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ROUND THE WORLD:

AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND

PLUS MORE

Our March 2013 holiday

CONTENTS

  • INTRODUCTION

  • THAILAND
  • AUSTRALIA
  • NEW ZEALAND
  • UNITED STATES CONCLUSION

  • INTRODUCTION

    "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page."

    Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)

    We have been together for over three decades now and done lots of wonderful travelling as a couple, the last decade and a half mainly outside of our home continent of Europe. We had long harboured a wish to visit Australia and New Zealand, the one continent we had never experienced, but knew that it was so far away and would take so much time and money that it was probably something we would do only once and would have to be carefully scheduled into our busy lives (plus we would have to wait for the cat to die).

    Four years ago, we decided that we would definitely make the trip; a year ago, the cat finally departed this world after almost 20 years; and, six months ago, we booked an escorted tour with Kuoni [click here] so far ahead that Roger could minimise the number of missed meetings in his portfolio career.

    We were always clear that we did not want to make the flight out or the flight back in one journey – the distance is just too great and the jet lag would be just too severe. Therefore we decided to break the journey out with a few days in Bangkok and to break the journey home with a few days in San Francisco, so we would literally go round the world. This was indeed going to be the trip of a lifetime – the BIG one.


    THAILAND

    This was our first visit to Thailand, although we had been to adjacent and nearby countries Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. The country has the longest-reigning monarch in the world: King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) – who is now aged 85 – has been on the throne for 66 years. He rules over a nation with a very similarly-sized population to that of the UK: 66M compared to 62M.

    Like some other Asian languages, Thai is a tonal language and the same syllable can be pronounced in five tones, each of which conveys a different meaning. The classic example of this is the syllable "mai" which in different tones can mean "new", "wood", "burned", "not?" and "not" and the five tones said one after another can mean: "new wood doesn't burn, does it?" (which was a phrase we found we could use in all sorts of situations – not).

    Bangkok

    Day 1 (Tuesday) was very short – just final domestic arrangements, careful packing for a month, and getting to London's Heathrow Airport. Our British Airways Boeing 747-400 lifted off at 10.30 pm, so technically it was a night time flight to Bangkok but, since we were flying east at speed, it was soon light outside and we had to draw the window shutters, pretend it was night, and try to manage some sleep.

    Day 2 (Wednesday) was effectively another short one. The flight was ten and a half hours, so we landed at 9 am London time but – since Thailand is seven hours ahead of UK time – it was 4 pm in Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi Airport is uber-large and ultra-new (opened in 2006). We were delighted to be met by a Kuoni representative but, since it was rush hour, our car from the airport to the hotel took almost two hours to make a journey that normally lasts about 45 minutes.

    Once at the LIT Bangkok Hotel [click here] near to the National Stadium, there was only time, therefore, to unpack in our spacious "Extra Radiance Room", have a light meal in the hotel cafe, access the free Wi-Fi with Roger's iPad and Vee's iPad mini, and head for bed.

    Thailand's current capital of Bangkok is only two centuries old. It was the general Thong Duang (Rama I), who seized power in 1782, who built a new capital for Thailand which he called Krung Thep (City of Angels), today known as Bangkok. This bustling metropolis is home to some 8M souls (the same as London) but there are another 6M in the wider metropolitan area.

    Day 3 (Thursday) and the sightseeing began. Our taxi ride immediately brought home how Thailand is a country of contrasts.

    On the one hand, it is a modern nation connected to the world and our taxi driver, once he knew we were from Britain, proudly announced his support for the Manchester United football team. On the other hand, it is still a deeply traditional nation and we saw portrait after portrait of the revered King especially in the wide streets around the Democracy Monument. The art deco monument, constructed in 1932 to commemorate the transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, has four wings 78 feet (24 metres) tall representing 24 June when the constitution was signed. The location is frequently the site of protests against the anti-democratic nature of the country.

    Our destination was the Grand Palace which is not so much a building as a collection of structures set in a park – a bit like Beijing's Forbidden City but smaller and smarter – established in 1782. Admission was 500 Baht (about £ 11) each.

    The jewel in this complex is undoubtedly the Wat Phra Kaeo or Temple of the Emerald Buddha [click here] which is the holiest of all Thai wats. The eponymous Buddha – located in the Chapel Royal (admission to which requires removal of shoes) – is the most sacred image in Thailand, but it is merely a small (26 in or 66 cm) green jade figure set high on a golden altar (photographs are not permitted).

    The whole area around the chapel is stupendous: temples, murals, gilded golden angels, gilded half-human figures, with all walls decorated with multicoloured mosaics and bits of glass reflecting the bright sunshine. Two abiding images are the giant (16 feet or 5 metres) fierce-faced figures who appear to guard the area and the repeated half man, half bird figures standing on a three-headed snake holding aloft its two bodies. It is a photographer's dream and Roger ran around taking 35 pictures.


    Giant demon (Yaksha) guarding
    an exit to the Grand Palace


    Wall figure at temple

    Free-standing figure at temple

    But, after more than three hours at the complex, poor Vee – who hardly sleeps on an aircraft and slept badly in the hotel – was wilting in the heat (33C or 91F), so we took a taxi back to the hotel. Even during the day, the traffic – cars, taxis, tuk-tuks, light motorcycles – is horrendous and we were frequently reduced to a standstill, but amazingly nobody sounds their horn.

    We had a late and light lunch at the hotel before spending time back in our room sleeping and reading. For dinner, we decided to leave the hotel and take a local stroll. In the direction in which we took, we could find no decent restaurants but there were lots of pavement stalls selling hot food of indeterminate identity.

    We played safe and ate at a place called "MK Restaurant" on the ground floor of a giant Tesco store. Each table had a hot plate set into it, so that one could cook food where one sat – Vee had crab and Roger had pork. On the hour, a song was broadcast ("MK Suki") and all the staff lined up for a little dance – cheerful.

    Another day in Bangkok: Day 4 (Friday) of our trip. Another wat – or two: why not? Things did not get off to a good start though.

    Our hotel called a taxi for us and explained our destination to the driver. However, no sooner were we on the move than he announced in very broken English that traffic was so bad in the city today that our journey would take two hours. Since the wat was by the river, he insisted it would be quicker by private boat and said that he would take us to the jetty. At first, this seemed a credible story and an acceptable solution – until we were sensible enough to ask how much the trip would cost. He showed us an advertisement which clarified that the river journey would actual be a five-stop tour and the cost would be 800 Baht or around three times what we expected to pay for the taxi ride.

    Before the driver could turn on to the main road, we leapt out of the vehicle and walked back to the hotel. Another taxi was called: he reached our destination, not in two hours but in just over half an hour and charged less than the expected rate. Clearly not all Bangkok taxi drivers are alike and it pays to be alert.

    Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn [click here] is located on the far bank of the Chao Phraya River, entrance was only 50 Baht (just over a £ 1), and the place was much quieter that the Royal Palace had been. This 17th century wat is known as the Temple of the Dawn, since King Taksin chose it for his royal palace because it was the first place in the village of Tonburi, then the capital, to catch the morning light.

    The dominant feature of this wat is a tall central Khmer-style tower flanked by four smaller towers, all called prangs and covered with pieces of Chinese porcelain. The main tower rises 220 feet (67 metres) and very steep and open steps lead up to two terraces. We climbed both sets of steps but it took a little courage and coming down was even tougher. The wat is clearly an active place of worship and we observed a saffron-robed monk kneeling in front of worshippers and chanting prayers which was very atmospheric.


    Central tower of temple

    Vee commences steep descent

    We knew that the other wat we wished to visit was directly across the river on the opposite bank, but could we reach it without negotiating another taxi ride or taking a boat which turned out to be a river trip? In fact, we found just what we wanted: a direct ferry across the wide river, noisy with spluttering engines, whistles and calls (and a mere 3 Baht or 7 pence each).

    Wat Pho or Temple of the Reclining Buddha [click here] charges 100 Baht (about £ 2) each for admission. It was originally built in the 16th century and almost completely rebuilt in 1781 by Rama I. It is Bangkok's oldest and Thailand's largest wat with endless towers and many buildings.

    It is famous, however, for its 19th century Reclining Buddha which can be viewed in a covered throne when one takes off one's shoes and, in the case of women, covers up bare legs. The golden figure is an astonishing 151 feet (46 metres) long and 49 feet (15 metres) high and represents the dying Buddha in the position he adopted to gain nirvana. The soles of his feet are decorated in mother of pearl with 108 signs of Buddha and religious visitors can acquire some sort of merit by putting a coin in each of 108 bronze bowls.


    Head of reclining buddha

    Feet of reclining buddha

    After a late lunch and some chilling back at the hotel, for our last evening in Bangkok we decided to do something a little different and, following a recommendation from the hotel, had dinner at a restaurant called the "Naj Exquisite Thai Cuisine" [click here]. It was a pleasant ambience since it is located in a century-old house which once belonged to an aristocratic family.

    We began with cocktails: "Bangkok sunrise" (coconut rum, lemongrass & lime juice) for Roger and "Naj mohito" (rum, soda, lime & mint leaves) for Vee. The service was slow but the food good: from a choice of main courses running to around 140, Roger had pan-fried roasted duck and minced prawn topped with plum sauce, while Vee had stir-fried crispy soft-shell crab with yellow curry powder.

    We were there about two and a half hours and, in that time, on four occasions we were entertained by a young woman dressed in various traditional Thai costumes performing Thai dances which involved bending her fingers back at ridiculous angles. It was not quite the "show" we had been led to expect but a relaxed and enjoyable evening. It cost just over 2,000 Baht (about £ 44 – cheap by British standards).

    For our last day in Bangkok – Day 6 (Saturday) of our trip – we wanted to see something other than wats and, as usual, Roger had a plan. Unlike yesterday morning when the first taxi driver was a cheat, this morning our taxi driver was just incompetent. He simply did not understand where he was taking us. First, he tried to drop us at the Royal Hotel, but we refused to leave the vehicle. Then he dropped us a what we believed was the right location until he drove away and we found that we were at the Grand Palace which we had already seen.

    Our guide book warned of a trick we had come across in other Asian countries: one is advised by a local that the place one wishes to visit is closed and offered an alternative venture which is costly to the tourist and lucrative to the family or friend of the local in question. So, when we asked for directions to the National Museum, we were told that it was closed to foreigners for the morning. Before an alternative offer could be made, we stormed off with only a vague idea of how to reach our desired location.

    Once away from the Grand Palace, we found that nobody spoke English or even read local place names in English script, but lots of pointing at maps and various gesticulations enabled us eventually to find the Pipitaphan or National Museum [click here] – and of course it was open to all.


    Vee at the National Museum

    It was a fascinating location and the first hall provided an interesting review of the history of Thailand from earliest times to the modern day. It seems that nobody really knows for sure where the Thais came from and an early display panel offered five possible explanations. What is clear, however, is that the current dynasty called the Chakri Kings – dating from 1782 – has had nine Rama monarchs and the current one has been on the throne since 1946, overseeing fluctuating efforts to establish a stable democracy.

    The rest of the museum of around three dozen rooms contains a wide variety of Thai art and architecture, ranging from early images of Buddha to a collection of royal funeral chariots.

    Another taxi ride had us at our other destination of the day which was in fact just walking distance from our hotel. It was the Jim Thompson House [click here] which is not a single building but a cafe (where we had some lunch), a shop, delightful gardens with pools of turtles and fish, and six original teak buildings (which we toured with an English-speaking guide), all situated by a narrow but busy canal. Thompson was an amazing character: an American born in 1906 who was a practising architect before the Second World War, served with the OSS during the war, relocated to Thailand after the war, and revived the traditional industry of hand weaving of silk, before going for a walk on a holiday in Malaysia in 1967 and disappearing for ever.


