More Motorhome Matters

Having said goodbye to our motorhome in Christchurch, we discussed its shortcomings.

Obviously, being a rental vehicle, it is going to have a lot of wear and tear and potential problems. In the process of dropping off the motorhome, within the space of ten minutes two other people returned theirs who had also had problems – one had resolved itself though.

However, the customer service we had from Britz was excellent when ours got a plumbing fault.

There are some things to be aware of with motorhomes.

You will have to empty the cassette toilet, so if you haven’t got someone in your party with a strong stomach, don’t even consider a motorhome.

Motorhomes are noisy. Things rattle around as you drive – the grill for one. We tried stuffing a tea towel into the grill area with minimal effect.

You have to be prepared to drive long distances and keep pulling over to let people pass. The roads are quieter than the ones in the UK but you can still get a build-up of traffic behind you. ‘NZ roads are different, allow more time’ signs inform you. Yes, they can be winding (on the way to the Abel Tasman Track area they are winding and uphill) but there are also some long, straight stretches, as there are on the way down the West Coast. You can get a move on then.

But basically, you have to be pretty committed to some serious driving if you have about two weeks in New Zealand like we did and want to see a lot of the South Island and some of the North. Four to five weeks would give ample time. In two weeks we covered 3,874 kilometres, meaning we had to pay $256 for the road user charge at the end.

 

A Comparison: then and now

 

Cons for the Britz Frontier

In 2003 we bought our own Mitsubishi Canter 4-berth motorhome when we toured New Zealand. The motorhome was built on a truck chassis and had smaller height and length dimensions compared to the Volkswagen 'Britz Frontier' we hired this year.

The Mitsubishi was brilliantly manoeuvrable - you could fit it into a standard parking bay and it had an excellent turning circle.

The Volkswagen Britz Frontier felt unwieldy and bouncy. In fairness, you are going to get this with a big vehicle.

The Mitsubishi had a good interior layout that felt spacious.

The Frontier was adequate but cramped in certain areas. The shower/toilet room was not so well designed or as roomy. It was also tight for space between that room and the kitchen area, because of the preference given to seating/sleeping areas in this 6-berth motorhome.

Seating was just in the areas near the front of the vehicle. There was no option to sit in the back and look out of the big window.

 

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Pros for the Britz Frontier

 

The Frontier - because it was more modern, obviously - had a reversing camera which was a good safety feature.

A Sat Nav was available. What a brilliant invention. We got lost so many times in our old Mitsubishi.

However, there is a sort of alternative to the Sat Nav. The Rankers app installed on my phone meant we were able to follow our progress via GPS because I bought a New Zealand sim card at the airport. The little blue dot showed where we located on the map and you could search for anything from playgrounds and camp grounds to petrol stations, dump stations and supermarkets. A good feature was Top Ranked Activities.

Britz also do their own Roadtrip app which had a few different search possibilities such as laundromats and public toilets. However, it didn’t work offline. You have 1GB of data available via WiFi through the Sat Nav but it is very temperamental.

 

In summary, we felt that the Britz Frontier was worth hiring and as a family of four we definitely needed the space. If we had been six it would have been uncomfortable. One of the beds had cushions missing, though I’m sure it could have been sorted by Britz. But I recommend checking everything over thoroughly before you set off.

We were glad of the freedom to travel but felt quite shaken about and were happy to leave it after two weeks of intensive travelling. It was probably the amount of time we spent in it that made it seem uncomfortable towards the end, and perhaps I’m looking at things through rose-coloured glasses but I have to say that the whole experience made me appreciate our old Mitsubishi…

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A Celebratory Send-Off from Singapore

Apparently I had told Joe and Freya that we were having an early start. I was staggered when Freya knocked on our door, fully dressed and ready to go at 6.30 am. Chinatown was our first stop and we were there by  8.30 am. The MRT had been crowded with commuters, as it had been at 10.30 pm the night before. Standing room only.

