left having seen none.

About 40 mins south of Oamaru is the Moeraki boulders, a natural phenomenon of wave erosion on the local mudstone that exposes near-spherical rocks that then appear to march towards the ocean where they break apart. No two visits to the beach are the same as the structures change shape and form as time and sea break them down. The beach is littered with them, and it was bizarre to wander along and see a newly emerging one appearing out of the cliff. Some were small like footballs, and others were as big as a person, and those that had cracked like an egg were big enough to climb into.

 

Dunedin is referred to as the Edinburgh of the South; having been to both cities, I have no idea why. It is supposed to have an overwhelming Scottish influence, but aside from 1 restaurant that served whisky and haggis, I can’t say that I saw a lot of that influence myself. Nor was I ever aware of a lot of Scottish people living there, although there are a few Scottish surnames hanging around in New Zealand as a whole. I personally can’t say anything exciting about the city itself. My Scottish friend recently emigrated to Dunedin from Aberdeen, and she seems happy there, but I was not overly fussed with the city myself. What I do love about Dunedin though, is its location, because the Otago Peninsula is just beautiful. Following the coast road round inlets of perfectly still water, beside rolling hills, takes you eventually to Taiaroa head at the tip of the peninsula where the only mainland place in the world to view Royal Albatross is. When I visited in winter, there were several fluffy white chicks being catered to by their parents who came soaring in from the Pacific Ocean beyond.

 

In the lowering mid-winter sunshine, I headed onwards around the peninsula to Larnach Castle. Heralded as New Zealand’s only castle, it is more like a mansion, but it sits atop a ridge of the Otago Peninsula and commands a stunning view from both the gardens and the rooftop view point. At the southern edge of Dunedin is the suburb of St Clair which commands a view out onto the wilds of the Pacific Ocean and has a beautiful stretch of beach to wander along, as well as some good cafes that are always crammed full of people. Even on a cold winter’s day, I loved pounding the beach, my hair whipped around my face as I breathed in the sea air.

 

Leaving Dunedin train station is an old-fashioned steam train that travels through the Otago countryside and up the Taieri Gorge. Across viaducts and through tunnels we travelled through some beautiful countryside. In winter it is a 4hr return trip, but the summer offers excursions which allow the train ride to link up to the start of the Otago rail trail, a 150km bike trail cutting an arc through the central Otago landscape. Having regained a love of cycling (something which I used to live for growing up but as an adult had become the stuff of annual jaunts whilst on holiday) since living in Christchurch, I am looking forward to riding the rail trail in the summer of 2014.

Queenstown is generally famous the world over for its adrenalin inducing activities and for Fergberger. I remember laughing when my partner insisted that I had to go there on my first trip to the town in 2012, but on arrival I was astounded by the lengthy queue out the door every day, be it lunch time or dinner time. Soon realising that there was no quiet time there, I joined the masses and quickly became a devotee. Anybody who has eaten there knows that there is no burger like it anywhere else in the world. They are hands-down the most scrumptious meal-in-a-bun that you will ever eat. Another favourite eatery was Patagonia. Having travelled in Patagonia a few years previously, I knew just how decadent ice cream was from that part of the world, so I needed no persuasion to visit this ice-cream parlour-come-coffee shop. Several days of my trip included a fergburger for main course and some delicious Patagonia ice cream for dessert.

 