    Roger & Vee at Jim Thompson House


    AUSTRALIA

    Australia is the smallest continent but the largest island on earth – approaching the size of Europe. It is the planet's sixth largest country after Russia, Canada, China, the USA, and Brazil. The nation has a population of 24 M – only a bit more than a third of UK (63.2 M) but the size of Australia is more than 31 times that of the UK. It is an urbanised country with 90% of people living in cities and towns.

    Since the nation is so huge, understandably it has a federal political system with significant powers held by the six states (and two territories). There is a short guide to the Australian political system on this web site here. Economically the country is doing well, thanks largely to the mining sector supporting the rapidly growing Chinese economy.

    Melbourne

    Day 6 (Sunday) of our trip was effectively a travelling day. Our flight on Qantas Airways Airbus A330-200 was another 'overnight' journey east into the sun. The journey from Bangkok to Sydney was nine and a quarter hours, so we landed at 7 am Bangkok time but – since this part of Australia is four hours ahead of Thai time – it was 11 am in Sydney. For our onward journey to Melbourne, we had to transfer to a different terminal where, after a welcome hot drink, Vee decided to go shopping. Then the fun started ...

    In his befuddled, jet-lagged state, Roger had misread the arrival time in Melbourne for the departure time from Sydney, so that we had much less time than we had originally thought. When Roger realised his mistake, Vee was nowhere to be found.

    He reported to the departure gate and explained the situation to the staff. A final call was put out for Vee – but nothing. After a little while, a further call was broadcast – still nothing. Roger could hear someone on the aircraft speaking by radio to the departure gate staff member announcing that the doors had to be closed. A third call was transmitted for Vee – STILL zilch. Then Roger spotted Vee on Cloud Nine, strolling casually through the terminal, utterly unaware of any calls, but delighted with her purchase of a new handbag.

    The flight to Melbourne was just a hop and skip at 70 minutes, so we reached the Crowne Plaza Hotel [click here] in mid afternoon. Barely an hour later, we had a briefing from our tour guide for Australia, the very competent and informative Manuela Blankenhorn of AAT Kings [click here], and met the other members of the group (only 11 – nine of them North Americans). It was going to be fun getting to know them over the next 10 days.

    Melbourne, on the banks of the Yarra River, was founded in 1835 by a character called Batman who persuaded the local Aborigine community to 'sell' him their traditional lands – a whopping 250,000 hectares – in exchange for a crate of blankets, knives and knick-knacks. Some kind of super-hero! Today it is a city of 4M – and we were going to meet four of them who are personal friends or professional contacts of Roger.

    Day 7 (Monday) was a public holiday in Melbourne because the state of Victoria celebrates Labour Day on the second Monday in March (each state and territory decides when to hold the holiday) and there is local festival called Moomba (the name comes from an local Aboriginal language and means something like 'having fun'). The weather was beautiful with a temperature of 36C (97F) and Roger & Vee were interested to receive a text from a friend back home advising us that it had just snowed in London.

    It was an intense day of sightseeing with two tours. The morning tour was part of our package and it was a three-hour introduction to the city of Melbourne with our guide Manuela. The city was named after Lord Melbourne who was British Prime Minister at the time. Vee's twin sister Mari and her brother-in-law Derek lived in Melbourne for a few months in the mid 1960s and it was fun for Vee to be in a city she never at the time imagined visiting herself.

    The Economic Intelligence Unit's worldwide cost of living index for 2013 puts Melbourne as the fifth most expensive city in the world and yet it is frequently rated as one of the best cities on the globe in which to live. It was not hard to see the appeal: it is a charming, clean, civilised place with wide roads, lovely sandstone buildings, and plentiful recreational areas. The city tour involved three stops: St. Paul's Cathedral, Fitzroy Gardens & Captain Cooke's Cottage [click here], and the Royal Botanical Gardens & the Shrine of Remembrance [click here]. Other locations pointed out to us ranged from historical sites like the execution of Ned Kelly and the first parliament building to modern sites like Federation Square and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Also there was the pub with the most unusual name: "The Elephant And Wheelbarrow".


    The oldest building in Australia
    - originally built in 1755

    A little bit of England in Oz
    - relocated in 1934

    We had barely half an hour back at the hotel before we were off again.

    The afternoon tour was one of the options on offer and cost those of us who chose it AU$ 126 (£ 85) each. We were away 10 hours and a guy called Carey was both our driver and our guide. Heading in a southerly direction, our first stop was at Warrook Cattle Farm for "Devonshire tea" (a large scone with jam & cream) and the chance to hand-feed small kangaroos.


    Vee feeds a baby kangaroo

    Then we reached our main destination of Phillips Island which is roughly 9 km by 26 km (5.6 miles by 16 miles). The second stop was at the Koala Conservation Sanctuary where, in spite of the stillness and brownness of the animals which rendered them hard to spot up in the eucalyptus trees, the furry-faced fellows were a delight to observe.

    After an early dinner in a place called Cowes, named after the town on the Isle of Wight in England, we drove on to Summerland Beach to observe what is called the penguin parade. We were advised that there are 17 species of penguins worldwide – all in the Southern Hemisphere – and we were going to see the only one in Australia which is also the smallest one – hence the name the Little Penguins. Having spent all day out at sea eating fish and squid, each evening they parade up the beach back to the safety of their burrows, but they only do this once the sun has set so that they are not vulnerable to predators.

    We were advised to take our seats about 7.45 pm and expect the little characters to waddle across the sand around 8.15 pm, giving us an hour to observe them before the coach had to leave at 9.15 pm. Of course, animals have no regard to tourist schedules and we waited and waited and saw virtually nothing in the pale light. Vee spotted a few penguins but Roger's eye sight is poor and he could see only the vaguest of shapes. Fortunately, having abandoned the beach and walking along the boardwalks back to our coach, we managed to see several dozen of the cute little fellows waddling to their burrows which made the visit worthwhile.


    Sign at Summerland Beach

    It was a two-hour journey back to Melbourne, but any chance of sleep was countered by the driver's suggestion that we should watch a very Australian film called "Red Dog" which will never win any Academy Awards but rounded off a fun day of animal loving.

    The group's second full day in Melbourne – Day 8 (Tuesday) for Roger & Vee – was a free day in the schedule and most of the group left the hotel by 7 am to go on an all-day optional tour of the Great Ocean Road. We two remained in the city where it was a blazing day of 36C (97F) – the ninth day of a record local heatwave – in order to meet some friends of Roger's and, in between these meetings, fit in a bit more sightseeing.

    So before lunch we strolled over to the Eureka Skydeck 88 [click here] building which is 984 feet (300 metres) tall and has the highest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere (AU$ 18 a head for us seniors). The lift takes you up to Level 88 in less than 40 seconds where there are spectacular views of Melbourne from floor to ceiling windows.

    A special attraction is something called The Edge which is a glass cube that projects 3 metres out of the building. A warning sign suggests that people with various psychological fears or physical conditions should not enter The Cube, but naturally Roger & Vee were not going to pass up this opportunity even if it cost another AU$ 10 each and AU$ 15 for an official photograph (personal cameras are not permitted). When you first enter The Cube and the connecting door is locked, all the glass – sides, top and bottom – are opaque. Then, in a flash, the glass turns clear to present you with the sensation of hanging in space. Just to add to the sense of atmosphere, after a while, cracking noises are emitted to test your nerves. We loved it.


    The Eureka Skydeck 88

    Beware of The Edge


    Roger & Vee in The Edge
    - note glass sides, ceiling & floor

    At this point, we took a taxi out to the St Kilda part of the city which is simply beautiful: blue sea, golden beach, palm trees. At a restaurant called "The Stokehouse" [click here], we had lunch on the upper floor overlooking Port Phillip Bay. The food was really excellent: Roger had battered rock flathead fillets, while Vee ordered braised rabbit.

    Our hosts were Kevin Hutchings, Managing Director, and Steve Muir, Manager Wastewater Source Control & Treatment, of South East Water which is a statutory authority providing services to 1.5 M customers in the city. Roger, who is Chair of the Customer Challenge Group at the namesake South East Water in England, had met Steve the previous summer while the Australian was on secondment to the English company. A decade of drought in Australia has made water supply a high profile issue and Kevin told us that his customers were now using 40% less water than 10 years ago through a variety of innovative water preservation measures. However, prices have doubled in the last five years and the need to fund a Government-built desalination plant will boost prices by a further 34% next year.

    Returning to the city centre, we resumed our tourist mode by visiting the city's Immigration Museum [click here]. Of course, the entire history of Australia can be told through its varying, and often controversial, immigration policies. The museum's curators are clearly keen to address these issues frankly and in the entrance lobby is a sign acknowledging that the building is located on "the traditional lands of the First People, the Boon Wurrung and Woi Wurrung of the greater Kulin Nation".

    Australia has had more than nine million immigrants since 1788 and some three million of them arrived in the peak period of 1945-1970 (which included Vee's twin sister for a time). Naturally, most of them arrived by sea and therefore the largest collection of displays in the museum is set in a structure resembling a ship which is located in The Long Room (originally the main hall of the Customs House).


    Display in Immigration Museum

    In the evening, we met more friends for dinner. In 1971 (an astonishing 42 years ago!), in the Department of Management Sciences at the then University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, only two students obtained First Class Honours degrees. One was Roger and the other was the really clever one, Greg Bamber who went on to become a professor of industrial relations at the local Monash University. We met Greg for a meal with his wife Dale and friends Joyce from Australia and Chris from Britain. We ate at a place called "The Deck" on the Southbank by the river, caught up on news of children and grandchildren, and had a lively conversation covering British and Australian politics.

    Alice Springs

    We left Melbourne on Wednesday (Day 9 of our holiday) as the heat wave started to break and preparations built up for Sunday's Formula One race. We took a Qantas flight north-west 1,858 kms (1,162 miles) to Alice Springs in "the red centre" of the country. It was a flight of about two and a half hours, but Alice Springs is an hour an half behind Melbourne, so we landed at 11 am local time.

    We drove the short distance into the outback town for everyone to find their choice of lunch. Alice Springs is named after Alice Todd, the wife of the British engineer Charles Todd (of which more information shortly), although she never managed to visit the place. It is located on the Todd River which is usually totally dry. Today it has a population of 28,000, including many Aborigines, and lots of local shops display Aboriginal art work. The people of Alice Springs and area are proud of the local facilities, but Roger & Vee felt a sense of isolation not experienced since our visit to the Golan Heights on a trip to Israel.

    Before checking into our hotel, we spent the afternoon visiting three local locations, under a cloudless azure sky and with a temperature of up to 38C/100F.

    The first stop was at the School of the Air. Founded in 1951, this was the first of what are now 16 such schools which originally provided lessons to pupils in remote locations through radio and now support classes through the the Internet and web cams operated over satellite. The Alice Springs school has three studios and 12 teachers and the 130 students are aged 4-14 and live anything up to 1500 kms (930 miles) away.

    Next stop was an outback cattle station called Bond Springs. The site was first settled by two Englishmen in 1878 and is now owned and run by the Heaslip family. Some 3,500 Hereford beef cattle are reared here, but we did not see even one because they are spread over the huge station of some 1,500 sq km. Laura Heaslip showed us some of the original buildings and then offered us tea and coffee in her large kitchen with its own Aga stove.

    Finally we visited the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and saw it as it would have looked between 1895 and 1905. Our guide Manuela explained the story of how the British engineer Charles Todd had supervised the construction of Australia's first telegraph line in 1871-1872 which linked Port Darwin on the north coast with Adelaide on the south coast and in turn Australia with Britain for the first time.

    Late afternoon, we checked in to the Chifley Hotel [click here] where the group had dinner together. Roger chose pumpkin & lemon myrtle soup, oven baked mustard Parmesan crusted barramundi fish, and banana Mars bar with chocolate ganache & Macadamia ice cream (so sweet and so yummy).

    Day 10 (Thursday) was essentially a travelling day as we went overland from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock. At first the weather was cloudy with a moderate temperature, but soon we had totally cloudless skies again and the heat rose to 34C/93F. The journey by coach took seven and a half hours, but we stopped at five points.

