Friday, November 30, 2007

this is the sound of island radio ...

Over the past months we've been regularly seeking recommendations from Americans we've met of places to go and stay for our week in Hawaii. In all our conversations, one piece of advice has been universal. Leave Honolulu immediately.

So it was that within two hours of landing we found ourselves on a small plane bound for the least touristed of all the major Hawaiian islands, Kaua'i.

Despite it's diminutive size, we found plenty to do in our eight days here, from the soft sandy beaches perfect for surfing and snorkeling to the rugged interior with it's spectacular scenery and hiking around Waimea Canyon - dubbed the grand canyon of the Pacific.

Kaua'i is a superbly laid-back island with a genuinely unique character. Since the decline of the sugar cane plantations and their regular burning of the fields, the islands feral chicken population has been steadily increasing. Then in 1992 when the island was flattened by a hurricane the prized fighting cocks of the local Phillipino community were released into the wild - having testosterone charged roosters (or at least the avian equivalent) rampaging over the island numbers has sent numbers spiraling out of control.

When they're not dashing out into the road bringing the local vehicle of choice, the monster truck, to a screeching halt, they seem to delight in crowing at all hours of the day and night. It gets even more confusing when this is also the ring tone on your cellphone, our joke of the week is simply "can you get that ...". Repeat several times daily.

One aspect of island life you won't read about in the guide books is the local radio station, Island Radio, playing a mix of reggae and local pop. The lyrics of the local pop songs are so literal that I've often found myself listening to songs assuming them to be adverts before realising they are in fact genuine tracks by local artists. A local version of the 12 days of Christmas is easily confused with a supermarket advert (8 tins of tuna, 7 pounds of pork) until it reaches items like 5 hunting dogs, 4 remote controls and of course an Irie Island Reggae CD.

After our initial chuckles we've grown rather fond of it - it's so refreshing for music to provide such an honest reflection of everyday life.

One track though stands apart in it's continued ability ability to have us laughing like lunatics as we drive around the island, we call it the toilet paper song and I think you'll enjoy it too.

After the first verse (imagine a reggae pop style) which describes stocking up on essentials in readiness for an approaching hurricane, the chorus kicks in as the singer reflects;

Your love, is like a good toilet paper ...
It never falls apart when the going gets tough ...

This is only surpassed by the "rap" in the middle of the song;

If you ever why that I say what i say,
The good toilet paper keep me clean every day.

It stay by my side, it never go away,

It never running out, that I hope and I pray.

Your lovin' is so fresh and so clean and so strong,

And like a roll of Charmin your lovin' lasts long.

Absolute genius.

Finally today is the last day of Movember and my new moustache is complete. A big thanks to all my sponsors who have raised a total of 125 pounds so far.

The Prostate Cancer Charity is a great cause and there's still time for those who'd like to donate - just click here and use my unique reference of 160527.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

time travel and the longest friday ...

It could have been the scene from Superman where he flies around the world to turn back time, or perhaps it was tuning in to the latest episode of Dr. Who every Saturday teatime with an almost religious fervour - but I had developed an interest in the possibility of time travel from a very early age.

As we prepared to leave New Zealand the time had finally come to realise my long-held ambitions, at around midnight that evening we would be flying across the international date line right back into Friday morning. To further confuse matters we would also be crossing the equator and swapping spring for winter, plus it was going to be warmer.

I'll give you a few moments to digest that lot.

Our schedule would first take us to Nadi in Fiji where we would change planes for our final destination of Hawaii. Changing planes isn't a great recipe for a relaxing overnight flight, but just after boarding we realised it could be very good news indeed for the beer league.

The surly attitude of the airport staff at Nadi airport hardly filled us with entusiasm for a return visit, but a quick visit to the restaurant confirmed the precence of 3 local beers which I would have the opportunity to sample before our flight left just before midnight. It yielded the very reasonable Fiji Bitter and Fiji Gold, plus the absolutely horrible Fiji Export Bitter which tasted like a cross between old socks and Ouzo. I couldn't help thinking that between the airport staff and brewing industry something is going very wrong with attempts to develop promote Fiji to a world audience as a tourist destination.

