Going Up The Country

Going to some place that i've never been before...

Month: January 2016 (page 2 of 2)

One key to rule them all…

With no power comes absolutely no responsibility.

I realised something today. Something that is a perfect and brilliant embodiment of the complete change in lifestyle I have seen these past few weeks.

Back in the UK, my key ring was a huge, jangling disorganised mess, with keys for my house, the office, my bike, various different locks, cases, bags and god knows what else. Right now, my keyring now consists of just two items – a car key and a bottle opener.

The only things I have to even think about opening for the foreseeable future is Velma, or an ice cold beer.

That is a damn good feeling.

Kapowairua

Where souls depart and seas collide.

The Maori do several things exceptionally well – tattoos, the Haka, and intricate carvings are just a few of the more well known strings to their bow, but they also have an uncanny knack of perfectly capturing the atmosphere and energy of a place in its name.

Kapowairua, which translates as ‘Bay of Spirits’ is an isolated, windswept bay on the far north coast of the Northlands, where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet, sending spray tens of metres in to the air on stormy days. As far as places go, this one well and truly lives up to its name. I’ve never been a subscriber to religion; all of the dogma and indoctrination has always been a little too full-on for me, but I would definitely count myself as a spiritual person, and my visit to Kapowairua definitely ranks right up there in terms of spiritual experiences.

The bay itself was a huge expanse of flat, white open sands, skirted by some wiry, persistent trees that had somehow managed to take root in the windy, harsh conditions. Despite the wind and the overcast leaden skies, the entire bay had a calmness and serenity unlike anywhere else I have ever been; a calmness with a gravity so great it stopped me in my tracks. It’s not hard to understand why for the Maori this place held a strong spiritual significance.

The Bay of Spirits was in stark contrast to our lunch stop earlier that day at Matai Bay. Matai Bay is a few hours south of The Bay of Spirits, situated at the end of the KariKari peninsula, with gorgeous near-white sands and sparkling turquoise waters. The bay itself is almost fully enclosed, meaning that the water was beautifully warm, and we spent a while swimming and floating in the afternoon sun.

Matai Bay

After dinner we decided it was time to get drunk, and we opened a bottle of wine. At least we thought it was wine. A magnificent looking label proudly proclaimed ‘Fine Ruby’, and after closer inspection, it was some kind of wine/port hybrid, weighing in at 14% abv, but with the sweetness and viscosity of port. Whatever it was, it was delicious, and ridiculously easy to drink, sitting somewhere between Ribena and Vimto, which basically resulted in a night of hilarity, including a trip to the toilet in the dark during which I somehow got lost and almost ended up sleeping curled up in a ball on the grass. Luckily, about 45 minutes after leaving on my lavatory quest I managed to find my way back in one piece.

Heading North

We would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids.

Yes, that is a quote from Scooby Doo.

So I have a car. And not just any car, a Subaru Legacy 4WD station wagon, complete with camping equipment. Yesterday afternoon, I picked up my friend Jo from the Yoga retreat she has been working at, and after a quick stop for gas and food, we set off North, away from the city and into the wild blue yonder.

As it was already fairly late we drove for a couple of hours before happening upon a free campsite just off the coast road, and right next to Sandy Bay, which as the name implies was a gorgeous long sandy bay. We stopped on the way for some food and had some pretty good fish and chips from the imaginatively named ‘Takeaways’, where to our absolute delight they were serving ‘crinkle cut’ chips. Remember those? The chips that for some unknown reason were the sole preserve of grandmothers up and down the country.

Crinkle cut!

Outside, there was a guy busking in an old phone box. He did some great covers, and it was nice to eat our crinkle-cut chips in the sun while being serenaded, so we chucked him a few bucks before we left.

After arriving at sandy bay, we checked out the beach, set the car up for camping, which basically involved putting all of the seats flat, and spreading out the roll mats and sleeping bags in the back. It seemed pretty comfortable on first inspection, a first inspection that later turned out to be hastily judged and woefully inaccurate.

As its famously bad luck to go on any kind of road trip without naming the vehicle, we spent a while going through various names before settling on Velma. As this fine lady is a Subaru (often called a Scooby-doo in the UK) and she is a slightly larger lady with ample room for all of the necessary junk in her trunk, Velma kind of fit better than Daphne.