    Before we left Alice Springs, we visited Anzac Hill, a memorial to the Australian & New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives in wars all the way from the Boer War to Afghanistan, and the local headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The RFDS has an impressive new facility for visitors which includes a cinema where a film explains the operations of this vital service. Founded in 1958, the service now has 21 bases covering 80% of the country and it has 61 aircraft (four in Alice), almost all of which are the Swiss-manufactured Pilatus PC-12.


    Real time location of all RFDS aircraft

    Model of the Pilatus PC-12

    Uluru

    Leaving Alice Springs, we headed almost due south on the single-lane Stuart Highway. Next halt was at Stuart Well's Camel Farm where, as well as refreshments and toilets, short camel rides were on offer. Vee and eight-year old Mia from Texas shared a double-humped animal. Further south, we stopped for lunch at a place called Erldunda which boasted a paddock of emus. We then turned west and headed for the Rock, stopping for the last time at an isolated point where a bright red sand dune offered views in one direction of salt flats and in the other direction of the Rock itself.


    Roger looks out for kangaroos

    Vee shares a camel with Mia

    Our destination was in fact the Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara which is a complex that is very well-provisioned but very expensive (it was the first time that no free WiFi was available for any length of time). There are six choices of accommodation and we were in the Desert Gardens Hotel [click here]. Other facilities include 13 eating establishments, a variety of bars, shops and galleries, petrol, police and fire stations, and a health centre.

    Ayers Rock – or, as the indigenous community calls it, Uluru (Meeting Place) [click here] – is thought to be around 600 million years old and its is regarded as sacred by the local Anangu people. It is 343 metres high, 3.6 kms long, 2.4 kms wide, and 9.4 kms in circumference and more than two-thirds of it is believed to be underground.

    Over the next 48 hours, we were going to see the Rock in a variety of different situations and the first viewing was at sunset. The timing for sunset was 7.04 pm but our guide Manuela and driver Maria had us in position three quarters of an hour before and helped create a party atmosphere by setting up a table with champagne & wine plus various nibbles. We had wonderful views of the Rock and, as the sun descended, the predominant colour melted from an ochre red into a russet red into a brownish red into a greyish red. We were awed by this spectacle of nature.


    Vee & Roger at Uluru at dusk

    A dusk view of Uluru

    Back at the hotel, all the group chose the same eating location ("Gekos Cafe") at the same time and staff pulled tables together so that we could eat as a collective – a sign of how well we British, American and Canadian travellers were getting along. Roger had kangaroo burger (which was so fresh it was hopping) and Vee chose seafood platter with pasta.

    Having seen Uluru by sunset, naturally we had to observe it by sunrise too, so Day 11 (Friday) was our earliest start so far with an alarm call at 5 am. Three quarters of an hour later, we were off – to the music of Dido – to the observation area for the sunrise and Roger & Vee walked up to the highest vantage point. The sun actually rose at 5.47 am and the change of colour shadings of the Rock was subtle but nevertheless magical.


    Roger & Vee at Uluru at dawn

    A dawn view of Uluru

    We were back at the hotel for an hour for an invigorating cooked breakfast and then at 8.30 am we were off again, this time to "rock about the Rock" and see the Rock up close and personal. First we visited the Mutijulu Waterhole at the southern base of the Rock where Manuela explained the dreamtime story tradition of the Aborigines and the sacred nature of Uluru. Then some of us – including Roger & Vee – joined Manuela in a short walk in the area known as Kuniya Piti on the eastern corner of the Rock. The colours and formations varied considerably, depending on the work of Mother Nature, and presented marvellous photo opportunities.


    Kuniya Piti (1)

    Kuniya Piti (2)


    Kuniya Piti (3)

    Kuniya Piti (4)

    Ever since we reached Ayers/Uluru, we had all been bothered by flies, but walking around the base of the Rock was something else. Swarms of the blighters zoomed all around each person and squadrons of them would make formation attacks on us poor tourists. The choice was to wear a face net, which made you look utterly bizarre, or to tough it out. Roger & Vee took the latter course and, while we could keep our mouths closed, incursions on the ears, nose and even eyes could not be avoided.

    Our guide Manuela had been taking regular opportunities to provide us with sensitive explanations of Aboriginal culture and some of the problems of attempted integration. At Kuniya, we came across an Aboriginal guide called Vincent whose grandfather was an enlightened white man: "He didn't come with a gun; he came with a dick". He was giving his young visitors a very different take on the indigenous situation: "Alcohol is genocidal in my community ... I live under occupation ... I live under martial law ... There is no equal distribution of wealth ... It's called oppression". He was particularly outraged by a police 'attack' on the local Aboriginal community in 2007, but he neglected to explain that sadly this was occasioned by proven claims of extensive child abuse in the community.

    Finally we called into the Cultural Centre of Uluru for an hour where we looked at displays explaining the local community traditions and had a light lunch.

    The afternoon was free to relax at the hotel. It was just too hot to go touring. The access to the top of Uluru was blocked today with a sign explaining: "Climb closed due to forecast 36C or above". In fact, Vee & Roger would not have climbed anyway because the indigenous community view Uluru as a particularly sacred place and ask that tourists do not go on the Rock (or even photograph certain especially sacred locations).

    Everyone has heard of Ayers Rock or Uluru but, until this holiday, Roger & Vee had never known about the Olgas (the name comes from a Russian aristocrat) or, as they are known to the indigenous community, Kata Tjuta (Many Heads) [click here]. Located to the west of Uluru, there are 36 individual domes grouped in a semi-circle around a central valley, with the tallest Mount Olga rising 546 metres (1,066 feet) which is a good deal higher than Uluru. Again the structure is hundreds of millions of years old – as Manuela put it: "In the eyes of time, we are just a blink".

    After a few hours at our hotel to escape the worst of the heat and have a little rest, at 4 pm we set off for a visit to the Olgas. Before actually reaching the domes, we halted at a look out point for photographs. The weather was exceptionally clear with not a cloud in the sky, but it was still very hot and those pesky flies were still all over us.


    Roger & Vee holding Uluru

    Our real destination was Walpa Gorge on the western end of the Kata Tjuta which offers the opportunity of a walk to the head of an opening in the rocks. We had been warned by Manuela that we needed trainers for the terrain but, although only 2 kms (1.24 miles), it was in fact a much tougher walk than any of us had appreciated. Partly this was because of the very uneven rock surface, partly it was because of the strong heat – and then there were those damned flies. In the end, only three of the 13 in the group made it to the head of the gorge: Curtis (aged 50) representing the United States, Roger (64) flying the flag for Britain, and Vic (a spritely 75) on behalf of Canada.


    Roger braves rocks, heat and flies
    to reach the head of the Walpa Gorge

    After walking the Walpa Gorge,
    Roger is a shadow of his former self

    After that, we drove round to a viewing area to observe the the effect of the sunset on the colours of the Olgas. It was a case of more champagne and nibbles and lots more photographs and another splendid experience. On the journey back, Manuela put on CDs of the hits of the Beatles and Abba and a sing-song ensued.


    Vee with our guide Manuela (L) and driver Maria (R)

    Sunset at the Olgas

    Back at the resort complex after a trip of around four and a half hours, we all ate together again at "Gekos" again. Before retiring, Roger & Vee took the opportunity to do a little stargazing. At home in London, there is so much light pollution that one can only see a handful of stars. Out in "the red centre" of Australia, one can observe literally hundreds. However, since we were in the Southern Hemisphere, all the constellations were unfamiliar and, even with the aid of a locally purchased star map, it was difficult to identify particular groupings except Orion and the Southern Cross, although we could see the Milky Way as a hazy cloud which was awesome. While we were out, something stung Roger in the right wrist, the pain shot up his arm, and the mark lasted for the remainder of the holiday.

    Day 12 (Saturday) was a tale of two contrasting flights from the same airport, the first for Roger & Vee and the second for us all.

    The first one was a helicopter trip to Uluru and the Olgas departing from a corner of the local airport. It only lasted 30 minutes and cost a stiff AU$ 275 (£ 186) each, but it was sensational.

    The helicopter was a Robinson R44 which carries four people: Vee sat in the front port seat next to the pilot Morgan, while Roger took the back starboard seat next to a trainee pilot called Tim. We had seen Uluru at sunset, at sunrise, and at the base, but this fourth perspective from the air was just terrific and made for some fabulous photographs. We had seen the Olgas from a distance, at Walpa Gorge, and at sunset and again it was simply wonderful to see the domes from the air.


    Vee & Roger with the R44


    Uluru from the air

    The Olgas from the air

    Roger & Vee were back at the hotel coming down from the excitement, when we were contacted by a member of staff who had just received an anguished call from the helicopter company. The pilot had forgotten to ask us for payment and was rushing round to obtain our credit card details. Poor Morgan explained that his boss was furious with him but Roger, in his best Australian accent, insisted: "No worries, mate".

    All the group chilled at the hotel until we gathered for a briefing from Manuela on what to expect at Cairns (pronounced with the 'r' silent) and the Great Barrier Reef. After a great couple of days at Ayers Rock, we were off again so, for Roger & Vee, it was a return to the same airport.

    Cairns & Great Barrier Reef

    Our flight – in mid afternoon – from Ayers Rock was the last of the day: there are in fact only four public flights a day from this airport which makes it a bit different from London Heathrow that has approximately one take off or landing every two minutes. Our aircraft was a Boeing 717-200 and the flight was 1,786 km (1,117 miles) north-east which took two and a quarter hours. Since Cairns is half an hour ahead of Ayers Rock, we landed at 6.10 pm local time.

    The contrast between the Ayers Rock resort of Yulara and the city of Cairns was enormous: from a population of 2,000 to one of 148,000, from a temperature of 37C to one of 23C, from a dry heat with flies to a humid heat with no insects, from red semi-desert all the way to the horizon to green semi-tropical vegetation around the city, from no visible water to the expanses of the Coral Sea. Our accommodation was the very grand Hilton Hotel [click here] but, as soon as we all checked in, most of us went it onto the Esplanade to have dinner at a lively place called "Rattle N Hum" [click here].

    Day 13 (Sunday) was very, very lucky. It was our visit to the Great Barrier Reef [click here]. This extends for 2,300 kms (1,400 miles) along the north-eastern coast of Australia and is not one large reef but a network of about 2,900 individual coral reefs. Corals are animals in the same family as jellyfish and there are around 400 species. Swimming around these reefs are over 1,500 different types of fish.

    When Roger & Vee booked this holiday, they had no idea how the visit to the reef would work out: how would we get there? how far would it be? what we would we do there? would we really be able to see the coral and the fish? In fact, it all worked out brilliantly because the companies that take you to the reef know to make it a wonderful experience.

    Our company was Great Adventures and our vessel was a catamaran called "Reef King" which can take almost 400 passengers. We left Cairns at 10.30 am and around 11.15 am we dropped off those tourists visiting a place called Green Island. The rest of us – about 200 – headed further out into the ocean until at 12.20 pm we moored at a pontoon at a section of the reef 40 kms (25 miles) or so from land.

    It looked like something out of a holiday brochure: a canopy of cloudless azure sky over a still sea with a mixture of blue and green and aquamarine colours. To see the coral and the fish, one has to snorkel. Some of our group had done it before but most – including Roger & Vee – had not.

    There are changing rooms on the pontoon. Then, if you want it (Vee & Roger did), you collect a buoyancy vest with the colour appropriate to your size. Everyone chooses a mask with snorkel and fins again with the colour appropriate to your size. If you are concerned about the remote possibility of being stung by a type of jellyfish called marine stingers, you can wear a black lycra suit but, on our trip, only the Asian tourists – Korean, Japanese & Chinese – did so.

    Stepping down some metal ladders to an area of sea roped off for snorkelling, you don your fins and wash your mask before launching into the sea. How difficult could snorkelling be? In Vee's case, it was like a duck taking to water – no problem at all. In Roger's case, it was not easy. At first, he had salty sea water coming into his mouth from both his snorkel and his mouthpiece, he felt like he was drowning, and he was not sure that he was going to be able to do this.