Short of eating an extra few inches onto my waistline, I was keen to see what Queenstown was all about. The day I arrived in early March 2012 it was 28oC and the small beach on the shore of Lake Wakatipu was packed. 2 days later I awoke to snow on the ground – I couldn’t believe the transformation. Lake Wakatipu is a long, sinuous lake stretching for 80 km. Getting out on a boat cruise barely covered a tiny patch of this lake, heading from the harbour in the town centre, and round Queenstown gardens before heading up the Frankton Arm of the lake towards the Kawarau Rd bridge. Overlooking the town itself is a number of hills and mountains. The most visited is Bob’s Peak which is accessible by hiking trail and by gondola. I accidentally picked the mountain bike trail to hike up and was quickly yelled at to get out the way. The route was so steep that the bikes were zooming towards me at immense speed and I was in danger of causing an accident. Hiding my blushes, I headed on up the steep slog to the viewpoint at the top of the Gondola. It wasn’t the sunniest of days but the visibility was still great and the view over the lake towards the Remarkables Mountain range was spectacular. Never one for taking the easy route down, I had signed up for the zipline experience to ride 6 flying foxes back down to the town. This was as much splurging as I could afford at this point in time, and it was worth every penny. Each ride we got to try a different maneuver such as riding upside down or flipping positions and it was a new way to experience the forest, feet above my head and staring straight down at the leaf litter below me as the trees whizzed past my ears. Queen’s Hill is also a rewarding hike starting in the back streets of town. The summit offers an alternate view of the lake, but unfortunately, the heavens opened when I reached the top, and the cloud cover came down obscuring a lot of my view.

 

In winter, Queenstown is all about skiing. The surrounding mountain ranges look pretty in glistening white, and there’s plenty of choice. Within easy driving distance is Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Cardrona. In July 2013, my partner and I spent a long weekend in Queenstown enjoying the food and the mulled wine which was served almost everywhere. The weather was not in our favour, and the propeller plane we flew down on nearly wasn’t able to land as the clouds were so closed in. With lots of rain, we experienced the indoor life that the town has to offer. The Fear Factory is a new haunted house that has opened up on Shotover Street. In pitch black, you follow a maze of red lights whilst things grab at you from the darkness or leap out at you in a flash of light. The Caddyshack Mini Golf near the Gondola was also a surprise delight. We stumbled across it by chance, but it was full of 18 holes of electronically controlled fun. Embracing the cold weather theme, we spent some time in 1 of Queenstown’s two Ice Bars, Below Zero. Maintained at a chilly -8oC, we enjoyed cocktails out of an ice glass surrounded by ice sculptures. In one of the few gaps in the weather, we managed the scenic drive round Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a cute little village at the head of the lake. The views were stunning even in the low cloud, so it will be somewhere to head back to in the warmer months.

 

To this day, Wanaka remains one of my favourite parts of New Zealand. Like the more developed and commercialised Queenstown, it is nestled on the shore of a large lake, but Wanaka offers everything I love: peace and quiet, fewer people, less commercialism, and reams of hiking trails in every perceivable direction. I spent several days here after my time in Queenstown, in March 2012, and the weather was generally perfect. I hiked east round the lake one day, taking in the ever-changing vista of water and mountains, up one of the rivers towards Albert Town, and then back to Wanaka via Mt Iron for an impressive panorama of the town and the surrounding countryside. The following day I hiked west to Glendhu Bay where my hand was savaged by a portaloo (a scar that I still bare to this day!) but I was rewarded with my first glimpse of the glacier streaming down from Mt Aspiring. The weather turned on the long walk home, and I limped soaking into a Greek restaurant in town for a tasty dinner and some well-deserved wine. Having imbibed a little too much wine, I took a slight detour on the way back to the hostel to climb a tree as the sun set.

 

My favourite hike in Wanaka headed west round the lake as the day before, but detoured half-way to head up the impressive Roy’s Peak. It was a hard and steady slog, winding zig-zagged up a rather steep incline. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the hike was very popular. From quite early on, the view was stunning. The higher I climbed, the more of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountain ranges I could see. The lake has several islands within it, and every where I looked was a disappearing expanse of greenness. The view from the top trumped it all though. Nearly the full extent of the lake was visible, with Mt Aspiring in one direction, and a stream of mountains in many others. The town of Wanaka itself looked tiny, and even Mt Iron which I had hiked a couple of days before was easily dwarfed. I ate my lunch amongst a cluster of other hikers sharing the summit, and I got great joy from an up close and personal encounter with a couple of falcons who flitted about the summit mobbing each other. On my final day in Wanaka, I opted for the water’s view of the place, taking one of the excursions out to one of the islands on the lake. The area reminded me so much of Cairngorm National Park in my home country of Scotland, and its grandeur took my breath away.

