Around the World 2009

For our third and final leg in New Zealand we had another car relocation to move us from Christchurch to Dunedin from where we’d be flying out. This time we were more luckily with car type, getting a very comfortable Toyota Aurion to drive. We did most of the drive in the dark, planning to camp half way.

Naturally, our last night of the trip simply wouldn’t be complete without some kind of incident. While looking for the campsite I attempted to do a simple three point turn on a fairly wide tar road. The front wheels went off the tar and lo and behold, the car was stuck. The ground by the road was fairly flat and covered with grass but was hiding an increadibly soft mud beneath. Who would have thought the car was front wheel drive anyway?

After getting stuck initially, I ignored the warning bells going of in my head and after a few stupid manuevers we were further off the tar and completely stuck against the grassy verge. We were at once both increadulous and amused at how we could be so stuck and at the same time very annoyed that we were. After a huge effort at getting us unstuck involving lots of sticks and grass and gravel and digging and even a car jack, Sophie, being the female, got fed up and did the clever thing, going over to the house across the road to ask for help. There, she was greeted by 4 burly men playing poker, who had no problem pushing us out of the muddy mess we’d made. They were really nice, the mum even offering for us to stay at their place if the campsite was too chilly.

We arrived very tired at our final campsite to spend the last night of our epic journey. The next day we stopped and the very cool Moeraki boulders before proceeding to Dunedin airport for our flight out. We boarded the plane without trouble, and after a very pleasant flight with Air New Zealand we arrived at Brisbane Airport. Back in reality.

Over the next six days we took our camper van in a big loop up and through the Lewis Pass across to the west coast then coast to Greymouth, and pack across via Arthur’s Pass. There were several highlights along the way.

On our second day we stopped at an almost unmarked rest spot that was recommended by our guidebook. It is on the Lewis river and a short walk along the river takes you to several very basic and completely uncommercialised rock pools. They sit by the river, fed by a hot spring. We stayed the night there and snuck out in the dark with a bottle of wine for a dip in the hot pools. It was just beautiful, the pool being a perfect temperature.

As nice as that night was, we had another surprise in the morning when we woke up and looked out the window. Huge fluffy white things were floating down from the sky. They were so big that at first we thought they must be some kind of airbourne seeds, but sticking our heads out the window we quickly discovered that it was in fact snow. Some of the flakes where as wide as my finger and the delicate 6 pointed pattern was clearly visible. Not to miss the oppurtunity, I quickly dragged Soph out of bed so we could have another dip in the hot pools. The river had dropped during the night to reveal another, even warmer pool. So we lay in the pool, this time with snow coming down all around.

Further up the pass the snow had accumulated and there was a beautful layer of fluffy snow over everything. We did a walk into the gorgeous beech forest there. It was all green with moss everywhere, all covered with a layer of snow. I think I would have to rate it as one of the more beautiful walks we did on the trip.

On reaching the coast we paid a trip to the evocatively named “Cape Foulwind” for our first look at the West Coast. It was wild and beautiful, every bit as nice as the Big Sur, and there were actually walks along it, and paths down the beach! We had sundown there before heading down the coast to Punakaiki. Since we were arriving there at night we decided we may as well check out the Punakaiki Cavern, which is meant to have glowworms. However, a terrible navigational error resulted in us going a few kilometers down a dirt road that did not lead to the cavern. Too tired to drive back out again we simply slept there.

We woke up to find the entire windscreen coated with a thick layer of frost, on the inside. Similarly the grassy fields and shrubs around us were completely iced. It was very pretty, albeit chilly. We quickly packed up and headed out to get to the Pancake Rocks for sunrise. They were really interesting, ocean and rain carved rocks that apparently resemble huge piles of pancakes; the fat American ones, not the thin French ones. Amounst the rocks are blowholes that send up huge explosions of spray and eerie holes that whistle and howl as the waves come through below.

The rest of the day we spent there walking down one of the rivers and exploring more interestingly carved rock on the Truman beach. Once again, I would have loved to do some of the longer tracks through the park, but alas we had only one day.

In the evening we scooted further down the coast to Greymouth, were we had a highly enjoyable tour of the Monteith’s Brewery. We found out all about the beer making processes involving such interesting things as worts, mash tuns, hop backs and lautering. Of course it was all followed by some very excellent beer, after which we were not quite in a fit state to drive. Thus we were forced to get out the cooker and prepare our dinner in the Monteith’s parking lot while we sobered up.

The next day took us through the Arthur’s pass. It was a miserable day, so we weren’t able to really appreciate the views, but did do some nice but very wet walks through more lovely mossy beech forest and saw some really nice waterfalls.