    Then a member of the catamaran's crew cleared his snorkel and showed him how to hold his mouth around the breathing piece. And he was away. It was a totally new phenomenon – silent except for the sound of your breathing, hanging there in a trance-like state, in a private world inhabited by a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes that were just magical.

    A buffet lunch – with both cold and hot food – was available and then Roger & Vee took one of the half-hourly trips by a semi-submersible reef viewer which provided an opportunity to see a much wider area of reef from up close, making clear just how many types of coral there are even in a relatively compact area.


    The semi-submersible "Reef Pioneer 1"

    Mushroom-shaped coral viwed from semi-submersible

    But, having learned how to snorkel, both Vee & Roger were keen to return to the water. Manuela showed Roger where to find coral with more fish. This was a wonder world. Corals so close you could almost touch them, looking like giant exotic vegetables or sections of brain. The official names include mushroom coral, brain coral, plate coral, and stag horn coral. And then there were all the different fish, including clown fish and butterfly fish.

    There was a company photographer scuba diving around us and taking souvenir shots which later sold at outrageous prices (AU$ 22 for the first one). Roger was photographed stroking a large black fish and the picture was so amazing that, when he bought it, Vee was initially convinced that it had been photoshopped.


    Roger prepares to snorkel
    for the first time

    Roger feels a friendly fat fish
    and it's for real


    Roger snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef
    - a personal highlight of this fabulous holiday

    We did not want to leave the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkelling there was utterly different from any other experience that we have had and the day will be one of the most memorable of our lives. But we moved off at 3.30 pm and we were back at Cairns at 5.10 pm.

    It was St Patrick's Day and some of our group went off to a local pub to celebrate, but Roger & Vee had an early dinner locally at "Mondo", ready for an early night before an early start the next day to visit the rainforest at Daintree.

    It was a free day on our tour of Australia – Day 14 (Monday) for Roger & Vee – but, on this type of holiday, there are no truly free days, only days with no group activities but all sorts of optional activities for individuals. Today some of our group took an excursion to Kuranda, returning on the skyway. Roger & Vee – together with Americans Melissa, her daughter Mia (8), and Kate – took the trip to the Daintree National Park [click here] which has World Heritage listing to protect its exceptional rain forest biodiversity.

    It was an early start: we set the alarm for 5.30 am and we were collected before 7 am for a trip of over 11 hours. Our vehicle was a special four-wheel drive Isuzu Warrior and our driver and guide was a young man called Greg who spoke in the traditional fashion of young Ozzies in which every sentence ended with an upward lilt which made it sound like a question.

    Greg collected tourists from several Cairns hotels and then drove north to collect more tourists from hotels in Fort Douglas. Once we had everybody, we proceeded further north up the Captain Cook Highway which is a winding road hugging the beautiful coastline with glorious beaches, so it is a good idea to sit on the right as Vee & Roger did.

    It was humid (tropical) and hot (33C/91F) and here in Far North Queensland (FNQ) it was still the so-called wet season. We passed areas which grew sugar cane and tea and saw fields with lots of wallabies and signs warning of electric ants (apparently they can give a shock to workmen).

    At 9.30 am, we reached "the Daintree" (named after a colonial official) and we were taken on a one-hour cruise on the River Daintree in the hope of seeing the crocodiles which inhabit these waters. The thing with viewing animals is that the situation is always unpredictable. Our river guide had been doing the job for 13 years and had names for all the adult crocodiles in his patch of the river.

    Currently the dominant male ("the big fella") is a croc called Scarface; the guide's favourite is Elizabeth or Lizzie; and others include Fang, Scooter, Lucky, Lumpy, Gummy and even Eugene. But we did not see a single adult crocodile – it was too hot and they were resting below water. However, we did manage to spot two baby crocodiles sunbathing on logs (and, with some assistance from Photoshop, perhaps we can make these tiddlers look like giants). Apparently the best time to see crocs is in the Ozzie winter. Our river guide explained that "The food chain is brutal" and, even in the case of crocodiles which are at the top of the local food chain, only about 1% survive to adulthood.


    Vee at Daintree River Cruise Centre

    On the Daintree River but the crocodiles are hiding

    Our next visit was to the Daintree Discovery Centre [click here] where cleverly constructed boardwalks enable the visitor to view the rain forest from different heights without posing a threat to the delicate ecology. Huge trees – often entwined by extensive creepers – and the buzz of insects made for an atmospheric experience. At this point, we were driven to a spot in the national park where we took a steep, winding set of rough steps down to an open-air eating area where we were served with a delicious lunch of steak, sausage, fish and salad. Vee managed to spot a Ulysses butterfly which has brilliant blue markings.

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    Vee & Roger on highest boardwalk at the Centre

    The dense rain forest at the Discovery Centre

    From here, we drove to Cape Tribulation, named by James Cook when his ship the "Endeavour" struck a local reef in 1770. The cape is billed as "where the rain forest meets the reef" and beyond this point the road north stops and only four-wheel drives and brave hearts will suffice. We walked on the local beach which sparkled with its shiny mica sand reaching down to the turquoise sea.

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    Hills at Cape Tribulation

    Beach at Cape Tribulation

    Turning south for the journey back, we stopped at the Daintree Ice Cream Company where for AU$ 6 we purchased scoops of ice cream in each of the four flavours of the day which happened to be coconut, mango, blueberry and wattle seed. Sitting in the hot sunshine outside by palm trees eating four flavours of ice cream is one definition of Heaven. Next we were driven to the Alexandra Range Lookout for more spectacular views and photo opportunities.

    At this point, we took a vehicle ferry which our driver Greg had used earlier in the day while we were on the river. The return ferry trip cost him (or at least his company) AU$ 78. The absence of any bridge into the Daintree and the high cost of the ferry are intended to limit access and development of this special ecology. We had throughly enjoyed our day in the rain forest (we don't have a lot of it at home in London).

    Next day was not just Day 15 (Tuesday) but Roger and Vee's 31st wedding anniversary. Roger gave Vee a card with a list inside headed "31 Reasons Why I Love You". We were leaving Cairns after three nights to fly down to Sydney – our third and last airline journey in Oz – and we were departing the hotel at 10.30 am which meant that there was just time after breakfast to fit in one more bit of sightseeing.

    Over the road from our hotel was the Cairns Wildlife Dome [click here] situated at the top of the Reef Hotel Casino. In an open and humid naturalistic setting, there are lots of colourful birds on show including parrots and kookaburras plus (not in an open setting) a 4 metre saltwater crocodile called Goliath. Best of all though, you can have a photograph taken holding a koala bear for AU$ 16. Vee had a great picture with a male bear called Harvey and, after the shot, Harvey put an arm on Vee's shoulder – it was hard to say which of them was the cutest.


    Vee and Harvey become friends


    Harvey's CV

    Sydney

    Our aircraft was a Boeing 767-338 and the flight was 1,970 kms (1,232 miles) due south which took two and a quarter hours. Since Sydney is an hour ahead of Cairns, we landed at 4 pm local time.

    Although Canberra is the political capital of Australia, in every other respect Sydney can be seen as the leading city in the country. It is the largest with a population of 4.5 M and it is the oldest and most diverse with the greatest cultural locations. The city is built around one of the most beautiful natural harbours in the world with the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach providing the most iconic images of Australia. It was a most fitting site for the end of the Oz part of our trip. However, the Economic Intelligence Unit's worldwide cost of living index for 2013 puts Sydney as the third most expensive city in the world.

    From 1965-1968, Vee's twin sister Mari and brother-in-law Derek spent four years in Sydney before returning to the UK and she was particularly excited to be visiting the city that she heard so much about so many years ago.

    The temperature on arrival in Sydney was a good 10C lower than the one we left behind: 23C (73F) as compared to around 33C (91F). Our hotel was another very good one: the Four Points by Sheraton [click here] next to Darling Harbour. For dinner, Curtis obtained a recommendation from the concierge and ten of us walked round to "Nick's Bar and Grill" [click here] on King Street Wharf where the other eight sang "Happy anniversary" to Vee & Roger. We both had traditional Australian food: kangaroo (followed by strawberry pancake) for Roger and barramundi fish (followed by sticky date pudding) for Vee.

    Day 16 (Wednesday) was the first of two in Sydney and it was another early start. We were up at 6 am and had a tour of the city from 7.30 am to 3 pm. At first, the sky was overcast and the temperature much lower and then we had a quick shower, but soon the sky cleared and the weather became excellent again.

    Manuela gave us lots of statistics about Sydney: a city founded in 1788 as a penal colony, a community today of 250 nationalities and 144 golf courses, a harbour with 66 bays and 11 islands. Many of the inner city districts of Sydney have names resonant of London for Roger & Vee such as Paddington, Kings Cross and Haymarket. One district, however, has an unusual indigenous name: Woolloomooloo which means 'small kangaroo' (does any other word in the world have the letter 'o' eight times?).

    The centre of Sydney is blessed with a green lung of three interconnected parks: Hyde Park, The Domain, and the Royal Botanic Gardens. Our first stop was at the Royal Botanic Gardens for stupendous views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Here too is the oddly-named Mrs Macquarie's Chair: a rock structure erected as a viewing platform for the wife of a colonial official. We then drove to the world famous Bondi Beach (the name means 'sound of waves'), noted as the birthplace of surf life savers. During a stop here, Vee & Roger had a cappuccino at a lovely cafe called "Lush On Bondi".


    View of beach from "Lush On Bondi"


    Vee & Roger strut their stuff on Bondi Beach

    Next we returned to the city centre for a one-hour tour of the World Heritage listed Sydney Opera House [click here] with a passionate and amusing guide called Thomas who spoke to us via radio headsets. Two short videos told us the fascinating and turbulent history of the building. Over 30 locations were discussed before they settled on the fabulous choice of the promontory into the harbour. Some 233 designs were considered before a previously rejected one was chosen: the radical concept proposed by a 38 year old Danish architect Jorn Utzon.

    Started in 1959 when the technology did not in fact exist to realise the design, it was intended that construction would take three years and cost AU$ 7 M but, in the end, the work occupied 16 years – during which the architect was effectively dismissed – and cost AU$ 102 M (much of it from a local lottery). There are six performance spaces with a combined capacity of around 6,000 places. We saw the two largest of these spaces – the Concert Hall (2,000 seats) and the Joan Sutherland Theatre (1,500 places) – before some of us purchased tickets for a performance that evening.


    Opera House tour - view of tiles

    Opera House tour - view of shells


    Harbour tour - close view of Opera House

    Harbour tour - further view of Opera House

    Next we all went on a one and a half hour cruise of Sydney harbour in a boat called "Sydney 2000" where we had a cooked lunch as we enjoyed fantastic views all around what is a huge harbour. We could clearly see people climbing to the top of the Harbour Bridge and, on one occasion, a few of them turning back at an early stage. This intrigued the group because four of us were going on that climb later that day and Roger & Vee were tackling it next day.


    Roger & Vee at Opera House
    with view of Harbour Bridge behind

    Close up of Harbour Bridge
    - can you see climbers starting their ascent?


    Sydney Harbour Bridge

    Bridge, boats & Opera House

    After the harbour tour and before returning to the hotel, we were taken to a place called The National Opal Collection [click here] where we saw a video on how nature has created these valuable stones and 95% of the world's opals are mined in Australia. A showroom then presented for sale some stunning pieces of jewellery but nobody in our group bought anything. This was the only occasion on our tour of Australia when we were taken to what was in effect a sales pitch (but Roger & Vee had to endure many of these on their first visit to China).

    In the evening, eight of us – including Roger & Vee – returned to the Opera House for a performance with tickets which cost us AU$ 79 (£ 53) each that was apparently reduced from AU$ 129. It was "Orpheus In The Underworld", the operetta by Jacques Offenbach performed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. However, this was not the original text in French but a modernised vision in English that was very risqué and peppered with Ozzie allusions ("I've had more fun in Adelaide").