After being singled out for an additional security search as we boarded the plane which included the farce of being waved over by an obviously faulty metal detector wand (I know this as my belt buckle always sets the ones that work off), we took off on time and just 30 minutes into the flight were informed over the tannoy to adjust our watches. One hour forward, one day backwards.

We arrived in Honalulu airport at 7am. It was a full 10 hours before our departure that evening from New Zealand ... and not a Dalek in sight.

In just five more days my moustache will be fully matured, so I'll post a more extensive photo gallery at the end of the month.

Despite my altered appearance I made it through US immigration with no more difficulty than being required recite the ingredients of the bag of bombay mix I had declared on the customs form, having had my request to be allowed retreive it from my luggage and actually refer to the packaging refused.

Given the various recipes for bombay mix we quickly reached an impasse after I vaguely admitted that I didn't actually know the precise ingredients of the packet in question. Matters only became more confused by my repeated reference to the only ingredient I could be sure of - in the confusion of time travel I had completely forgotten that chickpeas are called garbanzo beans here in the US. Thankfully the immigration official seemed to tire of the game pretty quickly and I was allowed to proceed after giving solemn assurances it didn't contain any pork or beef. Or chickens.

My most immediate concern now is whether or not I will find a tell-tale white patch when I finally shave off the mo' next weekend ...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

the full monty ...

As we rolled into Auckland we unleashed an exercise in vehicle selling of military precision.

With only four days to sell our van we decided to hit the market hard with a keen price and set out with the objective of placing a copy of our advert to the noticeboard of every backpacker lodge in the city.

We took our first call 30 minutes after pinning the first advert to a noticeboard and just 30 minutes after that the sale was all but agreed. It just remained for Super Casual to pass a nailbiting independent inspection the next morning, and the transaction was completed.

For those of you with an interest in figures, here's the running cost data for our trip of 5347km.

insurance -$180
camping gear -$344
maintenance -$ 10
fuel -$645
profit on sale +$100
total -$1079

It all works out at an incredible $0.20/km or just 11.9 pence per mile in UK terms - surely these must qualify as world class running costs for a camper van?

The early sale of our van left us with time on our hands to relax and enjoy our last few days in New Zealand updating our wardrobes and hanging out in the cafe's and bars (but mainly bars) of Auckland's fashionable Ponsonby district.

We've discovered lots of uniquely Kiwi expressions to describe a great result like this, from the slightly over-used awesome, to sweet as and even occasionally the rather unusual monty.

After delivering six weeks of trouble-free motoring for less than the cost of a single round NZ bus ticket and saving us an estimated $500 in accommodation, we think SC is quite simply - the full monty

As well as seeing SC drive off into the sunset we also say goodbye to New Zealand today, as once again the time has come for us to move on. It's been an amazing time, and even after 6 weeks we leave behind plenty of things for next time ...

Before we depart there's time for one last moustache update - here I am this morning on day 23

I've added the last couple of beers to the league and all the photos are now online for those of you who wish to look them over (don't worry, we're saving some for a slide show when we return).

The next update will be from somewhere completely different ...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

earth, wind (water) and fire ...

Approaching the city limits of Rotorua we began to look at each other suspiciously.

As the smell of rotten eggs intensified it didn't take too long to realise that it had more to do with the hydrogen sulphide emitted by thermal activity than our breakfast that morning. It may have been the thermal activity and associated Spa's that first attracted tourists to this part of the North Island, but we found more to detain us here than anywhere else in New Zealand.

It's interesting that what terrifies one person another can take quite in their stride. As Mel decided to fulfil her ambition for jumping out of an aeroplane (something I would require sedation to even consider) I took to the Wairoa River for some full on white-water rafting, the very thought of which terrifies Mel to an equal extent.

When the local hydro-electric company dammed the river a number of years ago the rafting operators managed to secure an agreement that sees water released for a few short hours only twenty-six times a year. I could see why they battled so hard to keep rafting here, as we spent 2 hours tackling the Grade 4-5 rapids every hundred metres or so along our route.