 

The MacKenzie District will always be a special place for my partner and I. In winter 2012, we headed inland to take up a deal at the Hermitage hotel in Mount Cook Village. Like a little alpine village in Europe, it is nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains including New Zealand’s highest: Mount Cook, or Aoraki in Maori. There was plenty of snow as we travelled up the west bank of Lake Pukaki and the village itself was white, with plenty of snow to tramp through and skid on as we negotiated the surrounds of our hotel. The hotel was fantastic, and our ‘cheap’ room included a balcony view overlooking the village and the behemoth of Mt Cook across the valley.

 

The unfortunate effect of the snow was that a lot of the local tours were cancelled as some of the roads disappearing through the valley were classed as treacherous. The only thing still running was a glacier flight. Mt Cook village sits nestled on the eastern valley of the Southern Alps. Directly west of there sits the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in all their icy glory. We opted for the cheaper flight which took us on an aerial view around the glaciers, but when we got to the airfield, due to numbers, we got upgraded to the longer tour which encompassed the same scenic flight but included a snow landing on the ice field at the top of the glacier. From the airfield, we headed up and over the Tasman Glacier with its lake, and headed towards the ridge line of the alps. The sun shone for us and sparkled on the glistening snow behind us, and we gawked at the view towards the peak of Mt Cook, and the west coast beyond. The plane circled above Franz Josef glacier before heading up Fox glacier’s ice field to land on the powder. First out the plane was a petite woman and her feet disappeared to her ankles in the snow. My partner got out next, expecting a similar experience, only for him to disappear down to his knees. I fared little better, and we laughed at each others’ struggles to negotiate the snow, and ‘walk’ about the ice field. The sun beat down on us from above, but it was the middle of winter, and with the altitude we were both freezing, neither of us having dressed for the occasion.

 

Lake Tekapo neighbours Lake Pukaki in the MacKenzie District, and we spent a few nights there over Easter 2013. The relatively new Spa Pools were a delight to soak in of an evening, enjoying the delightfully warm (though crowded) pools in the fading light. At the top of Mt John behind the Spa Pools is the Mt John Observatory. The whole region around this observatory has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 4 in the world. The light pollution is so low here, that it is an excellent place to go stargazing, and the Milky Way is often visible above the township. We took a guided tour to the observatory with Earth & Sky and the guides were so passionate. It was amazing to see Saturn’s rings through the telescope, as well as Jupiter and an amazing close up of the moon.

 

Within a reasonable drive from my home in Christchurch is Hanmer Springs. The main reason for visiting here are the amazing geothermal pools. I could sit in these pools for hours, happily becoming a prune, and there are varying pools of varying temperatures to satisfy the relaxation needs of adults, whilst a water park area serves the kids. Attached to the pools is a Spa offering massages and private hot pools. Aside from several trips to the hot pools, on our last visit, my partner and I opted to go on a quad biking adventure out of town. On the drive into Hanmer Springs is a bungy jump centre, and they also offer quad biking through the nearby river valley. Having driven quads before from my younger days as a milkmaid, I started off confident, keeping up with our guide. Unfortunately, within 20 minutes, I took an embankment too quickly and drove head-first into a tree. I did my best impression of Superman over the handlebars, and the tyre of the quad was punctured on a branch. My pride was just as hurt as my limbs were, and I sported some amazing bruises for several weeks after as well as an injured wrist that still gives me problems nearly 6 months later. On the day though, after my quad bike was replaced, I continued with the ride, albeit at a much more timid pace.