    Day 17 (Thursday) was our second day in Sydney and "a day at leisure" in the official programme, so all members of the group did different things with Roger & Vee ascending two of the city's iconic locations.

    The main event of the day was climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge [click here]. This construction was completed in 1932 and cost the lives of 16 workers, although only one actually fell off. The bridge rises to 134 metres (440 feet) and it is a defining feature of the city, known to locals as "the giant coat hanger". Entrance to the Bridge Climb [click here] is on Cumberland Street.

    We had been so keen to do this climb that we booked it online almost three months ahead. We had opted for the Express Climb which took just over two hours (10 am to 12.15 pm) and cost AU$ 198 (£ 134) each. Vee found it all no trouble at all, but this is the girl who in South Africa did the world's highest bungee jump. Roger will confess to having been anxious before starting the climb, but he was fine as soon as it commenced.

    As with all tourist attraction in Australia, it was very well organised and totally safe. There were 10 in our group – five Americans, four Brits, and one Italian – and our guide was a cheerful young woman called Amy.

    Preparation for the climb takes a while. You have to strip to your underwear and don the standard company blue one-piece outfit, since it is quite a hot endeavour. The whole point is to ensure that nothing can drop from people on the bridge. So no personal possessions at all are allowed – glasses and the company sun hat have to be attached to lanyards and even the handkerchief which is supplied has to be fixed to your wrist. Most vital of all, you wear an upper body harness, which has a safety clip that attaches you to a metal line on the bridge at all times, and headphones and radio, which enables you to hear the guide's instructions and information at every point of the climb.

    If you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia, this climb is definitely not for you (we learned that one or two do turn back each day) . Otherwise moderate fitness is all that is required, although the climb is quite strenuous (it involves around 1400 steps and a few steep or tight situations) and it helps not be be tall (Roger hit his head several times which is why he wore that silly cap all the time). At the top of the bridge, Amy took a group photograph and individual shots. There is a spot at the top where couples can get married and apparently 24 have already done so.

    The climb is not actually all the way over to the other side of the bridge; rather you climb up on the Opera House side of the bridge and then at the top traverse to the opposite (western) side and return to where you started. For our climb, the weather was perfect and the views were spectacular for an awesome experience. The beautiful harbour all around, boats and ships underneath, the wonderful Opera House on one side, the terrific skyline behind us, the north side of the city ahead of us were simply breathtaking.


    Vee & Roger at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
    - note Opera House behind on left

    Once we had caught our breath and had a snack at the Bridge Climb facility, we took a taxi to another of the city's structures that we had to ascend before we left: Sydney Tower Eye [click here] on Market Street. This was completed in 1981 and cost AU$ 26 M to construct. It is 309 metres (1,014 feet) high and one of the tallest structures in the Southern Hemisphire. Admission is AU$ 26 (£ 18) a head. The tower is not the bridge but it is still fun. After viewing a short 4D film, you ascend in a rapid lift to an observation deck with excellent 360 degree views of the city.


    The Sydney Tower Eye

    Vee looking sartorial

    This evening we had our farewell dinner and the Australian part of our tour was complete.


    NEW ZEALAND

    New Zealand – or Aotearoa ('Land of the long white cloud') as the Maoris call it – is geographically slightly bigger than the UK but has a population only just over half that of London (4.4 M compared to 8.2 M) . Some 15% of the population is Maori and 7% Pacific Islanders, while another 9% is Asian.

    Politically New Zealand is very unusual in having a unicameral parliament. Economically the country relies mainly on farming and tourism. Normally the country has a moderate climate but the summer leading up to our visit had been the driest on record.

    Auckland

    Just how early can an early start be on this amazing round the world trip of ours? On what was probably Day 18 (Friday) – the days and dates were starting to merge into one another – the hotel gave us an alarm call at 3 am for our 4 am departure to Sydney Airport. Six of the group that had toured Australia together were now going on to visit New Zealand: Americans Bob & Tommi Ruth, Canadians Vic and Sue, and Brits Roger & Vee.

    Our aircraft was a Boeing 737-800 and the flight eastward from Sydney to Auckland was only a little further than our three internal flights in Oz: 2,165 kms (1,353 miles). This took 2 hrs 40 mins and, since Auckland is two hours ahead of Sydney, we landed at 11.40 am local time.

    Auckland, on New Zealand's north island, has a population of 1.4 M – around one-third of that of the country as a whole with the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world. Located around two harbours and built on or overlooked by around 50 dormant volcanoes, surveys regularly identify Auckland as one of the best places in the world in which to live.

    We were met by our tour guide for New Zealand, the ever-cheerful Mark Hockley of Trafalgar [click here], and driven to our hotel, the Skycity Grand Hotel [click here]. We arrived about 1.20 pm and, although there was nothing scheduled for this first day, Roger had arranged to meet a former colleague at 2 pm, so there was barely time for a quick sandwich for lunch while we waited for our room to become available at 1.50 pm.


    We love our cappuccino and
    Auckland had the best decorated
    of our round the world trip

    A delicious cappuccino
    and a friendly message
    in downtown Auckland

    Dave Simpson used to work for Internet service provider Easynet in Britain where he was responsible for regulatory affairs and knew Roger through his membership of the Ofcom Consumer Panel. Three and a half years ago, Dave emigrated to the land of the Kiwis – together with his wife and two daughters – to take up a job with Telecom New Zealand as Regulatory Affairs Manager and this tour was a great opportunity to link up with him for a brief while.

    The weather was pleasantly warm (21C/70F) when Dave collected us from the hotel and drove us north across the Harbour Bridge to the lovely area of Devonport where we went up to the top of two volcanoes – Mount Victoria and North Head – for fabulous views of the harbour and Auckland, before we enjoyed a cold drink and a chat at a cafe at "Torpedo Bay". We learned that independent Local Fibre Companies are rolling out fibre to the home (FTTH) to 75% of New Zealanders and Dave himself already has an Internet connection providing 100 mega bits per second (Mbps) download and 50 Mbps upload.

    Back at the hotel, we had the first gathering of our group for New Zealand. It was immediately very apparent that the logistics and dynamics of this part of our holiday were going to be very different from our experience of Australia. Whereas in Oz, we had a small group of 13 travelling mainly by aircraft, on this leg of the trip we had a really large group of 38 travelling mainly by coach.

    We all walked over the road from our hotel to the Sky Tower [click here]. This is 328 metres (1,076 feet) high and we took lifts with external glass sides and a glass section in the floor shooting up to the 53rd level which houses the Observatory Buffet Restaurant at 194 metres (636 feet). After an extensive buffet, which introduced us to the delicious New Zealand ice cream flavour known as "Hokey Pokey" (vanilla & caramel), we were able to observe a bright red sunset in the west.


    Auckland's Sky Tower


    View of sunset from top of Sky Tower

    Day 19 (Saturday) was spent in Auckland – the morning in a group tour of the city and the afternoon free to explore as individuals.

    The group tour took just over three hours and our NZ tour director Mark greeted us in Maori with "Kia ora" ("Hello"). He explained that Auckland used to be the capital of New Zealand until 1965 when Wellington took over. He told us that Auckland is known as "the city of sails" because one in three owns a boat of some description and certainly there are lots of large marinas all around the harbour. We drove through the affluent districts of Ponsonby and Parnell and the red light area of Karangahape Road.

    As we crossed the Harbour Bridge to the north of the city, Mark narrated how quickly the bridge had needed to be widened and how a Japanese company had managed to add a couple of extra lanes on each side of the bridge with constructions known locally as "Nippon clip-ons". On the north side, we stopped at a place called Bastion Point by Mission Bay. For most tourists, this is simply a wonderful vantage point for excellent views of the city skyline. For Roger & Vee, however, it had political interest because there is a monument honouring Michael Joseph Savage (1872-1940) who was New Zealand's first Labour Prime Minister who implemented important social reforms.

    Then we all went on a one and a half hour boat tour of Waitemata Harbour in weather that was warm and pleasant like the best of an English summer day. As well as local islands, at Devonport Naval Base we saw two of the 13 ships in the New Zealand Navy. Our boat was awash with Thai schoolchildren and Roger befriended three young girls who, according to their name tags, were known as Boom, Cream, and Nook.


    View of Sky Tower from harbour


    Skyline of Auckland from harbour

    The afternoon was free time and Roger & Vee started with a bit of retail therapy on the main shopping thoroughfare of Queen Street as Vee bought a top and a jacket for the colder South Island. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon – almost three hours – at the Auckland War Memorial Museum [click here]. We could have been there a whole day and still not seen all the contents of this grand building because this is in effect three museums, each equally fascinating in its own way.

    The ground level is called "People Of The Pacific" and is devoted to Polynesian and Maori exhibits which include a 25 metre war canoe that could carry 100 warriors and a real carved meeting house with amazing wooden faces all around the long walls. Level 1 is titled "Stories Of Our Land And Sea" and covers the local oceans, forests, animals and volcanoes. Level 2 is known as "New Zealand's War Stories" which start with the New Zealand wars of the 19th century before examining the First and Second World Wars.

    As if all this was not enough, we had lunch at the museum cafe, we purchased presents at the museum shop, and we witnessed a thrilling performance by the Tatau Dance Group, bare-footed, big-bellied, tattooed-bodied Maoris. Just to top off a splendid afternoon, the museum is located in the city's most beautiful park, Auckland Domain.


    Something exotic and exuberant
    in Auckland War Memorial Museum:
    Tatu Dance Group

    Something weird and wonderful
    in Auckland War Memorial Museum:
    Vee

    For dinner, we went out with a member of the group called Andrew, a fellow Brit who was travelling without his wife.

    Around Rotorua

    Another day – Day 20 (Sunday) – and another tour and another hotel. Again it was an early start: alarm at 6 am and departure at 7.45 am. Leaving behind Auckland, we drove south through the rolling green countryside and we had our first break at the "River Haven Cafe" in the town of Huntly. This was supposed to be simply a coffee and comfort stop, but Vee was delighted to find a lilac-coloured fleece which she could buy for the cooler South Island.

    Our tour guide Mark used our journey to give a potted history of relations between the Maori and British & Irish settlers, highlighting the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, the Land Wars (there were five conflicts) from 1844-1872, and the Waitangi Tribunal which has been sitting from 1975 to date in order to settle conflicts of land ownership. In fact, some 90% of Maoris live in the North Island.

    Our first destination of the day was the glow worm caves of Waitomo [click here] which means 'water entering a hole in the ground'. Here we had as our local guide a great-, great-, grandson of Chief Tane Tinorau who in 1887 was persuaded by the English surveyor Fred Mace to reveal the secrets of the caves.

    He took us into the limestone caverns inhabited by stalactites and stalagmites, descending from the ceiling and rising from the floor of the caves respectively, and explained the life cycle of the glow worms which live in the caves. The larval stage of the insect gives off light to attract food in the form of other flying insects. Then he pulled us in a boat along the underground river. In the silence of the brief ride, we had a magical experience observing the strange little glow worms - on the ceiling looking like a version of the Milky Way in the desert sky and close up on the adjacent walls appearing as pin points of white light.


    Entrance to the glow worm caves

    Shortly after this illuminating visit, we stopped for lunch in a town called Otorohanga (which, appropriately enough, means 'food for a journey') at an establishment called "Ronnie's Cafe". Then we drove eastwards, eventually arriving just south of the town of Rotorua, to reach our second destination.

    This was a thermal reserve named Te Puia [click here]in an area originally called Te whakarewarewatangaopetauaawahiao which translates as 'the gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao' [the name of the local chief]). Our Maori guide at the reserve – a strikingly good-looking young man, as Vee observed – explained that the Maori language only has 14 letters in its alphabet but this place name features 13 of them.