Luckily for us we were blessed with a perfectly clear day on our last day so were able to take in the spectacular mountain scenery on our final drive to Christchurch. The road goes across plains with snowy peaks all around. This was the “Lord of the Rings” stuff that we were hoping to see in New Zealand. It was stunning. Although everything was much smaller in scale what we’d seen in the Americas, it was no less beautiful and it’s great knowing that we have such amazing landscapes waiting for us just a short flight away. New Zealand was amazing. We’ll definitely be back.

Arriving in New Zealand was almost like arriving back in Australia. The accents were not quite right, but we found many things to be similar. The suburbs of Auckland could easilt be suburbs in Brisbane and many of the Aussie labels can be found in New Zealand too. Sophie was very excited to be able to buy some Vegemite.

Us having lived in Zimbabwe/Australia our whole lives, we’d always been under the impression that New Zealand was an incredibly cold place. We had this picture of a landscape covered with waist deep snow, but in fact, after our exposure to the climates of some places in South America and the States, the New Zealand winter was surprisingly bearable and there was no snow to be seen.

We were picked up at the airport by my old friend Pippa at the horrific time of half past five in the morning. She deserves a medal for this. For three nights we hung out with Pippa in Auckland, exploring some of the city and also travelling a bit north to some amazing black sand beaches, however we spent most of our time at the house recovering from our hectic time in the States.

From there, we pickup up a rental relocation. These are cars that the rental company needs moved to another depot, so they can be rented for a minimal amount, but need to be moved to a particular location within a particular timeframe. Ours was Auckland to Christchurch, so we had four days to drive the car down the length of North Island and a good chunk of South Island. On the booking reciept I was excited to note that our car type was listed as “BMW 3 Series or simialar”, but it turned out to be a Ford Mondeo. Not really similar at all. But still it was a comfy drive, albiet expensive with fuel at NZ$1.80/litre. There was a quite a lot of driving but just seeing all the rural scenery along the way made it worthwhile.

Rotorua was amazing, with sulphurus smells and clouds of geothermal steam rising all over the place. At Kersene Creek we spent a bit of time trying to find a hot pool to swim in. There were hot springs all over the place, but all were either too hot or too cold. Still, it was heaps of fun traipsing through the bush and trying to build pools from rocks while being scorched and chilled at the same time. We did find a beautiful hot creek near Lake Taupo the next day and had an amazing hot bath in the morning mist.

From there it was on to Palmerston North, where we stayed the night with another mate of mine. He took us up to see the wind farm up in the hills where we watched the huge 35m windmills spin eerily as the sun went down. The view of the landscape up there was amazing too. Later we had fun night with him and his mates, but after “Flight of the Conchords” it’s so hard to listen to a New Zealander say anything while keeping a straight face. The next morning we drove the last of North Island to Wellington, jumping straight onto the ferry to Picton.

In Picton we stayed with some really old family friends, who we worked out, I hadn’t seen for fifteen years! They own the “Creek Pottery Gift Shop” and the pub “The Flying Haggis”, so if you’re passing though, stop in for a beer at the Haggis.

The next day we were taken on a most lovely tour of the wine growing area near Picton. The Marlborough Region produces some great wines and we stopped to sample many of them, as well as having a really delicious lunch at one. The area itself was beautful with its rows of wines, trees aflame with autumn colours and distant blue mountains in all directions.

We had another great night drinking wine and reminiscing all of the stoies from when I was a boy of 12 living in Malawi. The next day though we were up in the dark to complete our last leg to Christchurch. We stopped briefly at Kaikoura to have a coffee and see a colony of New Zealand seals. As usual we arrived with just a few minutes to spare. At the depot we exchanged our relocated Ford Modeo for a rented Campervan and immediately set off again.

The Big Sur, literally meaning “Big South” in Spanglish, is the coastal area a couple of hours drive south of San Francisco. A couple of people had told us it was worth a visit, so instead of hanging out in expensive hotels and hostels in San Fran, we got ourselves another rental for three days and drove south. Our first night we stayed near San Jose with a Couchersurfer named Kathleen at vert short notice. She is one of those amazing couchsurfers who will just take in anyone at a moments notice and we had a super evening there watching an old surfing movie with her and her friends.

The next couple of days we spent driving down the coast and then up again. As we’d been told, the coastline there is really beautiful with mountains coming down steeply into a rugged rocky coastline. On the whole though I was a bit disappointed with it as it was almost impossible to explore the area as you are constrained to the road most of the time. All of the land seems to be privately owened and vigourously defended with “no trespassing” signs. Even the very few State beaches where you can actually get down charge you a fee and I found it really annoying. It was a bit more relaxed north of the “Big Sur” area, where the coast was still nice but you were actually allowed to use it.