 A practical point worth mentioning is that you cannot get a $10 day pass easily. I had read on TripAdvisor that it is a good idea to get one of these, but the reality is tricky. They are only available at certain stations (though quite a few) which means you have to use the MRT to reach the station in the first place, then actually pay $20. You get the $10 back from a place at the airport when leaving, but who knows if that would be convenient? So we faced having to queue at ticket machines and go through a rigmarole to obtain a ticket each. The machines also didn't take credit cards, only Singapore dollars in the form of $2 and $5 notes or coins. This was to become an irritation as we had to do it about seven times. You could top up the tickets and got a small discount after six uses.
At least the MRT was cheap, but it did add up. About $1.50 each per journey. 

Chinatown has temples worth taking a look at and we returned to show Freya one of the oldest ones - Thian Hock Keng. Although the Hokkien temple itself had not changed of course, a route through Telok Ayer Green to reach it was pleasant. Always a good plan to have greenery in a city as it is calming.

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Chinatown Heritage Centre appealed to Henry but before we went in, hunger drove us to a cafe (takeaway or eat in) next to it where some confusion arose over pricing as the woman running it spoke English rather badly. Somehow we ended up inside (lovely air conditioning) eating pasties and drinking iced tea and coffee, but were charged an extra $5 once inside. 
Then I noticed through a window, the entrance charge for adults to the heritage centre - $49 each. We weren't having that, so made for our next destination, the island of Sentosa. 

This time the plan went well. Instead of paying $4 per person on the Sentosa Express, we walked across to the island on the Sentosa Boardwalk, a lovely wide walkway with flower borders. We later found out that you don't get charged on the train returning to the city, so we did it the right way round.
Sentosa has changed massively and oh boy was this not our thing. Universal Studios Singapore, a theme park where you get the chance to interact with movies like Jurassic Park, Adventure Cove Waterpark, animal encounters, Madame Tussaud's Singapore, an indoor skydiving centre, a luge, a sky tower, in all over 30 attractions.  A walk though all this mayhem gave us the chance to see queues of people, people with selfie sticks thrust about, excited visitors posing for photos in front of the giant Merlion statue, all surrounded by a choice of food outlets.

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Passing through as quickly as humanly possible, we found one of the monorail stations, Imbiah, and got on a train (free) to Palawan Beach. Again, another change: the monorail no longer encircled the island which last time had given us great views of different parts we couldn't walk to and it also went right over the beach. I think buses had replaced it. One change for the better was nice: clean toilets and changing rooms, outdoor showers too.
Palawan Beach was just as alluring as last time. A suspension bridge leads across to the southernmost point on the Asian continent, after which there are small beaches. We found a private one and enjoyed it for more than an hour, delighting in swimming in the lukewarm waters, despite warning signs for jellyfish and stone fish! Other more predictable danger lay in sunburn which was hard work to avoid.

We seemed to have oodles of time and didn't know what to do next as the last thing on the itinerary was Gardens by the Bay, illuminated at night so we were going later. The promised thunderstorm had not materialized so leaving Sentosa by the monorail we wandered about looking for somewhere to eat and found a brilliant place called Food Republic where street traders had effectively come indoors and were all around the outside of a food court. There was a wide range of food choice - we had Singapore dishes, noodle-based with sauce that resembled soup there was so much of it. On the side was pureed garlic, a hot chutney and vinegar. More iced tea to follow.
Joe became agitated by the sight of a huge, black cloud and so we went straight for the Gardens by the Bay. It was not even 3 pm.

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On emerging from the MRT station, we saw rain hammering down and people sheltering from it. We stood in an area as close to the gardens as we could get and watched a series of thunderstorms pass through, dashing hopes of walking outside. We would be soaked in minutes. A group of construction workers stood next to us, chatting. An hour passed and we were getting edgy. Still torrential rain fell, with flashes of lightning and loud cracks of thunder. We began to get desperate. Joe suggested going back to the hotel but Henry and I are more determined than that! As a gap between thunderstorms arrived, we prepared to make a move. The construction workers, who were supposed to be laying concrete, suddenly went off and re-appeared wearing bin bags. They had a couple spare which we cadged and went off, somewhat equipped for the weather.

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I was wearing a thin shift dress and only Henry and Freya (who now wore the bin bags) had hats. It began to rain heavily after a bit. We scurried from one shelter to the next but Joe and I got soaked. My dress would dry out quickly - well that was the theory. Not in these temperatures. 

These are no ordinary gardens. They are exceptional, dramatic, totally over the top, totally Singapore. The main attraction is the 'supertrees', up to  50 metres tall, with an elevated walkway called the OCBC Skyway, between two of them and a restaurant in one.  They are purple and green constructions and have plants growing most of the way up. And they light them up when it gets dark, which would be at 7 pm. Two hours away. We had already been here that long.

Joe was especially fed up with the idea of waiting. We tried a cafe but apart from it being over-priced at $5 for a coffee, it was so cold in there I would be shivering. I walked out and the others followed.
Down on the lower level there was a much cheaper alternative, takeaway coffee at half the price. After that we gave in and paid a large amount of money to go into the huge conservatories (The Flower Dome and The Cloud Forest) similar to The Eden Project in Cornwall. Described as containing tropical plants - that raised my hopes of a warm-up. No chance. It was cold in there and there was a simulated mountain environment so it would get colder as we climbed upwards. The first feature was the tallest indoor waterfall in the world, 35 metres of it. Spectacular but not something we wanted to get close to. A young bride and groom were posing for photos by it.

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Onward and upward, past flourishing plants, sculptures in among them; different country themes (we whizzed past New Zealand), then suddenly we found ourselves in a mini LEGOLAND. A display of carnivorous plants - the real ones and the LEGO ones side by side. This place was something else, a great aerial walkway snaking around the Cloud Mountain. It was the most fascinating experience of its kind we had had.
The other conservatory was less interesting - unless cacti and olive trees are your bag. It worried Henry how they had transported ancient olive trees to their new position. When we got to the temporary tulip display we had to run the gauntlet through a crowd of photo-mad people. Like something out of a nightmare, every way you looked you could see excited, Happy™ folks smiling for the camera or behind a phone. I thought I took a lot of photos but not compared to this and it was the vanity that got us, who wants hundreds of selfies on file, you would surely not get time to look at them all!

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Blue sky was now visible outside and the Skyway was open, which there had been a possibility of not happening, they don't open it if lightning strikes are a risk. We gladly shelled out $8 each for this and were told the queuing time was 45 minutes. In fact it was half that time. We all ascended in a lift, then marvellous luck was on our side -  a magical event occurred. The sound and light show started! There were only two that evening and people were only allowed 15 minutes on the Skyway. Our allotted time coincided with a fabulous display of flashing lights on the supertrees accompanied by stirring classical music, including Can Can music and Rossini's William Tell Overture. Behind us was a view of Singapore lit up including a modern feat of engineering - the Marina Bay Sands hotel complex, three skyscrapers topped by a 340-metre 'SkyPark' with palm trees growing on it and a swimming pool. You could hardly believe what you were seeing and I wouldn't sleep a wink if I stayed there.

As we walked back through the gardens we were excitedly discussing what we had just experienced  and knew there was no doubt that this was a grand finale to our holiday, a celebratory send off from Singapore, the garden city...
 

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An Evening in Singapore

The descent into Singapore was protracted. The airport was so busy that we had to wait in order to land.  Since we had last visited, they had built another terminal and the taxi driver who took us to our hotel told us that Terminal 5 was planned. Singapore is a popular stopover.
A prosperous, polite, island city-state, it has quite a few rules that become apparent to visitors. This helps to make a clean, safe environment. Before you arrive you have to fill out an arrival card. You are warned that bringing drugs into Singapore carries the death penalty. The form itself is a pain when you have been on an aeroplane for over 10 hours. Among other things you have to find your passport number, flight number and fill out your address twice, making sure you get everything right.


When you travel around Singapore, other rules make themselves apparent and it becomes obvious why the city is so clean. A $500 fine for eating or drinking on the MRT (the underground transport system) which also bans durians (a fruit) for some reason. In certain places you cannot smoke without risking a $1000 fine. And yet, our standards of personal safety do not match up with those of Singapore, for example: workers sit in the back of open trucks as they travel along the roads.


Having just two nights here - one full day - we had to get a move on. As soon as we had dropped our bags in our rooms we made for Little India. A ten-minute walk to Novena MRT Station, got our tickets, onto the train, a change from one line to another and a bustling world of colour and noise hit our senses. Cyclists swarmed past us, also buses, coaches, cars, as we queued to cross the road. Stallholders were getting their wares in, it was about 8 pm. Many of them sold bright, multi-coloured garlands for a few dollars. In contrast were jewellery shops, sometimes three in a row selling masses of gold, and they had customers in! What a wealthy place, such an abundance of products for sale.