    First we were taken to the Kiwi House. Now the kiwi may be the national bird of New Zealand but it is a hard creature to spot. Partly this is because there are now so few of them – from a population of 12 million, there are now only around 70,000. Partly it is because they are both nocturnal and notoriously shy – so the inside of the House is in virtual darkness. If you really squinted, you could just see the small black shape of a North Island brown kiwi moving around the glass enclosure – but at least we could say that we saw a kiwi. Roger decided that the entrance to the House should have a sign posing the question: "Kiwi? Or not kiwi? That is the question".

    The main reason for visiting this location, of course, was the thermal features. One cannot miss the rotten egg smell of the sulphur or the bubbling of the gas escaping the mud pools, but there are only six active geysers now from an original number of about 50. The big one is called Pohutu which means 'big splash'. It has a rough cycle of about 40-45 minutes maximum activity followed by around a similar period of much quieter activity. Obstinately it refused to blow until we were about to leave, but fortunately we then had a dramatic view of its impressive eruption high in the air which created plumes of boiling water and billowing gas plus a bright rainbow. Apparently it can erupt to a height of 30 metres (about 100 feet).


    Sulphur escapes from mud pool


    Pohutu geyser blows

    At this point, we checked into the Millennium Hotel [click here] in Rotorua, but only for an hour or so before we were off to the third and last destination of a long and action-packed day. Indeed we spent so little waking time in our hotel room that Vee & Roger never unpacked.

    Sunday evening was as full as the day, since we were entertained at a specially constructed Maori village called Tamaki ('the village among the the trees') [click here]. This is located at Tumunui which is a half hour drive out of Rotorua. Our Maori driver – a guy known as Mark – was an amazing character: irrepressively ebullient as he talked the whole way through a microphone while driving with one hand, seriously impressive as he proceeded to offer us the equivalent of "Kia ora" in 60 other languages, and endlessly amusing as he affected American, Canadian, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish accents and cracked a stream of jokes.

    At the Maori village, there was a ceremony where the village elder challenged the leaders of the four coach groups, before establishing that we were friendly and offering us hospitality, a ritual that ended in nose-rubbing. A series of outdoor huts in the trees hosted Maoris explaining different features of the indigenous culture. Then we were shown how the Maoris cook food in a "Hangi" stone pit, before attending a concert of traditional dance and song, and enjoying the meal.


    Vee and Roger meet their future partners
    at the Tamaki Maori village

    Before we all left the village, we were entertained to a display of the "Haka", the traditional Maori war dance made famous worldwide by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team (which Mark insisted was the finest sporting team in the history of the world). As well as much beating of the body and shouting, the haka involves the protrudence and wiggle of the tongue in a fiercesome manner. On the return coach journey, Mark excelled himself by leading a sing song in various languages, concluding with a rendition of "The wheels on the bus go round and round", the highlight of which was three rapid circumambulations of a small roundabout.

    The evening was not quite over for Roger & Vee though as, back at the Millennium Hotel, we met our New Zealand friends Val & Ross Bartrum for drinks and a chat. Roger & Val worked together in London as long ago as 1971 and have stayed in touch while she has emigrated to NZ and raised three children in Wanganui.

    Next day, Day 21 (Monday), saw a further early start, with the alarm at 6 am and departure at 7.45 am. Clouds of sulphur vapour were streaming out of the storm pipes, fissures in the parks, and the sides of the Rotorua Lake which made for an ethereal veiling of the town in early morning.

    It was a particularly good day for Vee because the morning was all about visits to city sights featuring local animals and she loves all creatures great and small. First stop was the Rainbow Springs Nature Park [click here]. Amid vegetation including Californian redwood trees and New Zealand fern bushes, we saw rainbow trout, kea parrots, small lizards and dragons, and something called the tuatara which is billed as "New Zealand's living prehistoric fossil".

    The park also contains the Kiwi Experience which was a million times better than the Kiwi House which we visited at the thermal reserve the previous day. There were excellent information displays and the kiwis themselves were in much larger and better-lit glass cases where we could actually see them. Before leaving, Roger bought a kiwi cuddly toy for granddaughter Catrin and Vee purchased "Kiwi poo" (chocolates) for her nephew's children Yasmin & Lucas.


    Tuatara - "New Zealand's living prehistoric fossil"

    Our clearest sighting of the elusive kiwi

    The second visit was to the Agrodome Sheep Show [click here]. The accent of the presenter was so strong that we did not understand all he said but he was as entertaining as he was informative. We learned that New Zealand has 32 million sheep (that's more than seven for every person in the country) and we were introduced to the examples of no less than 19 varieties of them (just how exciting can life get?). The presenter actually sheared a sheep for us and members of the audience were invited to try their hand at milking cows before, in a field outside the display theatre, we observed how a trained dog cleverly herded sheep. Vee was able to pet various animals, including an alpaca, and was the last in the bus by a good 10 minutes.


    All 19 varieties of sheep on display

    Roger's favourite variety: the Merino


    Vee happy petting a baby alpaca

    We were dropped off in Rotorua on the Tutanekai Street – full of shops and cafes – so that we could have a bit of lunch and Vee & Roger teamed up with Andrew for our refreshments. We found a place that we loved because of the name (it was called the "Fat Dog" [click here] and had a "Fat Dog Bog"), the ambience (it displayed a Thought For The Week on a blackboard and quotes on walls and tables), and the food (Roger had a dessert of brandy snap with vanilla ice cream & raspberry coulis).

    TranzAlpine & Glaciers

    It was time to leave the North Island and head for the South Island. At Rotorua airport, we were required to pay NZ$ 5 a head as a Domestic Development Levy which is fancy name for an airport tax. The flight from Rotorua to Christchurch took little more than an hour.

    The South Island is very different from the North Island: it is much less populated and the population is much less diverse, while it has a much more varied geology and wider variations in temperature.

    Christchurch has been utterly changed, and will experience still more change, as a result of the devastating earthquake of 22 February 2011 which killed 185 people and severely damaged the business centre and the east of the city. We had a short coach tour of the city and our tour director Mark, who grew up in the city, spelt out the extent of the destruction and the challenges of reconstruction. We had a stop of of about 40 minutes next to the Canterbury Museum and Roger & Vee took the opportunity to walk down to Cathedral Square, which is shielded off by railings, so that we could see Christchurch Cathedral which suffered such terrible damage that it may need to be completely replaced.


    Christchurch Cathedral minus its spire
    following the devastation of the earthquake

    Finally we checked into the Sadima Hotel [click here], on the undamaged west of the city, just by the airport. We had dinner in the hotel with our new friend Andrew.

    We had now been travelling for three weeks – the longest of any previous holiday together – but we still had a week or so to go on what was now Day 22 (Tuesday). In a sense, the day began sooner than we could possibly have imagined when, about 4 am, Roger was woken by a call on his mobile from a reporter on the magazine "Utility Week" in London where it was 3 pm. It was 6 am when our alarm sounded and the group set off once more at 7.30 am.

    After all the flying and all the driving on this holiday, we now had our first (and last) journey by train. KiwiRail run a TranzAlpine tourist train [click here] across the middle of the Southern Alps, a mountain feature which runs for 720 kms (447 miles) down the spine of the South Island. So at 8.15 am we left Christchurch heading north-west and Vee & Roger sat with Americans Ric & Mary from South Carolina. At first, the terrain was flat as we passed through the North Canterbury Plain.

    However, after a brief stop at a place called Springfield, the geography changes suddenly and dramatically and beautifully into mountains and gorges. This section of one of the most famous rail journeys in the world is a photographer's dream and there is an open air carriage to enable you to take the best shots. The trouble is that, as you compose a brilliant picture, all at once the train goes into a tunnel (there are over a dozen) and you do not know when they are coming. You could lean your head out to see, but you would then lose your head as well as the shot.


    Two views from the TranzAlpine train ...

    ... as we cross the Southern Alps

    Our guide explained that we had a long coach journey when we left the train, so it was best to use the toilet on the train, even if we felt that we did not need it at the time – as he put it so elegantly: "Try for results". Our group left the train at the highest point (737 metres) which is called Arthur's Pass (after a guy called Arthur Dudley Dobson), but the train actually goes on into an 8.5 metre tunnel and on to Greymouth on the west coast (we were assured that the scenery in this segment was not so interesting).

    Back on our coach, a so-called "rotation system" now took effect. Each seat had a number and each couple had to take the seat with the next number from one day to another, so that nobody was favoured by the seating. The seat numbers were scattered around the coach according to some mysterious algorithm.

    The weather was drizzly with mists shrouding the mountain tops as we made our way down the Otira Gorge and headed west to the coast where at a town called Kumara, we had our first view of the Tasman Sea. Hugging the coast, we drove on to a town called Hokitika where we stopped for lunch at the "Clock Tower Cafe".

    Leaving Hokitika, we continued along the coast as far as the town of Ross when we headed inland along the twisting road as the weather became bright and then sunny. This meant that, when we finally reached Franz Josef village at 3.20 pm, the weather was perfect for those who had chosen to take a helicopter ride which was eight of us out of the group of 38, including Roger & Vee.

    Franz Josef Glacier [click here] was first explored by Europeans in 1865 when the Austrian Julius von Haast named it after the head of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. The name given the glacier by the Maoris was Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere ('Tears Of The Avalanche Girl'), a reference to a legend about a local girl losing her lover. The nearby Fox Glacier [click here] is named after a former Prime Minister of New Zealand. These are not the largest glaciers in the country but the lowest and the most accessible.

    We took the 30 minute ride in a Eurocopter Squirrel AS 350 P2 which seats six, but Roger & Vee were the only passengers (the six others took a longer and more expensive flight). Vee sat in the front with the pilot Andrew, while Roger sat behind and took the photographs. It was truly spectacular to see the ice formations and we literally zoomed and weaved right up the rock faces. First we flew up the Franz Josef Glacier which is 10 km long and then we went over to the Fox Glacier which 13 km long. We landed on the Fox Glacier for about 10 minute where Vee threw a snowball at Roger and our pilot Andrew took his own photograph of us.

    By the time we reboarded the helicopter, Andrew was offering us a little pack about the glaciers complete with a photograph of us on the Fox in front of the copter. How on earth had he done that?!? We asked and learned that, at the back of the craft, there was a machine that had printed the picture while we were prancing around on the snow. The flight cost us NZ$ 295 each and the photo was another NZ$ 20 – a grand total of NZ$ 610 (£ 333) – but it was an absolutely thrilling experience that we will never forget.


    Two views from helicopter ...

    ... of the Franz Josef Glacier


    Vee & Roger on the Franz Josef Glacier

    Dinner was included in the tour and held in the hotel. Both Vee & Roger had the Canterbury lamb shank which was the tenderest lamb we had ever tasted.

    The Road To Queenstown

    One morning we might have had the chance to stay in bed awhile, but not this morning: Day 23 (Wednesday). We woke at 6 am, showered & dressed, packed again, and left at 7.45 am.

    It was a day with a lot of travelling (almost nine hours on the road), but we stopped often, the weather was perfect, and we enjoyed stunning scenery all the time: a winding, twisting road with only one lane each way, dense bushes and trees lining the way, then tall mountains skirted by billows of mist or clouds, wide and fast-flowing rivers broken by rock formations, and frequently beautiful long lakes of dazzling blue water. It was like being in "The Lord Of The Rings".

    All day we were heading south for Queenstown on the only road there. First stop, after two hours, was at the World Heritage Area of Haast where eight of the group were dropped off for a jet boat ride up the Haast River and the rest of us went into town for some rest and refreshment. Typically Roger befriended a lovely four year old blonde girl called Lilly at the drop off point and Vee made friends with a miniature schnauzer dog called Archie at the "Fantail Cafe".


    Two views of the picturesque Haast River ...

    ... as we await our jet boat companions

    Proceeding through the Haast Pass, we halted at the wonderfully-named Thunder Creek Falls to observe – and, of course, photograph – the magnificent waterfall which had been replenished by recent rain.


    Thunder Creek Falls

    Having snaked though the Pass, we left behind the wet forests and made our way over drier, more open terrain. The lunch stop was at the town of Makarora which is billed as "the Gateway to Paradise". We all ate at "The Country Cafe" where the toilets were labelled Rams, Ewes, and Mixed Flock and many of us finished our lunch with "Hokey Pokey" ice cream which led some of us to get back on the coach singing an appropriately amended version of the "Hokey Cokey".

    Immediately outside Makarora is Lake Wanaka with its glorious blue water. Across a small strip of separating land called The Neck is the parallel Lake Hawea. If the first lake was beautiful, the first view of the second from The Neck was jaw dropping. We stopped to photograph Lake Hawea which is 35 km long and 410 metres deep and the triple strip of green land, blue water, and grey rock was awesome.


    Two glorious views of the Lake Hawea ...

    ... from The Neck with Lake Wanaka

    Next stop was at the town of Cromwell to make a quick visit to "Jones's Fruit Stall" which is misnamed because it is really an emporium. As we advanced through the Kawarau Gorge, we looked down on the aquamarine of the Kawarau River. Proceeding through the wine-growing "Valley of Vines" at Gibbston, we arrived and stopped for a while at Arrowtown which was at the heart of the gold mining boom of the 1860s and today is a tourist attraction of cute shops and little museums.


    Vee in historic Arrowtown

    Queenstown & Milford Sound

    Early starts and full days were now the norm and today – Day 24 (Thursday) – was certainly no exception: we left the hotel in the dark at 7.15 am and arrived back at 6.45 pm but, in the intervening eleven and a half hours, we had a magical time.

    Our destination was Milford Sound which Mark explained is not actually a sound but a fiord – apparently a sound is a drowned river valley but a fiord is a drowned glacial valley. Half Welsh Vee was pleased to note that it was named after Milford Haven in Wales.

    As the crow flies north-west from Queenstown to Milford Sound, the distance is not far, but there is simply no direct route. Instead you have to take a long U-shaped route, travelling south, then west, and then north. At least we made it and the weather was excellent – sometimes rock or snow avalanches near the sound cut off access or poor weather at the sound makes many features hard to make out.

    We had a comfort break at Te Anau which is located at the bottom left of the U-route where the "Kiwi Country Cafe" has excellent facilities, including a shop where Vee & Roger bought more cuddly toys for the kids back home, but a very odd and unfriendly practice of charging more for take-away coffee than coffee in the cafe.

    The rest of our route was through Fiordland National Park, a huge expanse covering 1.25 million hectares or 3 million acres. We passed along the side of the wonderfully scenic Lake Te Anau which is the second largest in New Zealand and twice the depth of Loch Ness in Scotland. We took the Milford Road due north which eventually goes through the 1.2 km Milford Tunnel, both of which were competed in 1954. Along the way, we made five stops to admire the stunning scenery and take great photographs.

    One halt was at Mirror Lakes. These are not lakes, rather ponds – but, boy, are they mirrors. The absolutely still water reflected perfectly the vegetation, the mountains, and the clouds to enable us to take pictures which looked like professional posters.


    Mirror Lakes (1)

    Mirror Lakes (2)


    Mirror Lakes (3)

    Mirror Lakes (4)

    Another stop was at The Chasm where the Cleddau River plunges through a narrow gap 22 metres deep in a location of verdant rainforest housing noisy kea birds. Everywhere we were so high up that the clouds skirted around the middle of the peaks and created fabulous scenes further reminiscent of "Lord Of The Rings".


    Vee & Roger among mountains and clouds

    Mountains and clouds of "Lord Of The Rings"

    It was a hard road to navigate, with repeated hairpin bends, but our driver Darryl negotiated the route with great skill as well as adding to the commentary with sardonic humour. He ensured that we arrived at Milford Sound [click here] exactly on time for the 1 pm departure for our hour and a half cruise on the sound complete with packed lunch.

    The boat took us all along the west side of the long sound past Mitre Peak standing at 1,682 metres (5,518 feet), turned round once it reached the head of the sound at the Tasman Sea, and proceeded all down the east side of the sound including the Stirling Falls. On the early part of the cruise, we were accompanied by a pod of bottle nosed dolphins swimming and jumping playfully in close formation alongside the boat. On the late section of the cruise, we sailed very close to a rock where New Zealand fur seals were sunbathing. It was a brilliant trip and it took Roger's photo count for the holiday to 1,000.


    Milford Sound (1)

    Milford Sound (2)


    Milford Sound (3)

    Milford Sound (4)

    Afterwards two of our group took a flight back from Milford Sound to Queenstown, but the rest of us had to face a long drive back with only one brief rest stop. The return was made palatable by the showing of a film about a New Zealand racing hero called Bert Munro ("The World's Fastest Indian"). After such a long day, Roger & Vee – accompanied by Andrew – ate dinner at the hotel.

    Just how many thrills can you experience on one holiday? The answer, in the case of this trip, was: at least one more. Day 25 (Good Friday) was free in the official itinerary, but we were offered various optional extras and most of us – including Roger & Vee – opted for the Skippers Canyon Gold Tour at NZ$ 189 (£ 103) a head which presented one hell of a thrill.

    It was a case of up at 6.30 am and off at 7.50 am in two four-wheel drive minibuses, one driven by a guy who was an extra in one of the "Lord Of The Rings" movies. To start the four and a half hour tour, we headed due north and drove up and up Mount Coronet to a peak at about 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) for marvellous views of the Richardson Mountains behind Queenstown.


    Two early morning views from Mount Coronet ...

    ... of Richardson Mountains above Queenstown

    Now Queenstown owes its origins to the nearby discovery of gold in 1852 and our destination was Skippers Canyon [click here] which was at the heart of the gold rush. It took 22 years to carve out an access road using only black gunpowder and hand drills and this is still the main means of entering the canyon. The problem is that the rock road is little more than a vehicle's width and, as it hugs the curves of the mountain side, it has no barrier between it and the sheer drop on the off side. Our driver was very assured but the ride was genuinely hair-raising, although the glorious terrain eased the anxiety considerably.


    Two of the many stunning views ...

    ... on the Skippers Canyon tour

    The standard Skippers Canyon Land Tour is all about the history of the gold mines. The tour is owned and operated by a fifth generation Skippers family (originally called Smith) and one of the stops is a little museum staffed by the oddly named Winky (Hohneck) who is a member of the fourth generation. Here visitors can try their hand at gold panning at the Sainsbury's Gold Claim.

    One of Winky's sons pilots the jet boats operated by the company along a stretch of the Shotover River and the Gold Tour includes such a ride. We had to don blue spray jackets, orange life jackets, gloves and, so long as they were available, beanie hats (Roger did not manage to find one).


    Vee kits up for jet boat ride

    What followed was a massive adrenaline rush. It takes no time at all for the jet boat to achieve speed and the spray to start drenching you. The force of the wind generated by the motion plus the temperature of the freezing water was like a slap in the face which simply ached with biting cold. There is no time or opportunity to worry too much about your face though because you are thrilling to a boat racing through incredibly shallow water, bouncing over all obstacles, and barely skirting adjacent and overhanging rocks. Most exciting of all was the spins when the boat is whirled a full 360 degrees in a couple of seconds.

    Just how exhilarating the jet boat ride had been was not wholly apparent until it ended and we clamboured out of the vessel, exclaiming like kids. We found that we had to make a distinct effort to straighten up our fingers after gripping on to a bar for dear life and our legs were strangely weak so that we wobbled around for a few minutes. How could we not buy the official photograph even if we were barely distinguishable in all our gear?


    Jet boat ride on the Shotover River
    - Roger & Vee are on the back row on the far left

    After all this excitement Roger & Vee spent the afternoon chilling in downtown Queenstown. Stanley Street should be called "Backpackers' Alley" – just about every shop is offering accommodation, equipment, or thrill activities to the young men and women descending on the place from all over the world. We ate some lunch at the newly-opened "Fat Badger's Pizza Bar" on Stanley Street and later had huge cornets of Hokey Pokey ice cream from "Patagonia" on Beach Street. We sat by the water and just soaked in the magnificent harbour views once more.

    On Friday evening, Roger thought that he could fit in one more experience as he had seen a stargazing option advertised so, while Vee washed her hair (a very important ritual on all our holidays), he was out from about 8 to 10 pm. The exercise was located at the top of the Skyride Gondola, but the weather proved so cloudy that the guide Colette cancelled the event and arranged refunds. On the ride up, Roger befriended a professional Indian couple from Mumbai and, on the ride down, he talked with seven Chinese – three women and two men – and had photos together.

    The Road To Christchurch

    The last day of the New Zealand tour – Day 26 (Saturday) for Vee & Roger – was no different from all the others on the South Island. Yup, yet another early start: alarm at 6.15 am, bags out at 7.15 am, and off at 8 am.

    Our driver Darryl – who shared a lot of the commentary with our guide Mark on the South Island – courted controversy by explaining the strict gun control laws in New Zealand (very similar to those in the UK) and ventured to suggest that the United States would benefit by adopting the same type of controls. The Americans – whose constituted the largest national segment of our group – were as divided between liberals and conservatives as their country as a whole and some of them gave Darryl a lively counter argument.

    Our journey originally took us east to Cromwell where we turned north and drove along Lake Dunstan and through Lindis Valley before stopping at Omarama for refreshment and a final opportunity at retail therapy in the "Merino Country Cafe". Continuing north through the oddly-named Twizel to the foot of Lake Putaki, we halted for photographs of Mount Cook – or Aoraki ('Cloud piercer') as it is called by the Maori – at the other end of the lake. This mountain rises to 3,755 metres (12,320 feet) which makes it the tallest in Australasia, but only around a third of tourist groups actually see it because weather conditions are so variable, so we felt blessed that our brilliant luck with good weather had held out throughout the tour.


    View of Mount Cook across Lake Putaki

    An hour later, we made another scenic stop for another photo opportunity: the tiny stone and oak Church of the Good Shepherd built in 1935 at the foot of Lake Tekapo and still standing in utter isolation. Roger & Vee were excited to find themselves at this church because they remembered that it was the location of the wedding of their good friends Beth Lamont & Philip Bickerstaffe in December 2002. We asked an attendant if we could see the register for that time and found the record of Beth & Philip's wedding.


    View from inside Church of the
    Good Shepherd across Lake Tekapo

    After more travel in an easterly direction, our lunch stop of almost two hours was at a wonderfully congenial place: the Morelea Farm at Fairlie. This is a working farm with some 4,000 sheep, around 1,800 cattle, three alpacas (for their wool), and a sheep dog called Bo. It is run by Stan & Angie who made us really welcome at their lovely home and served an excellent meal of hamburger, lamb, sausage & salad followed by a particularly delicious pavlova.


    Morelea - a working sheep farm


    Vee finds one more animal to cuddle:
    Bo, the sheep dog

    The final stretch of the journey was across the Canterbury Plain to Christchurch which we had left a very, very full five days ago. We arrived at our hotel – this time the Chateau on the Park [click here] which is still under repair from the earthquake) – at 5 pm after a road trip of nine hours. As he said his farewell, Darryl asserted: "We know that it's Australia that brings you down to this part of the world, but we believe that it's New Zealand that will bring you back".

    The farewell dinner was at the hotel in a large restaurant shared by other groups but, at the end of the meal, there was much hand shaking and hugging as we all promised to be in touch. Nobody stayed on at the bar because most people had to leave for the airport at 4 am or 5 am next morning.

    Day 27 (Easter Sunday) and the Australia & New Zealand core of our trip was over but, just as we broke our outward journey in Bangkok, so we were breaking our return journey in San Francisco, and therefore the holiday was not quite concluded. As other members of our NZ group departed for early morning flights, joy of joys, in Christchurch we were able to stay in bed until 8 am and then spend a leisurely morning alone in the city. Back in Britain, it was the start of British Summer Time but March had been the coldest since 1962. For us though, it was another pleasant day: 24C/75F.