I would definitely drive along the coast if I was are going through that area, but as a destination in itself I wasn’t impressed. We were back in San Fran three nights later, with half a day to explore the city by car before our flight out of America.

After spending so many nights sleeping in the car, we treated ourselves to a night at an actual hotel. Sophie was still feeling very tender from the accident and needed some rest, so she didn’t get out much that first day.

My first impression of San Francisco was not a great one. I was sent on a mission to get our now very smelly laundry done. That took me into what must have been a very dodgy area of the city, as there seemed to be bums and hobos everywhere! These are not your third world type homeless people who sit on the street meekly shaking a tin of coins at you. These were the first world, mad/druggie, big, standing types, who stare at you with crazy eyes, randomly shouting incoherent sentences at you. In most cities you can at least walk across to the other side of the road, but here there was no good side of the road, there where a few on every corner. Never have I felt so uneasy in a city. However, I tried to look as tough and menacing as I could and managed to successfully complete my mission. We did not return to that particular area.

The next day Soph was feeling a bit better and we were able to get out and about, visiting some more touristy areas of the city. Our walk took us through Chinatown, which had endless shops filled with all kinds of interesting Chinese baubles. Even better were all the dodgy Chinese restaurants, my favourite type. We then took a very short ride on a San Fran Cable car. It was short because the conductor was nice enough to warn us that the fare was 5 bucks each and we’d only be travelling a couple of blocks, “you could get lunch with that!”.

That took us to Fishermans Wharf, a place bustling with busy stalls selling fresh seafood that made us wish we hadn’t stuffed ourselves with Chinese steam buns. Nonetheless, we managed to stuff down a sourdough bowl full of clam chowder, the local specialty. It was yum. Nearby was an arcade full of hundreds of ancient coin operated games and things that was really interesting.

That night we got another rental car and set off to see the Big Sur, which I’ve covered in a different post. When we returned, we had half a day with the car to explore a bit more. We arrived back in the early morning and set up our camping stove on a bench in the middle of the Golden Gate park, a vast rectangle of the city. We were amongst trees and by a big dam with ducks and swans, you just wouldn’t know you’re in a huge city. However, we got a couple of odd looks from joggers as we cooked up our morning porridge.

The rest of our time took us round the edge of the city along the coast where there are more nice parks including views of the famous Golden Gate Bridge and some seriously fancy neighbourhoods. We ended up in Castro, where we were meeting a couch surfer to pick up some film that I’d had developed. Castro is possibly the most gay suburb in the world, with rainbow banners on every streetlamp. Of course it had some nice cafes and restaurants.

From there it was a stressful drive to the airport to return our car in time. Of course the last moment we were diverted onto the wrong offramp and had to spend 20 minutes getting back to the airport but we managed to get there in the end. I got another great American farewell when the computer flagged my passport again, getting a personal escort through security after which I got a full luggage search and a good frisking. Bye bye America. Next stop Auckland.

Yosemite Valley is a most amazing place. The main valley, where most people visit, is only 10 or so miles long, but it is so jam packed with spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, beautiful meadows, streams and forests, it’s like God himself personally took charge with its creation. The place has additional significance to me as it was the hangout of Ansel Adams, a great photographer and personal icon of mine.

Though it was a beautiful visit, more than any of the other places, it was tragic that we only had one day to spend there. The very very well visited part of the park is only a tiny fraction of the total area and the surrounding forest parks. I would have loved to do some longer walks and could have easily have spent a few weeks there. I guess there is always next time.

It happened on our way down from Sequoia National Park. I don’t really have any good excuses, although I think tiredness, in combination with having to drive on the wrong (right) side of the road played a big part. We were happily driving along, coming up to a T-junction, when I noticed a stand on the left hand side of the road selling avos and fresh fruit. Thinking only of how happy Soph would be if we stopped there I decided to pull over.

I looked back to check my blind spot, started turning, and turned around to see a huge black pickup oncoming. As I’d started turning there was nothing I could do other than continue the turn and hope for a near miss. Smash, bang, airbags exploding everywhere, and suddenly we were on the side of the road half way through a fence and facing a completely different direction.

It took me a while to grasp the shocking reality of what happens when cars actually hit each each other. We spend so many hours in cars passing by within mere metres of each other, but here we were, in shock after finding ourselves on the wrong side of that white line. Soon after, thoughts about the sheer amount of damage that had just been inflicted on our poor innocent Kia Forte began hitting me, and more scarily, how much it would cost us. That ends the worst part of our ordeal. From then on, the situation resolved itself in the most amazing, dreamlike series of events.