It was only after we had recovered from partially capsizing in the toughest rapid of the day that our raft guide informed us about the 8 people had previously died in the same spot. I guess that should have provided a sober moment, but we we're having so much fun it just seemed to add to the general euphoria.

While the white water definitely rules for adrenaline, by far the most amusing activity in Rotorua (if not the planet) is Zorbing.

Imagine rolling down a hill along a zig-zag course in an enormous beach ball along with half a gallon of lukewarm water - the video below of the straight course should provide you with a good idea.

It may be completely pointless and ridiculous, but I'd challenge anyone not to laugh all the way down. Simply hilarious fun.

Of course as I left the finish area having had my photo taken, the photographer only had one thing to say to me ...

"Hey, nice 'tashe mate".

This is getting more embarassing by the day.

Here's a photo of me on Day 18 of Movember posing with a bottle of MAC Spring Tide, new in at No. 2 in the beer league.

I'm delighted to say that thanks to your support the sponsorship amount is now well into 3 figures and rising almost as fast as my embarassment. If you haven't sponsored me yet and would like to, you can find all the details a couple of posts below.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to state absolutely categorically that my moustache is NOT GINGER. You know who you are.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

the grape escape ...

With only a couple of weeks to make our way up to Auckland, we moved sharply up the east coast to the Art Deco city of Napier.

In contrast to the overcast weather we had in Wellington, here we were treated to two days of glorious sunshine. Perfect for wine growing, and even better for taking a chaufeurred tour of some of the areas vineyards to sample over thirty varieties of locally produced wine.

Hawkes Bay seems to produce a far better white wine than my preferred tipple of red - certainly they were not a patch on the Pinot Noirs of the South Island. But quite honestly after the equivalent of a couple of bottles apiece, who cares anymore? It was a great day out, which we topped off with some excellent Thai food in one of Napiers many fine restaurants.

Of course all good things come to an end, and after a couple of days wining and dining in comparative style it was time to make our grape escape and pack up our backpacks for a couple of days of going bush in the wilderness of Waikaremoana Lake in Te Urawera National Park.

Just to get to the start of our trek we had to negotiate 25km of dirt track in the van, before chartering a boat to drop us at the other side of the lake. It all contributed to a genuine feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where we still were after walking for eight hours laden with 15kg packs when we stopped to spend the evening in one of the huts provided by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Our trek alternated between the side of the lake, and inland routes through pristine forests dripping with vines. The area is one of the few left on the North Island where the original native bush has been left completely untouched, and it still provides suitable habitat for the highly endangered Kiwi, whose numbers are being restored thanks to extensive pest control programmes for introduced predators such as stoats.

As our pre-arranged boat collected us the next day for the 40 minute ride back accross the lake to collect our van, we could easily imagine how it had been a great place for New Zealands latest suspected domestic terrorists to hang out. Thankfully the only thing criminal we encountered was the price of our water taxi ...

Thanks for all your fantastic support sponsoring my new moustache - the sponsorship total is almost into three figures. I've even had people I don't know complimenting me on it. If you still haven't donated you can find details below in the previous posts (just scroll down).

Things at the top end of the beer league have been looking a little crowded of late, so I've taken the opportunity to review and "recalibrate" to give a more accurate representation of merit. Basically you should find anything in the top 15 or so highly drinkable.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

pimp my face up ...

It probably goes without saying, but I feel a bit of a plonker walking around like this.

I suppose at least I should be grateful I'm in a country where outlandish facial hair is regarded as the height of good taste. Almost as much as in Belgium.

All the cities we've visited in New Zealand seem to have their own unique character and the capital Wellington is no exception. Life here really does revolve around the numerous bars and cafe's, so much so that the city actually gets busier at 6pm and parking spaces far more difficult to come by.

It's been really nice just to relax for a couple of days and we didn't do much other than paying a visit to the impressive "Te Papa " National Museum which covers all aspects of the nations natural and cultural history. One of the more interesting exhibits is a room in which you can experience a simulated earthquake.