    Just over the road from the Chateau on the Park is the extensive and herbaceous Hegley Park and we strolled round this to the Canterbury Museum [click here], built in 1870), where we had been dropped on our original arrival in the city six days previously. We spent over three hours at the museum viewing the exhibits, buying more gifts from the shop, and having a light lunch in the cafe.

    We were surprised at how broad and interesting the displays were, ranging from information on the original inhabitants of the island, through material on Maori culture, to a recreation of a Victorian Christchurch street. A large, three-storey Victorian dolls house was affected by the earthquake which knocked over various tiny objects in the little rooms, but the items have been left where they fell as a record of "the big one".


    UNITED STATES

    Our journey to San Francisco involved two flights. The first was a one and a half hour hop from Christchurch to Auckland (where we saw the first real rain of our trip). The second was an eleven and a quarter hour haul from Auckland to SF. Both flights were with Air New Zealand, the first on a Boeing 737-300 and the second on a Boeing 747-400. As usual on long-haul flights, Roger managed to sleep reasonably well but poor Vee hardly at all.

    At some point over the Pacific Ocean, we crossed the date line, so that we passed from today to yesterday – or something like that (this round the world trip was getting complicated). On our second Easter Sunday (we were confused too) , we landed at 7.05 am yesterday Auckland time but 11.05 am today in San Francisco.

    It was Roger's eighth visit to the USA and Vee's fifth – in both cases, the last trip was less than a year ago when we were on the east coast [for an account of this trip click here]. It was Roger's third time in San Francisco (two months in 1970 and a week in 1980) but Vee's first (indeed this choice of stopover was hers).

    San Francisco

    We took a taxi – driven by a guy from Eritrea – to the city and, as we drove in, it crashed with rain. We were staying at the Argonaut Hotel [click here] at the west end of Fisherman's Wharf with a great view of Alcatraz through the window of our room. Arriving at the hotel after crossing the Pacific, the first priority was a little sleep in mid afternoon. Then it was out around Fisherman's Wharf for something to eat. We played safe and went to a very traditional American diner called "Denny's", but we had forgotten just how enormous many of the servings are in the USA. Vee was provided with a huge helping of hash browns with her omelette that she could not manage at all, while Roger's banana split was literally twice the size of any in Europe and even 'the king of desserts' could not finish it.

    Strolling back, we jumped when what looked like a bush on the side of the pavement (sorry, sidewalk) suddenly opened up and a black hobo holding two large branches shouted at us: "Waaah!! Be a man! It's only a black man in a bush!" What was all this about? We watched him do it again to some other unsuspecting tourists: "If I've made yuh holla, give me a dollar". Only in America ... [for more information click here].

    Once back in our room, the jet-lag kicked in and we decided to rest our eyes for another while. When Roger opened them again, it was four hours later – and the evening time when normal SF goes to sleep.

    Day 28 (Monday) started with our first hotel breakfast in the States for many years. The bad news is that in the USA, unlike most other countries, breakfast is not included, so you have to pay for every individual item and provide a tip of typically 20%. The good news is that the choice of food is amazing – Vee had bacon scramble and Roger chose Eggs Benedict.

    Through the hotel concierge, we booked 48 hour tickets at US$ 100 (£ 66) each with City Sightseeing San Francisco which does a range of hop on – hop off loop tours, so the day was a tale of two tours – and two tour guides with great tales and amazingly the same marriage. Meanwhile the day started overcast and cloudy but soon became bright and sunny.

    The first tour was the Downtown one which lasts an hour and a half if you don't leave the bus. Our guide was the red-hatted moustachioed Leo who delivered his commentary in the super-fast style beloved of those who cover horse races for television. We saw such famous sights as Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid and City Hall and well-known locations like Union Square, Market Street, Chinatown, Little Italy and Washington Square, all of which gave us an introductory overview to this wonderful city of 1.7 million.


    Front of City Hall

    Entrance to Chinatown

    After hot drinks and pastries in the "Waterfront Bakery" (run by a Persian who left Iran 30 years ago), we took the Golden Gate Bridge/Sausalito tour which, with our break in Sausalito, filled an afternoon of three and a half hours. Our guide – –who was also our driver – this time was "the fat lady" (her words) called Betsy who turned out to be Leo's wife and was even louder and funnier than her husband of 34 years.

    Betsy described San Francisco as "the most liberal city in the United States" (she mentioned the annual nude cyclers event) and the place for "the best people-watching anywhere in the world" (she identified "the bushman" from yesterday as Greg who has been named 'street performer of the year').

    The Golden Gate Bridge [click here] was completed in 1937 and it is 1.7 miles long. Betsy stopped at the southern (city) end of the bridge in case anyone wanted to walk it but nobody did (Roger walked it in 1970). Apparently, since it was built, some 1,700 have "strolled off" (again her words) the orange-coloured structure and only 30 of them have survived. She stopped again at the northern end of the bridge for fabulous views back to the city skyline.


    Golden Gate Bridge:
    at southern end looking north


    Golden Gate Bridge:
    at northern end looking south

    Roger & Vee at northern end
    of Golden Gate Bridge

    Sausalito [click here] – or sarsaparilla, as Vee jokingly called it – is a very wealthy community of 7,000 just north of the Golden Gate Bridge where Roger & Vee left the bus for a couple of hours to enjoy hot drinks and cakes at "Cafe Tutti", browse the expensive shops, and savour more stunning views of San Francisco across the bay. Mysteriously the originally clear view of the city was suddenly replaced by a line of fog which rose from water level to almost the tops of the skyscrapers, before melting away almost as quickly as it had appeared. The phenomenon made for a neat set of photos.


    View of San Francisco from Sausalito
    - note the fog on the water

    Vee & Roger at Sausalito
    - fog still obscurring San Francisco

    In the evening, we went upmarket for our dinner compared to yesterday by strolling round to Ghirardelli Square where we found an excellent seafood restaurant called "McCormick & Kuleto's" [click here]. We both had New England clam chowder followed by grilled swordfish which were delicious.

    Our last day of the stop-over in San Francisco and the final day of our amazing round the world holiday – Day 29 (Tuesday) – began with another Argonaut Hotel breakfast. You order a ham & cheese omelette and you receive an omelette twice the size of any in Europe (they use three eggs) plus fried potatoes and a couple of slices of toast. Is it any wonder that so many Americans are obese?

    Today we managed to experience three icons of San Francisco: a cable car, Golden Gate Park, and Alcatraz Island.

    The San Francisco cable car system [click here] is the last manually operated cable car network in the world. Of the 23 lines that were created between 1873-1890, three still operate and one of them starts and finishes round the corner from the Argonaut Hotel, so we paid our US$ 6 a piece and took the Powell & Hyde line. As it rises up Hyde Street, you get a great view of Alcatraz in the bay and then you pass the head of the crooked part of Lombard Street. Turning into Washington Street, you pass the Cable Car Museum, before turning into Powell Street and proceeding through Union Square all the way down to Market Street.

    As fun as the sights when riding the cable car are the sounds: the ever-present whirring of the cables, the periodic manipulation of the grip lever, the regular sounding of the bell, and the constant calls of the conductor: "All the way in #150 shoulder to shoulder .. Hold on folks, goin' downhill ... New riders? ... Union Square, anyone?"

    From Market Street, we took a taxi to Golden Gate Park which is even larger than Central Park in New York: over 3 miles long east to west and half a mile wide north to south. We asked the Ethiopian cab driver to drop us off at the De Young Museum [click here]. At first, Roger was disorientated: the museum he used to visit in 1970 has been competed destroyed and replaced by a new one opened in 2005 and the exhibits he remembered have been relocated to a completely different museum. But then disorientation was replaced by pleasure when we found that, since it was the first Tuesday of the month, admission was free and the special exhibition had a reduced fee.

    While we were at the museum, there was the sounding of the earthquake alarm system which is tested throughout San Francisco at noon on the first Tuesday of every month. The city was devastated by the earthquake of 1906 and seriously damaged by one in 1989, so there is always the threat of a natural disaster and a fear of "the big one".

    The special exhibition was a collection of Dutch Golden Age engravings and paintings including works from the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague (which Vee & Roger had visited on a trip to the Netherlands). The top draw of the exhibition was the famous Vermeer painting "The Girl With The Pearl Earring". We also enjoyed viewing a permanent collection entitled "Art Of The Americas" which ranged from the Aztecs to the Inuits. The views from the Hamon Tower and a visit to the cafe rounded off an excellent visit.

    Trips to Alcatraz Island [click here] are often – as on this week – fully booked days in advance, but we got to the island this afternoon as part of our 48 hour sightseeing package. Starting from Pier 33 on The Embarcadero, it is a 15-minute ferry ride to "The Rock" which served as a federal penitentiary for 29 years until it was closed in 1963. Infamous inmates included Al "Scarface" Capone and Robert "The Birdman" Stround.


    View of San Francisco from boat:
    note Transamerica Buiding on left
    and Coit Tower on right

    View of Alcatraz Island from boat
    - nobody is known to have escaped alive
    between 1933 and 1963

    We took the audio tour of the Cell Blocks B & C (336 cells for the "general population") and D Block (42 cells for segregated prisoners) and tried out one of the tiny cells for size. Having seen movies like "The Bird Man Of Alcatraz", "Escape From Alcatraz" and "The Rock", it was eerie to walk the blocks and contemplate the terrible isolation that such incarceration must have involved.

    We had barely 15 minutes back at our hotel to freshen up for an early dinner with our dear American friends Art & Lynn Shostack who have very recently relocated from the East Coast to the West Coast. Art is a prolific author who is currently working on his 35th book which is about the unusual occasions of kindness shown by Holocaust victims to one another.

    For our meal, we returned to the seafood venue of last night's dinner and found that, since this time we had booked, the menu given to us was headed "McCormick & Kuleto's San Francisco welcomes the Darlington party!" Roger & Vee had enjoyed last night's clam chowder so much, we started with it again. Then Vee had jumbo shrimp scampi sautéed served over linguini, while Roger went outside his comfort zone and tried the San Francisco cioppino with crab, mussels, clams, squid, rockfish, scallop & prawns. As Lynn put it, the immensely affable evening was "the capstone" to a magnificent holiday.


    CONCLUSION

    The final stages of our journey home involved a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles of just 50 minutes on a United Boeing 757-200, a period of four hours at LAX airport, and then another flight from LA to London of 10 hrs 40 mins on an Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300. The last flight of our long holiday – the 12th excluding helicopters – was not just almost half a day in duration but involved a time difference of eight hours, so we arrived at London Heathrow really jet-lagged – to be met by a temperature of 2C/36F and snow flurries (in April!).

    How to summarise such a fantastic holiday?

    The bare statistics of the trip are four countries in 31 days, involving six time zones and two languages, taking 12 flights totalling almost 56 hours, and staying in 13 hotels. We even managed to meet five sets of friends in three different countries. The trip has added three new countries to our total which, in Roger's case, brings the grand total of nations visited to a round 60.

    It was a great month to be away from home since, while we had very hot weather in Thailand and Australia and really warm weather in New Zealand, most of the UK had snow and overall it was the coldest March there for 50 years (1962).

    On such a fabulous trip – our furthest and longest together – it is a challenge to pick out all the highlights, but among them would be the visit to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, our helicopter flight over Ulhuru, snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, our helicopter ride to the Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers, the cruise on Milton Sound, the jet boat ride in Skippers Canyon, and the views of San Francisco from Sausalito.

    We travelled as far from home as we could and still be on the same planet. By visiting Australia & New Zealand, we have now been to every continent on Earth – but there are still many more countries to see and (we hope) many more holidays to come. This one though will always remain the BIG one. As well as our memories and this record, we have almost 1100 photographs to help us recall the adventure.

    Thanks to taking an iPad with us and having access to WiFi almost everywhere, this was the first time that we blogged about a holiday as it has happened which enabled relatives and friends to follow our journey in something approaching real time.

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