I was almost completely unharmed, Sophie likewise, although later on she had a very sore and stiff neck. I got out to check the other car. It was not nearly as smashed as ours, and the occupants were fine. With the weight of that beast I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even feel the hit. The driver, a middle aged woman, was just the nicest person you could ever want to crash into you. It was amazing, especially given the fact that I had just turned in front of her, her husband and little daughter completely out of the blue. “Just promise me this won’t stop you enjoying your holiday one bit” she said to a teary Sophie with a big motherly hug.

We had no phone, but the avocado guy very quickly flagged someone down and used their phone to call the highway patrol, who arrived in a few minutes. They too were completely understanding, just asking for a description of what happened and our details. Before I knew it our car was being towed away and one of the cops was lending me his phone to call Dollar Rent-A-Car.

The rental guy got our details and said we could pick up another car at the Fresno Airport. Then I was in a police cruiser, chatting to a police officer, sitting next to his M16 and pump action shotgun. He drove us and all of our huge piles of luggage to the rental desk at the Fresno airport. We gave them all the info for the accident, they said they were sorry we’d had such a bad experience then, and this is the craziest part, they gave us another car! Just like that. Apparently a zero liability insurance policy had found it way onto the rental agreement although I have no idea how it got there. Normally there is no way I’d pay extra for insurance for an accident that was so unlikely to happen. But there it was, on the rental agreement, zero liability, no worries, here’s a new car.

So miraculously, less than two hours after the initial incident, after most probably writing off at least one car, there we were, on our way again in a new car, with a full tank of fuel to boot. Never again will I whinge about paying extra for car insurance. On the other hand, I probably will, after all, what are the chances of that happening again?

You are probably looking for all the photos of the carnage. Well there aren’t any. I can’t believe I didn’t take any, but there you go. I was so preoccupied with the repercussions of what had just happened, and dismay that we were now standing by the road in the middle of nowhere with just a huge pile of luggage and a car wreck, I didn’t take a single one.

The drive took us into California and along some really nice roads, one in particular took us down a valley alongside a really pretty river, with the grassy hills on either side covered with purple flowers.

We arrived very early in the morning, after sleeping somewhere along the way. It was cold, there was snow on the ground and we could see the gigantic trees standing immoveably in the early morning mist. We did a couple of beautiful walks around the park, visiting some of the landmark trees such as the General Sherman Tree, said to be the largest tree in the world (by volume).

On one of the walks we had a fairly close encounter with a mamma bear and her two cubs. Sophie went very quickly from, “Dean! Bears! Get a photo!”, to “Eeeek! Dean get Back!”. They seem to be fairly common, we had to lock up our food in special bear boxes everytime we left the car.

Eager to get to Yosemite, we left in the afternoon to drove down the mountains. It was a couple of hours on, possibly driving a little tired after a few nights in the car, that I managed to turn our car in front of an oncoming pickup. That is another story altogether and I’ll write about that in another post. The amazing thing was, due to the wonders of car insurance, we were in another car and on our way again in less than a couple of hours.

We passed through Vegas again on the way west, stopping just long enough to have yet another meal from our favourite Thai restaurant, where we were now known by name. From there it was just a couple of hours drive till we were in Death Valley National Park. It covers a huge area, a huge arid valley with mountains of bare rock on either side and in the middle a big salt lake, which is the lowest point in the United States at 80m below sea level. Our path through the park took us over 200 miles. We stopped at photographers mecca, Zabriske point, and after a much warmer night in the car, were up at Dante’s view for sunrise, huge panoramic view of the park.

We stopped by the visitor’s centre on the way out, where the parks guy cheerily informed us that all the passes to Yosemite, our next destination, were still closed. I was expecting a couple of hours drive to Yosemite, which was already very optimistic. We were now looking at over 700km to get to Yosemite the long way around. The good news was that the shortest path now took us past Sequoia National Park. So we made that our next destination and set off on the long drive there, glad at least that fuel is so cheap in the States.

Being the Grand Canyon and all we couldn’t really pass within a couple of hours drive without paying a visit. So from Bryce we drove south from Utah and into Arizona. Nearing the canyon we started passing through areas of snow. At one stage we had to stop the car to have a couple of slides down a snow covered hill and the mandatory snowball fight. The novelty still hasn’t worn off.

We visited the north rim of the park, and as expected the view was amazing. “Grand” describes it pretty well. The canyon stretches for miles and miles, and on the far side you can see the prefectly flat rim and mountain ranges far beyond. Its really impressive just having such a huge open space in front of you.

We were a bit pressed for time at that stage, so were only able to fit in a short walk through the snow covered forest along the rim. So we ticked that box, didn’t get the t-shirt and left again after a beautiful sundown, sleeping at a nice little park somewhere between Grand Canyon and Vegas.

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