 

The Tranz Alpine train runs from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass and Lake Brunner. Part of the Tranz Scenic rail network, we took the ride west in July 2012, hoping to see some snow on the mountains. We had previously driven to Arthur’s Pass and enjoyed a walk through the trees to a beautiful waterfall, but this time we could sit back and enjoy the scenery. The train speeds across the flat of the Canterbury Plains before snaking through the Southern Alps through river valleys, gorges and through tunnels in the mountains. Passing the side of Lake Brunner, it continues west towards Greymouth. It was a beautiful trip, and we spent the weekend at Greymouth before heading home on the train. There are so many beautiful vistas from the train, but even the road from the west coast is spectacular. Driving along side glacier-fed rivers, and rolling hills, and across a viaduct, this is the land of Kea, mountain parrots unique to New Zealand. They are cheeky and bold birds, that will chew attachments to vehicles if given half a chance. Resembling a scene from the Lord of the Rings movies, Castle Hill is a boulder-strewn hillside that is worth a wander around. Not far from there is Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, a cave system that is open for unguided, at-your-own-risk exploring. The day we visited we had come unprepared, not knowing of its existence, but now the owner of a wetsuit, I intend to get back here one day and go caving.

 

The north-west corner of the South Island is a mass of National Parks, and the countryside and coastline are overwhelmingly beautiful. In January 2013, I spent my summer holidays road-tripping from Abel Tasman National Park down the west coast. Spending several nights in Kaiteriteri on the edge of the National Park, it was an easy boat trip from the beach up the coast to a variety of bays to allow exploring such a beautiful area. The sea was blue, and home to New Zealand fur seals, and the land was lush with thick vegetation. The first bay, Halfmoon Bay, was home to Split Apple Rock, the most photographed piece of rock in the National Park. We hiked from Torrent Bay to Apple Tree Bay as well as from Tonga Bay to Bark Bay, both sections of a multi-day hike. From Bark Bay we kayaked south to Anchorage, negotiating strong winds to make it back in time for the ferry back to Kaiteriteri. It was an amazing few days, and I loved it there. Along the coast is Golden Bay and Fairwell Spit, a large sand bar projecting north into the Cook Strait. It is infamous as a common stranding zone for whales that get disorientated and stuck on the expansive sand flat.

 

It was blowing such a gale and pouring with such rain, that we did not spend long in Nelson. Cutting from the north coast to the west coast meant heading deep inland across hills and through reams of farmland and forest, eventually linking up with the Buller river and following its course to Westport. The whole drive was in torrential rain, so we didn’t stop much, managing a zipline across the swollen river in a brief lull in the otherwise incessant rain. There isn’t a lot to Westport, it is an old town that housed gold and coal miners, but on the western edge of Buller Bay is Cape Foulwind where there is a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. The day we visited there were lots of seal pups on the rocks below the viewing area, and the males were making lots of noise and throwing their weight about.

 

For most of the drive south to Greymouth, State Highway 6 hugs the stunning coastline. The Tasman Sea is rough and unforgiving, the coastline scattered with weather-beaten cliffs and rocks, and dotted with stretches of beautiful sandy beaches. The mountains rose to our left, including those that supported Fox glacier, and the vegetation was thick. Tropical plants vied with temperate plants near sea level, and the only breaks in the tree line were where rivers coursed through. The surprise for me though, was Pancake Rocks, so called because of their resemblance to stacks of pancakes. These limestone formations are most evident near Punakaiki, and in several areas the erosion from the sea underneath has created caverns which become blowholes when wave conditions are right. It was a blisteringly hot day when we were there, but I could have happily spent a lot of time here ogling this unique coastline.

 

From Greymouth, we headed further south to Hokitika at the mouth of the Hokitika river. Another township founded due to gold mining, it is famous now for its jade, with multiple shops catering to this market. South of here, we drove to the newly opened tree top walk. Having gone on one in Victoria, Australia, we went there with high expectations. We were mainly disappointed with the exorbitant entry price, but something just seemed lacking compared to the one in Australia that we had done the year before. Having said that, it was a nice viewpoint east towards the Southern Alps. To the east of Hokitika towards the mountains, was the Hokitika Gorge. Here, the river is fed from the glaciers and mountains above, and on a sunny day, the waters are a deep aquamarine. Unfortunately, after days of heavy rain, the river resembled more of a milk bath, with immense quantities of silt having been washed downstream. It was still a great sight, but I can only imagine how beautiful it would look in all its glory.