We woke in the morning in crippling pain thanks to the seats not folding quite flat and leaving a nice hard ridge just where your hips go. The pain was so bad in fact that we immediately drove back on ourselves for almost 40km to the last big town where we could buy an airbed and pump. It was without question the best decision of the entire trip so far.

So, with the bed situation sorted, we headed north once again, past where we had camped, and on to a beach further north, as we had a tip off from the lonely planet guidebook that there was a pretty special trek starting fro the north end of the beach. As far as beaches go, it was pretty spectacular, a unfurling expanse of soft golden sand with warm, turquoise waves lazily sweeping in.

Mermaids pool

At the very end of the beach, after wading through waist deep water, we found the trail which led over the cliffs and back down to a beautifully serene turquoise rock pool called ‘Mermaids Pool’. It was worth the half hour trek to get there, and we timed it perfectly, having the whole pool to ourselves for the majority of the time we were there. On the way back we bumped into an old Kiwi bloke (with Scottish ancestry) on the trail, and he told us some of the history of the local area, as well as giving us some great tips on places to visit on our way up the east coast as well as on our way back down the west coast.

Were camped up for the night tonight at Bland Bay, on the very end of the KariKari Peninsula, and I’m not sure whether its because we got here fairly late when the sun was low, or because we’ve been spoilt with huge sandy beaches and tropical emerald waters so far, but Bland Bay definitely lives up to its name. The campsite is a big holiday park too with lots of people. Good in some ways as it means we have hot showers and a shop so we can stock up and get clean, but I definitely preferred the isolation and wilderness of last nights camping. Hopefully tonight will be a bit more comfortable!

Forget IPA, it’s all about the NZPA

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I like my beer. Specifically ale, and even more specifically, pale ale. I’m a bit partial to an IPA, but today I have found something a little bit special, and I feel like it deserves its own post. New Zealand Pale Ale. Its delicious, and this particular treat from the Boundary Road Brewery also happens to be named after possibly one of the coolest planes ever built. in their own words: “Flying Fortress Ale symbolises everything great about beer: a big taste, a graceful aroma and two massive engines on each wing”.

Whats not to like?

Browns bay, beaches and breweries.

I didn’t realise just how much i’ve missed the beach.

It has been a month or so now since I packed my bags and left Bournemouth, the town that had been my home for the last ten years, but in that month i’ve been so busy visiting friends, planning this trip, thinking about christmas and going away for new years that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to think about Bournemouth or the good friends and amazing beach I’d left behind.

After 4 nights in hostels in the city I was beginning to get itchy feet, and despite Auckland being a pretty cool city I was starting to realise just how much I was missing living near the beach. Staying in a hostel is similar in a lot of ways to being a student, and specifically the start of your first year of university. You are in less than homely surroundings, surrounded by complete strangers, a lot of whom are speaking in a foreign language. Metal framed bunk beds with thin mattresses are twinned with melamine topped second hand furniture and kitchen appliances that look like they never really worked properly even when they were new. It’s a slightly depressing environment at the best of times, let alone in an unfamiliar city where you know very few people.

On a whim I thought i’d check Airbnb to see how much extra i’d be looking at to get out of the city for a few days and for the luxury of my own room, and was amazed to discover that for the same price as a tiny bunkbed in a 8 man dorm room in the central business district I could get my own private room in a pretty sweet house up near browns bay, just a bus ride north of my hostel, and a short walk from the beach!

Browns bay house

Obviously it was a no brainer, and I booked in for three nights, which will hopefully be long enough to get some wheels sorted, and also handily takes me up to Thursday afternoon, which is when my friend Jo finishes work until Tuesday and so is the day we’re planning to start our little road trip. I love it when a plan comes together!

My host, Grace, is lovely, and is out at work all day so I pretty much have the place to myself. I arrived yesterday, and after chatting for a while Grace headed over to a friends for dinner and I took a walk down to the bay. I found an awesome little microbrewery right on the shore, and settled in to a few pints of the local IPA, which turned out to be delicious. I got chatting to Mike and Lee, a couple of local Kiwi blokes. They were pretty friendly and helpful, and gave me some great tips on things to see and do around the area, and places to visit further afield too, across both the north and south islands. After a few more beers and a pizza I stumbled back up the hill to the house, and had the best nights sleep I’ve had in over a week.