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Komala Vilas is an Indian vegetarian restaurant we knew in this area. Joe sussed out its whereabouts using the 'Handy Smartphone' from the Ibis hotel - amazingly, a phone for personal use, with free international calls that could be made with it to a selection of countries including our own. We were soon making our way through the tables at the restaurant, arousing some stares, being the only customers who were not local. 
The waiter showed us to a table with two men and a family. People were busy eating without cutlery, scooping up a variety of dips and chutneys with dosai pancakes. Soon we were doing the same. Some of the curries and pickles were eye-watering. My nose was starting to run and my tongue verging on going numb with the strength of the spices but I was determined to finish it. You get huge portions for a cheap price. Freya and I shared a chappathi and poppadom dish that came served on a banana leaf. There was even a kind of pudding - a little sweet dish of tapioca with noodles and cashew nuts in. Joe had onion uthappam. Sweet tea and coffee followed.
I was in long trousers and although it was fairly 'cool' that evening (maybe 27 degrees) as they had had recent rain, I was feeling it on the walk back to the hotel, trying to keep up with Joe and Freya. As soon as I got into the room, I ripped my trousers off and literally collapsed on the floor for a few minutes, before heading straight for the shower.
 

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A Word on Christchurch

I'm backtracking a bit here. The day before the wedding was kind of frantic. Henry had to be in the centre of Christchurch by 9.15 am as he had an appointment at the barbers. Freya and I had an appointment later for a shape and polish of our nails. I had never had a manicure before and Henry had never had a shave at a barbers. Two new experiences - we are not normally the kind of people to go in for this sort of thing but there was a special occasion coming up.


However, parking in Christchurch was a nightmare. When we visited in 2003/2004 we parked by the Botanic Gardens at Hagley Park, where our kids enjoyed the open air pool. The satnav didn't seem to help as Henry missed a coupe of turnings and we ended up with a nail-biting finish with on-street parking by a dead-end where construction was going on. Henry raced to the barbers, slightly late. Dare I say it, it was a close shave (sorry!).


Christchurch was like a building site, following the 2011 earthquake. There were cranes everywhere, half-finished buildings, construction noise and the cathedral! Cathedral Square was unrecognizable. We struggled to get our bearings. The cathedral itself looked like it had been bombed. Half of it remained, the spire in a separate place. There is a temporary Cardboard Cathedral for worship somewhere in the city, (we didn't see it) but it looked as if they were unsure whether to re-build the old one. Was it too much of a risk? Maybe it is just time-consuming.


Saddened, we left. We also had to take the motorhome back to Britz (got lost!) and things were a bit stressful. We thought we could take leftover food back to the depot for other people to use (we had acquired some at Auckland) but there was no area for it here. They wanted you to buy it instead! 
The Omega car rental was right next to the motorhome depot and Henry went to pick up the car.


We were in a car now! A Mazda Premacy that had the indicators and wiper controls round the wrong way for Henry, who kept putting the wipers on! Definitely not needed as the day was a scorcher.


We made it to Akaroa just before sunset, viewing it from the balcony that was off a room Freya immediately decided was hers at the bed and breakfast venue. Henry and I had a downstairs room and our en suite had a spa bath. There were flowers in every single room, even the bathrooms - white lilies, yellow gladioli, and some I didn't recognize. We had bought a few flowers from Christchurch but our host said we could help ourselves to some from the garden, so we went round choosing roses and ferns and adding them to the bouquet I made. Henry made boutonnieres for himself and Joe.
After ironing our clothes we were all set for the next day...

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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, FyrneBrooke House, Denise who did makeup 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 flowers 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 impossibly 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. We parked not far from pine trees, walking through them to the beach, cones and needles on the ground the colour of bronze and the sweet smell of pine on the breeze. 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 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 Gabriel's Gully, an old gold mining valley at around 9 pm. 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-minute 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 5.30 pm 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 everywhere, 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 swing bridge 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 9.30 am, 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 would 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 8 am, it returns at around 2.30 pm. 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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