 

After nearly 18 months in this country, I have explored so much. However, there is still so much to see. Milford and Doubtful Sounds are two big draws that have so far eluded me, mainly due to their distance and relative inaccessibility. Also due to time and planning constraints, I am yet to hike any of the Great Walks, something which I hope to rectify over the next few summers. The lesser-visited island of Stewart Island is also a place I long to visit too. My New Zealand adventures are a work in progress…

South African Odyssey

I have no idea what happens once you die, but I’d like to be reincarnated as a spinner dolphin. I have no recollection where my obsession with cetaceans came from, but as far back as I can remember I have been entranced and enthralled with films of whales and dolphins cavorting with each other in the oceans of the world. My experience with orcas off British Columbia sparked a thirst for more encounters. Whilst avoiding studying at university one day, I came across a program in South Africa that took volunteers, and after 18 yrs of solid education, I decided to take some time out after graduation and head to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in my life.

On the bus into Cape Town, I had my eyes opened for the first time. After years of seeing slums and shanty towns on the news, here I was seeing them for myself for the first time. Rows and rows of ramshackle huts made of corrugated iron and whatever other materials came to hand. It humbled me, and made me realise that here I was in Africa. My place of rest was snuggled near the base of Table Mountain, and it towered over me from such proximity. It was impressive to say the least. The grounds had security entry and walking down to the main road brought me level with armed guards patrolling the neighbouring hotels. Yes, I was definitely in Africa.

It’s amazing how first impressions can be so false. I was so nervous and suspicious that day wandering round, but after subsequent trips back to the city, I have found it to be a charming and relaxing place that has a fantastic vibe and joie de vivre. In essence: I loved it there. 5 hrs east of the city was my home for 3 months: Plettenberg Bay, one of my absolute favourite places in the whole world. Words will never do justice to the beauty of that town and the surrounding Garden Route, nor will I ever be able to fully express the effect on me that that stay had. I believe everybody has a lifechanging moment or timespan where they grow or develop as a person, and my time in Plettenberg Bay was it.

 

I lived on a farm about 20 mins drive from the town, which just so happened to share a fence-line with the neighbouring elephant sanctuary. Looking out the bedroom window across the field to the elephants bathing themselves in the pool, was a sight that never grew tiring, nor did the sound of their haunting trumpeting to each other, or the vision of the youngsters playing with each other.

 

The majority of the time was spent office bound, collating data relating to the dolphins and whales that frequented the area. The Centre for Dolphin Studies has been based in the area for many years, and is associated with the commercial company Ocean Safaris that runs whale watching trips out on the bay. There is a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins in the bay, as well as migrating humpback dolphins, common dolphins, humpback whales, bryde whales, southern right whales and orcas. I was in my element. The research side was also investigating the diet of the local population of Cape Fur Seals, a task that involved monthly trips to the colony to pick up poo for sieving. This involved a terrifying scramble down the scree slope on Robberg Peninsula, avoiding mambas and other poisonous creatures, only to be engulfed with a putrifying smell of rotten fish, faeces and urine. Add in a temperature of 26-30 oC and you may come close to imagining how the task might have felt.

 