Cakes and Ladders

I could definitely get used to this place.

The more I explore Auckland the more I like it. I moved to a new hostel this morning recommended by a friend of mine. I walked there from my previous hostel to try and get to grips with the city a little and get a feel for the place. The first thing I noticed? Kiwis like their puns. As do I. Some highlights included a cafe where you can play board games called ‘Cakes and Ladders’ and a restaurant called The Spotted Pig, with the brilliant tagline ‘Swine and Dine’. Genius.

The other thing that you notice pretty quickly is how clean and healthy everything seems to be over here. There are organic food stores on every street, artisan bakeries, small independent cafe’s and family owned greengrocers. Even a lot of the takeaways are healthy salad bars, burrito places, sushi joints and the like. Obviously McDonalds, Pizza Hut and all the rest still exist (by the way, McDonalds do pies here) but they’re all pretty quiet in comparison to the healthier places, even in downtown Auckland. In the supermarket, what I initially though was an early nineties woolworths-style pic’n’mix in fact turned out to be the biggest array of dried fruits and nuts I have ever seen, complete with scoops and little bags.

I took a walk down to meet a friend of a friend who was at a place called Silo Park, which was about half an hour away from my hostel. It was a good to see a bit more of the city, and the fact that it was a Saturday, and the sun was shining meant there were quite a few people around. Silo Market is a fun little market at a grassy space down near the water with a bar, music, food stalls and other stuff, and we spent a few hours chilling out drinking some pretty nice ales and sitting in the sunshine. The sunshine here is fierce; its not been that hot yet, hovering around low to mid twenties, but apparently due to the huge hole in the ozone layer down here, its a really punishing kind of sunshine. Even with some serious factor 50 suncream at my disposal I had a few red bits the next morning, which is pretty insane.

  Silo Park - chilling in the sunshine

The day after visiting Silo Park I went for Breakfast with Katie, a resident Aucklander who was a friend of one of my friends back home. She also happened to live just round the corner from where I was staying. As well as knowing a place that did seriously good bagels, she kindly offered to give me a lift after breakfast up to the car fair happening at the racecourse just out of town. We got there a bit late, but there were still quite a few cars there, although most of them were being sold by dealers, and had pretty questionable paperwork and service histories! Doing a simple free internet check on a couple of possible contenders raised some pretty serious issues, including a tidy looking Suzuki that had apparently done just 170,000km, but at its WOF (the NZ equivalent of an MOT) in 2013 was recorded as already having over 190K on the clock! Some pretty cloak and dagger stuff was afoot, and so in the end I didnt buy anything, but it was a good experience, and gave me a good idea of what to look out for and what was out there in my price range.

Later on that evening I caught up with an old friend of mine that I hadn’t seen for over ten years, who just so happened to be working at a Yoga retreat in Albany, just north of Auckland. After meeting in central Auckland, we decided to grab a bite to eat, and after checking out a few places, and not really being sure what traditional New Zealand food even is, opted for a Korean BBQ just off the high street. It was a good choice, with delicious food, including mains that you grill yourself (the BBQ bit of the name kind of gave that away though I guess) and tasty Korean beers. The highlight of the entire meal though, had to be the water on the table. Rather than the usual unassuming jug or fashinoable carafe, we were treated to a plastic flask with a neon lid, and not just any plastic flask, this one was sponsored by Koreas most famous celebrity, Park Jae-sang. Otherwise known as his stage name Psy Gangnam. That right, our water was delivered Gangnam style.

Gangnam style water

Staying with the international theme, our Korean BBQ was followed by a visit to a Belgian beer cafe to indulge in lots of stupidly strong Belgian lagers, which resulted in us hatching a plan to embark on a road trip later in the week when my friend Jo had some time off, provided i’ve managed to find a car by then.

So, Auckland, lets recap. Great sense of humour and award winning puns? Check. Tasty beers and ales? Check. Local, sustainable, organic food? Check. Really hot girls driving battered old jeeps with surfboards on top? