A Surprise Finale

In Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula this morning, a bellbird serenaded me as I walked towards Henry to say my vows. After 28 years of living together, bringing up two children, travelling in New Zealand, we had returned to the country that won our hearts ... and got married!
We are an eccentric family who do things backwards, let's be honest. Raise children to adulthood then get married, go to the other side of the world to tie the knot, have a wedding in the morning, outside in a garden, with an eclectic mix of traditions, poems, songs and readings. Four New Zealand women made our day: Phillipa, our lovely celebrant, Ali, the owner of our venue, Fyrne Brooke House, Denise who did make up and Raquel, the photographer. 
When we arrived at the bed and breakfast house, after greeting us, Ali told us something like: 'We don't do stress here, we just work it out.' I thought, that's something I need to remember! 
Who could be stressed here? The tranquil garden had a brook running through it, crossed by a little bridge, and had so many places to sit, surrounded by an abundance of greenery and flowers, there just wasn't time for us to take advantage of it all. But we were spoilt, and we loved it. The house was beautiful too, with fowers in every room.
Phillipa had worked hard on crafting the words of our wedding ceremony, liaising with us from a distance (not a problem in this day and age), until it was all perfect. We had some traditional vows, but the ceremony also included a handfasting  - the cord made by Henry from ribbons. Joe read a poem from Winnie the Pooh and Phillipa came up with a Tolkien quote to finish with. We signed the register while our chosen song 'We are Stars' by The Pierces, played in the background.
After that, we were served a breakfast of eggs Benedict and other local delicacies - with honey from our host's own bees. We had also brought our own Champagne - that was a first at this time of day!
Raquel took us around Akaroa then, to get some amazing views. 
An unforgettable day!
 

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Mount Cook

The race was on, Mount Cook beckoned as the last destination on our itinerary. The drive was fairly good, and we arrived at Twizel in time for lunch. Joe had taken over the cooking on this trip and quickly produced a pasta meal that was enough for six people. We had to use our food up at this stage. It was hot and sunny in Twizel but the forecast for Mount Cook Village looked dodgy. 
As we set off, clouds were gathering and when we got to 'Peters Lookout' (a spot extremely popular with photographers as it overlooks the impossiby turquoise-blue Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook as the distant focal point) Mount Cook was covered in cloud!
The drive was long enough for Aoraki/Mount Cook, known as the cloud piercer, to live up to its name. Little by little, New Zealand's highest mountain almost revealed itself. 
The Blue Lakes Car Park is a good place to aim for with a range of walks. We had spent some time there on our previous visit so were prepared. However, it seemed we had forgotten (or does 14 years passing by in your forties/fifties really tell on you?) just how steep the climb is to view the Tasman Glacier. To be precise, 314 steps. Steep ones at that. At the top, you could see the grey terminal lake, and the glacial moraine. We could see some some icebergs in the lake.
The Blue Lakes is a misnomer. The lakes are no longer glacial-fed and therefore have turned green due to being full of rainwater. The views of the valley below, though, are fantastic.
Travelling back, Henry was full of gritty determination and was not best pleased when I insisted he pull over for a photograph of Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki. 
He parked up and I leapt out, Joe joining me, also a keen photographer. We looked at each other and had the same thought. 'Why don't we stay here for the night?' It was a beautiful, capacious picnic area, where another camper had parked right by lake. By now, Mount Cook stood at the head of the lake with a perfect, crisp outline, the sun low in the sky, due to set soon.
So this was our camp spot. The wine came out, our camping chairs too, and we sat down on the stony beach to watch the sunset. A bride came down at one point for photos. This was a prime spot and we felt so lucky.
Not so lucky in the night. The spot we had parked on was at the bottom of a stony slope and the rain hammered down in as we tried to sleep. We had aimed for a five o'clock start but this was suddenly brought forward to four o'clock as Henry was worried about getting us out. We made it. We were on the road to Christchurch.

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Pengwinds

Some crazy days... we travelled from one side of New Zealand to the other in a day, from Fiordland to near Dunedin. The countryside became flat farming land filled with alpacas and sheep. The grass was golden and patchy and the mountains were warmed by the setting sun. Henry drove on. Then I took over. The worst thing was having to periodically stop for drivers to pass. It was dark, the roads winding and getting hilly. We reached Gabriels Gully, an old gold mining valley at around 9pm. There was a caravan in the DOC picnic area. We got out and stared at the sky, crowded with stars, the white band of the Milky Way clearly visible.


Dunedin blew us off our feet. Truly scary driving a large motorhome in a gale. Still, once parked (and free as it was a Sunday), we had a more relaxed time round the Otago Settlers Museum, admiring the Flemish renaissance-style railway station - from which tourist trains run - and visiting the art gallery. To bring it down to earth, we ate lunch in Subway, which suited our budget. 
The reason the pace was slackened was not just passing time in the hope that the wind would drop, but we aimed to yellow-eyed penguins just up the road near Moeraki. This had to be timed with when they came ashore in early evening. Then it became a bit of a dash. Having to stop for more food (two young people in the family) put us back. We got to the holiday park at Moeraki and the friendly owner came out from the back in his socks. After booking us in, he asked if we wanted anything else. Yes, we said. 'Penguins?' he volunteered, and got out a map, drawing a line to show our route and telling us we had to go straight away.