The highlight of the week was the outdoor excursions. Once a week, we were allowed to join a whale watching trip with the tourists, and we joined in their awe as the whales came up to the boat and appeared to play with us. On one occasion a juvenile male appeared to practice his mating technique on the hull of the boat, and the dolphins loved showing off their acrobatics. My favourite whale is the humpback. I have watched countless reels of footage of them breaching and feeding off Alaska and Hawaii, and when that first humpback appeared near Plett, I could have cried. They were beautiful, elegant and mesmerising. After 3 months, I lost count of the number of cetaceans I saw. Certainly, the Southern Right Whales and Humpback Whales were nearing the 100 mark, the dolphins were in the 1000s, and there were sightings of a few Bryde whales and a large shoal of hammerhead sharks which lived near the shipwreck in the bay. My favourite dolphin is the Common dolphin, and I was regularly disappointed with the lack of sighting of this species. As an open ocean feeder, they don’t tend to come into the bay, so seeing them meant heading out into open ocean. The entrance of the bay is an interesting affair to negotiate, and boy can you tell the difference in the sea swells! Several of the tourists on board the trip struggled to keep their lunch in their bellies. On only 2 occasions did we ever venture out the bay, and on one of those trips we were rewarded with a large pod of common dolphins racing towards us, and passing around us. I felt complete.

 

Whilst the real purpose of the trip was to explore my love of cetaceans, it was the out-of-work activities that made the trip. I made some fantastic friends there, 1 of which lived in a city I’d only visited once as a child, but following my return to Scotland, ended up being my home for the successive 5.5 years. Indeed, my first place of work ended up being 2 minutes along the road from her house!

As a group, we made the most of our weekends of freedom. Trips to Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Outdshoorn, Knysna, Wilderness, and Tsitsikamma presented opportunities for hiking, canoeing, horse riding, ostrich riding and bungy jumping. The highest bungy jump in the world is at Bloukrans bridge to the east of Plett. The fall is 216m (708ft) down towards the canyon base. The guys that work there are the epitome of the term lekker, and they were great at helping you put a brave face on. On my first visit, I took the zip slide from the gorge side to the mid-arch of the bridge, then offered support to my friends that took the bungee plunge. I always told myself that I would never do something as stupid as that, but yet a few weeks later, I was back again, strapped up and teetering on the brink. Looking out at the gorge in front of me, I had an experience which was as real to me as anything I have ever experienced, but which wasn’t real. I’ve never been able to explain it, and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me since. Standing on the edge of the jump site I had an out-of-body experience. The guys were running through the system checks prior to letting me jump, but yet there I was soaring through the air down towards the river below, falling, falling, until all of a sudden I was back up in myself on the jump spot. After the countdown, and the launch into the air, everything was as I had just felt it moments before.

 

For those who have never done a bungy jump, it is nothing like skydiving. This is very disappointing, considering I had just done a tandem skydive a few weeks before and loved it immensely. For those who have never skydived, well you don’t know what you are missing. The flight up from the little airport at Plett gave such an amazing view of the surrounding coastline and countryside that I was so distracted by that to care about the impending leaping forth from the plane in mid air. At 12,000ft, the door opened, and before I knew it I was sat in the doorway. 1,2,3 and we were out. The fact of skydiving is that you are descending towards a rather hard object (the Earth), at terminal velocity. The reality, or rather the perceived reality is that you are floating weightlessly in the air. There is no sensation of falling, just the peaceful feeling of floating like a gliding bird. It has to be experienced to be believed, but it was a feeling that I loved and wanted to repeat. Once under canopy, I had the surreal experience of holding a conversation with my friend Emma at an altitude of 3,000ft, her strapped to one guy, me strapped to another. I remember it so vividly, not the words, but just the image of her and I in mid-air talking to each other amidst adrenalin-hyped giggles, before separating in order to land safely. Certificate in hand, I vowed to do it again.

Bungy jumping on the other hand, is not so enjoyable. After launching off the bridge, I waited for the floating sensation to kick in, only to quickly realise that I was indeed falling, and falling upside down at that. I remember screaming as was instructed to be done, and then eventually the bungee cord kicked in and the bouncing up and down commenced. This part was thankfully quite enjoyable, and then there was just the matter of hanging around upside down waiting for a man you couldn’t see to rappel down to you and assist you back up to the bridge. It was all very surreal, and the way I see it, if I’ve done the highest in the world, why would I need to do it again?? It is a good way to burn off some calories thanks to the tacchycardia that develops, so perhaps it can be introduced into the weight watchers programme as a viable alternative to dieting, although probably not the best idea for people with underlying cardiothoracic issues.