Of course my new facial hair has not gone unnoticed by the local females.

Mind you, I don't think Mel has too much to fear from the shop assistant who attempted to flirt with me as I was buying a new pair of shorts. After asking where I was from, she said "Oh nice! .. we have UK shoe sizes here". Eventually she broke my stunned silence that followed by saying "Hmm, that's not very interesting is it?". I didn't like to say.

Full credit to her though, she carried on trying with insightful followup questions like "So what does UK stand for then?" and of course the ubiquitous "So, is Leeds near London then?". After I'd put her straight she attempted to explain her ignorance by giggling and saying "Well, I was never any good at history".

Confused, I ventured "Do you mean geography?", to which she replied "Geography? God no, I was terrible at that ...".

I still don't think she had the slightest idea what I was talking about.

Monday, November 12, 2007

conquering the worlds steepest ...

After a spot of jet-boating in Glenorchy (the main location for Lord of the Rings filming) we headed back to the Southeast coast and New Zealand's fourth largest city*, Dunedin.

Originally founded by Scottish presbyterian settlers its name is the Gaelic word for its twin town of Edinburgh. There's plenty of evidence of it's Scots roots, from the architecture and street names to the wide range of shops selling tartan and kilts. It even snowed for 10 minutes to prove it's credentials.

In Dunedin, our little van Super Casual proved his worth on Baldwin Street - the worlds steepest according to the Guinness Book of records (1998 edition). And just in case there are any doubters out there, here's the video.

I'm still not sure if the people in the background are laughing at us, but it must have been impressive because we received a certificate signed by the Mayor of Dunedin to honour the achievement.

Despite this I wasn't convinced the locals were taking it nearly seriously enough. In fact the staff in the corner shop seemed rather more interested in our $2 than they were in validating our video evidence ...

* population c.115,000

Saturday, November 10, 2007

pimp or magnum - vote now !

There's still time to vote for your favourite mo' - just add a comment below to state your preference ...

Voting closes midnight on Monday 12th GMT, and don't forget if you donate using my unique code of 160527 then your vote will count for double.

I'll be posting a photo of the winning style "shaved in" soon after, so don't forget to come back and see it in all it's glory.

New Zealand has yielded an embarrasment of riches for the beer league and I've just completed a major update. The only NZ beer I'd heard of beforehand is Steinlager who kindly sponsored a sheep shearing competition I won a few years back, but that's a whole other story ...

Friday, November 09, 2007

how many Americans does it take to light a gas ring ...?

Our trip to Fiordland was adventurous from the outset, starting with the drive there.

We reached the gateway town of Te Anau only to find that the only road into Milford Sound was closed. We had to hang around until 11am the next morning for the avalanche risk to be downgraded to moderate and the pass reopened. It was all very reassuring.

As we came out the other side of the lengthy tunnel that marked the summit of the pass the rain was absolutely torrential and we could only just see the mountains towering hundreds of meters above us through the mist. When they did come into view they were covered in streams of white water cascade down the rock faces, as though someone had poured an enormous bottle of milk over the top of them.

Fortunately we saw Milford's brighter side the next day as we set out on our kayak trip on a glorious sunny day. The high rainfall here (as much as 200mm in a day is not uncommon) means you can actually drink directly from the sea; the fresh water can't mix quickly enough with saltwater, so it sits on top in a murky tea-coloured layer up to 12 meters thick. Kayaking was a great way to see the spectacular scenery of the fiord, although the increasingly windy conditions after lunch meant the return journey was quite exciting as we battled to paddle through meter high waves.

I didn't hold out high hopes of seeing much on my scuba diving trip the next day, but I needn't have worried - it was fantastic. After descending through the top layer with almost zero visibility, we reached a thin layer where the fresh and salt water is still in the process of mixing together (from inside my mask it looked a little like a computer generated special effect), and once through that, the visibility magically improved to 10-15 meters. It was my first cold water dive, and so everything was different - fields of kelp swaying in the current, black coral (actually white), enormous lobsters and a huge octopus.

Back at the lodge in the evening I entered the communal kitchen to cook dinner to discover the faint aroma of gas, and a middle aged American lady turning one of the gas rings on and off repeatedly. As she turned to me and asked how it worked, I had to try my very hardest not to sound patronising as I replied "I think you need to light it ..." and pointed to the cigarette lighter on the counter top.

Returning from the van with some more food I was amazed to see she had been joined by another lady and they were taking it in turns to switch the gas on and off while the other tried to light the gas ring using the lighter. As a strategy it reminded me of operation troop surge in Iraq. And it was equally successful. After a couple of minutes it all got too painful to watch and I had to go and help them out, unsurprisingly it lit first time.

Perhaps this is just another example of people to beginning to lose their traditional skills in our technologically advanced society. It made me glad I'd read Bushcraft:an Inspirational Guide to Survival in the Wilderness before leaving the UK.

Something told me Ray Mears would have been proud of me that evening ...

End the seven day itch ... VOTE NOW !!

It's all getting horribly scratchy in the neck area, and I must say I'm now really looking forward to getting the razor out once you guy's have voted. Thanks for all your sponsorship so far - and for those of you who haven't yet you can do so by visiting the donations page. Don't forget to use my unique code of 160527 when making your donation. You can find out more about Movember and their charitable work by clicking here.

I've now received a number of suggestions and I've whittled it down to a shortlist of two, the Magnum or the Pimp. I'll be taking votes until midnight UK time on Monday, just add a comment below. As an extra incentive to make a donation, votes from readers who have sponsored me will count double.

Apologies to my readers in the US for the content of this post, in particular Cathy and Sean. I just couldn't resist capitalising on the gilt-edged opportunity, although something tells me I could get my just reward in a couple of weeks time as I try and clear US immigration sporting my new 'tache. Although I suppose I should be grateful no-one suggested a Bin-Laden ...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

the ice-man cometh ...

After 2 days driving down the deserted west coast we arrived at the town of Franz Josef, jumping off point for New Zealands most famous glacier. With Mel still feigning a sore knee in order to liberate the funds from our trip budget for a scenic helicopter trip (I'm in big trouble now), it was left to me to spend the day walking up it.

After spending the first hour of the day getting kitted out with boots, crampons, and full waterproofs our group finally took to the ice. From the bottom the glacier had looked quite small, but with no man-made points of reference to give a true sense of scale we quickly discovered that looks can be deceiving. Two hours of treacherously slippy clambering up and down ice-steps later and we reached the first plateau. Despite having climbed several hundred feet we could see we were merely a fraction of the way up.

We spent the afternoon exploring this area of the glacier on a route that had us ascending and descending vertigo-inducing crevasses using safety ropes, and squeezing between impossibly tight gaps. It was a truly mindblowing day, to spend time on and actually inside the glacier is to really begin to understand it. Although due to a set of leaky boots I must say that a notable downside was my feet spending most of the day in danger of succumbing to frostbite.

Despite Mel assuring me it's not in the slightest bit funny, I had been entertaining vague notions of some sort of spoof post involving the nearby Fox Glacier and a non-existent "Glacier Mint" factory. But as always the truth is more interesting than fiction. As we sat down to fuel up on our packed lunches a Kea stopped by - unique to New Zealand it is the worlds only alpine parrot.

At about a foot tall it is reputed to be the worlds most intelligent bird, with the brain of a 3 year old child (or a 25 year old Australian as our guide helpfully pointed out ... I'm saying nothing). For a moment it seemed to be homing in on my cheese and pickle sandwiches, but recent experiences had left me wary and I made sure of keeping a good distance. Better luck next time my feathered friend ...

All this talk of alpine parrots has left me "pining for the fiords", so our next stop will be Milford Sound. Before that though some even more exciting news ...

I have decided to take part in Movember an annual moustache growing competion in aid of The Prostate Cancer Charity.

If you truly value seeing me make a plonker of myself (and I'm sure you do) then please take the time to visit the donations page and sponsor me for any small amount, my unique code is 160527.