He was right of course. After a ten-mintue drive, half of it on a gravel road, we arrived to see people leaving the Moeraki Lighthouse nature reserve and thought the show was over. The reserve closed at 5.30pm so we had less than an hour. However, we were in luck. I spotted a penguin! Then another couple, who had come ashore onto a grassy outcrop. They sheltered in amongst the bushes but came out to give photo opportunities. New Zealand Fur Seals were eveywhere, in fact we could not go past a certain point as they lay across the path - about twenty of them. They were adorable, but not animals we wanted to get close to. Satisfied, we returned to camp.


Back at the holiday park we had parked next to a chap who had a self-built motorhome, which he had had since the late 1970s. He and his wife had been all over New Zealand in it. 
The tide was in and the light gone anyway, so we had to wait till next morning to see the Moeraki Boulders.

It was busy on the beach first thing, being by a hotel. The challenge was to take a photo without people in. They were posing on the smooth, spherical boulders that look like dragon's eggs. 
Off again, still in the gale, up the coast, we headed for Mount Cook, an almost impossible task that would involve three more hours of driving, then four hours to get back to Christchurch, where we had to be by the following morning...

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New Zealand's Heart


"That's the life!" said a stranger passing in his truck as he observed us sunbathing outside our motorhome. "Enjoying the Fiordland sunshine. Where are you from?" As usual we struck up a conversation with a friendly New Zealander. Henry and I had just completed a lovely walk on the Kepler Track: one of the Great Walks where it is possible to enjoy a few hours tramping in stunning countryside. From Rainbow Reach Car Park, cross the swingbridge and then the path starts to climb up through forest until there is a choice of destinations. Shallow Bay was our aim, providing a good variety of scenery.
The track follows the river, but from a height so you only get the chance to see it from viewpoints. Tomtits fly in front of you, huge ferns grace the path and mossy tendrils hang down from the trees.
It only took us just over an hour to reach Shallow Bay. Leaving at 9.30am, we met three people near the start then no one for nearly an hour. Overall, we counted about fifty people there and back, nicely spread out and cheerfully greeting us, as you do when walking in such a beautiful place. Shallow Bay exceeded my expectations. It was awesome. No amount of time woud be enough on such a beach. Lake Manapouri set off by several mountain ranges including the Kepler Mountains of course. At this time of year they were snow-capped and took your breath away. I stood and looked, and absorbed as much as I could. Just Henry and I here alone in peace.
Meanwhile, Joe and Freya were off on a Doubtful Sound cruise with Real Journeys. We had all done this trip when we last visited New Zealand but it is pretty expensive when you multiply it by four so this was our solution. Great to pack them off now they are adults! 
Starting from Pearl Harbour, Manapouri at 8am, it returns at around 2.30pm. The trip takes you over Lake Manapouri, then by coach across Wilmott Pass, then another cruise through Doubtful Sound. The day began with mists lingering over the lake - it had been a frosty start - and became sunny, though still cold. You could not wear a hat though unless you wanted to lose it as someone did. Joe said the guides were excellent and entertaining. 
Sometimes you can see dolphins on this trip but sadly none were seen this time. There was, however, a brief view of some little blue penguins.
I lost my heart to this magnificent part of the country, as we all did when we came here before. This is the image of New Zealand, where to go if you are a photographer, the area you just cannot miss. It is as 'New Zealand' as it gets. To me, this is the heart of New Zealand.

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Waiting

It had been a shock to us as we got out at Wanaka, the air was freezing! The drop in temperature was drastic. Here in the mountains you needed everything you'd got. It was woolly hat weather. 


I guess the skydiving urge is genetic. Joe had volunteered to do one and I'd booked him in at Glenorchy. Trouble was, the weather was no good for jumping out of a plane. The wind had been fierce in the night at Bendigo, and Lake Wakatipu was whipped up at Glenorchy, with rain showers. Snow had fallen in the night on nearby hills. So we kicked our heels at Glenorchy. I had allowed a few days spare in this area. It is a beautiful place, hugged by impressive mountains. If you walk out without a camera you feel conspicuous. There must also be a word to describe a compulsion to take photos. It is like a disease round here.


Having rung Skydive Southern Alps about four times to get weather updates and being told it was all 'on hold' we headed out to Glacier Burn, a place to overnight if you were self-contained. We had a stunning view of snowy mountains. The walk was 1-2 hours and we decided to do some of it. Light snow fell as we set out. A river to traverse was a challenge. How to avoid taking your boots off and get to the other side. We grabbed pieces of rotted trees, huge rocks were thrown in, and after about 20 minutes we all made it across. I pointed out to people that we had to get back across and that you shoud never go somewhere if you hadn't thought about how to get back. The walk, aided by red markers on trees, took us into a forest (probably part of Fangorn!) and up through steep climbs, the forest floor covered in ferns. Fungi were strange to see in April for us, as we had been through a hard winter, heading for spring and now thrust back into autumn. Before it got dark we made it back to the motorhome. Freya got her boots wet in the river.