 

During the last month I also had a go at something else I’d fancied for some time. Heading back to the little airport, I sat with an instructor getting some ground schooling before getting to take the controls of a Cessna to take to the skies. Heading west from Plett, we flew towards and around Knysna, practising stalling procedures, and getting to grips with the plane’s manouverability. Banking and climbing we surveyed the countryside below us before losing altitude and flying low over the heads of Knysna, prior to turning back east towards Plett. On the radio on the way back to the farm, the track ‘I believe I can fly’ by R Kelly came on, and it put a smile to my face. One day I will get back up there, and get myself a licence.

One long weekend, we headed back to Cape Town. Again staying at the foot of Table Mountain, we sat in the bar in awe at the view. From the V&A Waterfront, we took the boat out to Robben Island to see the infamous prison that held captive Nelson Mandela. The guide is a former prisoner himself, a man who was there at the same time as Mr Mandela, and despite his experiences there, he was still determined to stay there for work purposes in order to show tourists, who will never ever comprehend the realities of his experience there, around his former ‘home’. The cells have little room for stretching, never mind swinging a cat. The bed, little more than a mat on the floor, and the toilet simply a pan in the corner. It takes a greater mind than mine to stay sane in a place like that over the 18yrs that he was there for.

 

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of fried food, the blanket finally lifted from the table top, and we set off for Table Mountain. When it comes to mountains, if there is a cable car up to the top, then I’d rather hike up. We chose a route up on the front face, which for about the final 80% of it is a near vertical climb. I find it difficult to keep pace with others, preferring to continue at my own rate, so when one of the party started to suffer from vertigo, I had to keep going in order to not have to look back or down, and fall foul of the same problem. It was up to Dawn to encourage Claire to keep going so that we could all be triumphant. Emma and I made it up to the top at the same time, gasping for air and water, followed by Dawn and Claire some time later. Eventually making it to the main tourist area, we wandered round sweaty and triumphant, only to be looked down upon by the cable car tourists, for our dishevelled appearance. Frankly I feel the view was so much more worth seeing after our effort to get there!

 

Our hire car to Cape Town was from Banger Car Hire. It had no power steering, and it was old fashioned, but on the open road it drove like a dream. Thankfully, it also turned out to be baboon-proof. We headed down to the Cape of Good Hope, passing through Simon’s Town to visit the famous colony of Cape Penguins at Boulders Beach. As we neared the Cape Point, numerous troups of baboons littered the side of the road and ogled us as we passed. Further on, there were ostriches wandering free, and eventually we reached the car park at the Cape where the wind took our breath away as we got out. The Cape marks the most South-Western point of the African continent, and is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, a mixing line which can be clearly visible from the lighthouse at times. The rugged landscape was dramatic and the whipping wind added to it. We spent hours wandering around the varying walks and lighthouses that mark out the Cape. On the drive back to Cape Town, we came across a troup of baboons in the middle of the road. Stopping to take photographs, we got a bit of a shock when a male baboon jumped onto the bonnet of the car and looked through the windscreen at us. We sat for several moments staring at each other before he eventually climbed onto the roof. He refused to get off until he was coaxed to with a gentle drive forward of the car whence he proceeded to slide skillfully off the back and jump onto the ground behind us.

 

Outdshoorn is a totally different world compared to the Garden Route. In the ‘outback’, it is a land of orange barrenness, sparsely vegetated and with an overwhelming majority population of ostriches versus humans. Cango Caves sits in the rocks high above the town, and is a mesmerising maze of caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites. For added adrenalin, we opted to take the optional cave crawling tour. As we were warned at the start, this would involve passing through tight passages and gaps no wider than the length of an average ruler. One of the first challenges was ‘the devil’s chimney’, ascending 3.6m through a passage with a narrowest point of 45cm. I was one of the last people to enter the chimney, staring up at the arse of a complete stranger, only for them to freeze halfway up. There are occasions when I can struggle with claustrophobia. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but I had to battle hard to fight off the demons when I was stuck in a chimney below a stranger who was having to be coaxed up the remaining climb. Following this, there were several narrow passages to squeeze through or crawl through, culminating in ‘the letter box’, a narrow slit in the floor of the cave, shaped like a letter box, and only 27cm high. This was a task that involved shimmying through on your back, or on your front if you fancied going head first into the next chamber.

 

Outdshoorn is most famous for it’s ostriches. For miles around, the road signs point to one farm or another, many of which are open for tourists to wander round. At the hostel we stayed in, we enjoyed a braii (bbq) of ostrich meat which was delicious, and every morning, an ostrich egg was opened to feed everybody for breakfast. It contains the equivalent contents of 24 chicken eggs, so all the guests could enjoy omelette, scrambled egg or whatever they fancied. Down on the ostrich farm, a couple of hatchlings were breaking out of their shell in the incubator, juveniles were strutting their stuff in the fields, and the adults were racing against each other on the racetrack. Ostrich riding is much like sitting on a large feather cushion with a large joystick as a control. Bending the neck left turns it left, right turns it right, and pulling it back makes it stop. Their long sinewy necks are so flexible that they can bend them round in all sorts of angles, something which you need to be very aware of with the males when it comes to avoiding bites from an amorous bird. They are such fascinating creatures, and I could have sat on one all day if I was allowed to. Instead, I got a few moments of being ‘saddled’ up, whilst Dawn and Emma got the pleasure of riding one around the arena. It is a sight that will stay with me forever.

 

 

The Outeniqua Choo-Choo is a train ride that runs from Knysna to Wilderness and back through some of the most beautiful scenery of the garden route. Across lagoons, through glens, alongside lakes and rivers, we chugged west towards the rather sedate but understated town of Wilderness. The beach of Wilderness is beautiful. Open and exposed yet clean and peaceful, it was a lovely place to get lost in your thoughts. There’s not a lot to do in the town itself, but it was a lovely day trip away and Dawn and I enjoyed walking along the beach listening to the roar of the Southern Ocean. Some weeks later, Claire and I returned for work purposes as a humpback whale carcass had washed up on the shore. Blubber samples amongst other things can give valuable information for researchers studying the lifestyle and habitat of these creatures, so we were dispatched with instructions on what to collect. Unfortunately, the local council had already started to break the body to pieces in order to get rid of such a mammoth body on the rather public stretch of beach, so by the time we got there, it was a mess. It was a stinking, rotting mess at that! The body had been spotted at sea a couple of weeks earlier so we knew it wasn’t fresh. Rotting already in the heat over that time, the corpse was a mass of blubber and rotting flesh. Collecting the samples that we needed involved wading knee deep into the quagmire. I was again in my element, fascinated by the anatomy. We appeared in the local paper, and my subsequent article was also published in the Plett newsletter. After a long day raking through rotting tissue for the samples we needed, we were starving. A quick wash in the sea did little to remove the goo that was by now caked to my bare legs and arms. Undeterred, we traipsed into the local petrol station to get some snacks, only to be met by several eyes above several upturned noses. We stank, but we didn’t care. On returning to the farm, the dogs greeted us with elation and started licking our legs and clothes. To them, we smelt of meaty heaven…

 

I spent a few more days in Cape Town before returning to Scotland. By then it was December, the temperature was hotting up, the days were lengthening, and I struggled to merge that in my mind with the Christmas tunes that were playing in the shops at the time. The flight back to London involved one of the worst spells of turbulence I have ever experienced, over Nigeria, and I found myself restless and sore in the seat, having spent the day hiking around the outskirts of Cape Town. We flew over Tunisia at night, and the cities twinkled below us. I returned home tanned but cold. The snow was not far behind my arrival in Scotland, and the realities of a northern Christmas soon took hold. The friends I made in South Africa are now spread far and wide. Another place added to my list of places to return to, and the far flung friends are a good excuse for further adventures abroad…

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