Ever fancied yourself as a moustache designer? Well now is your big chance - as you can see from my photograph taken on Day 4 - I have yet to commit to a design. So consider my face your blank canvas and suggest which style you like to see by adding a comment (and preferably a link to a picture). I'll post a shortlist for you all to vote upon before I take my first shave and I promise to go with whichever gets the most votes.

There will of course be regular moustache updates as the drama unfolds ...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

a clever kiwi kayak trip ...

It was time to give our legs a rest and exercise our upper limbs with a sea kayak trip along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park.

Unlike the "I'm going to die in a freak boating accident" experience of kayaking at Halong Bay in Vietnam, this was actually a fairly relaxed affair as we paddled gently up the coast on a gloriously sunny day. Along the way we saw all sorts of wildlife, most notably a fur seal swimming alongside us.

In New Zealand they really do have this sort of trip perfected. Rather than paddle back for 6 hours against a strong headwind, they send a water taxi (basically a 12 seater speedboat) to pick you up from the beach. On our way back we stopped briefly to observe a little blue penguin splashing around in the sea, before making our way back to port.

To our surprise it wasn't a jetty that awaited us, but a partially submerged tractor. We sailed right onto it's attached trailer before being hauled onto dry land.

Rather than getting us to disembark for a more conventional form of transport back to the kayak centre, the tractor just carried on 2km along the seafront with us still sat in our boat gazing out at the bemused pedestrians.

It all made for quite a memorable day. And not a rogue seagull in sight.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Twice Bitten ...

For our next tramping mission we decided on the rather more ambitious Queen Charlotte Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks.

The unique lure of the QCT is the availability of water-taxi bag transfers, quality lodgings and gourmet food along the route; all factors which were crucial in my ability to sell the idea to Mel. Even so, the prospect of walking 71km over the coming days left us more than a little apprehensive.

The initial 71km commitment had seemed within the bounds of our capabilities, however once we'd chosen our accommodation and factored in detours the distance had soared to a whopping 85km. A couple of kilometers off the trail didn't sound so far when we were making the bookings, but you can just imagine how it felt after having already put in 20km that day ...

As we set off from Picton by water taxi to Ship Cove the rain was pouring down, and I'll confess we were a little daunted by the prospect of what the next five days might have in store for us. The beginning of the trail was a steep 2 hour climb, and as we finished the first (and shortest) day of just 10km in a state of exhaustion our doubts started to build.

Fortunately the weather improved considerably after the first day, and the continual presence of stunning views over the turquoise blue inlets did much to keep us going. Our morale was of course assisted greatly by the opportunities to soak away our aches and pains each evening - firstly in the hot-tub, then afterwards in the bar.

Once we had conquered the killer third day (24km of gradient over 8 hours) we had the smell of victory in our nostrils, and despite increasingly painful limbs we eventually made it to the finish line on day five thoroughly exhausted, but still smiling (just).

One of my enduring memories from the trail will be the ever present Weka's - a close relative of the rather more endangered and nocturnal Kiwi. These inquisitive birds could often be seen wandering along the side of the track, usually making an appearance near the benches used by walkers for rest-stops, no doubt lured by the possibility of food scraps.

As I crouched to take a photo of one on the first day, the little blighter shot forward and bit me on my shutter finger. If you look closely at the resulting photo I think you'll agree that you can see the look of intent in it's eyes. Remarkably on that very same morning I'd also been attacked by a duck at our campsite in Picton, taking a vicious pecking to the back of my legs as I unloaded our backpacks from the rear door of the van.

Over a few chilled beverages on the second evening chatting with the owners of our guest house I recounted the story of my Weka bite to their knowing smiles, apparently just two weeks previously at the same spot another tourist had their mobile phone stolen by one.

Suddenly it all clicked into place as I came to the realisation that this could only be the work of one man, my arch-nemesis Pigeon.

Clearly he's directing systematic poultry attacks against me using his favoured method of communication, the mobile phone. Something tells me we haven't heard the last of our feathered friend ...

Mel is now sporting a rather fetching compression bandage on her right knee and is walking in the style of Herr Flick from 'Allo 'Allo. It could be a few days until our next trek ...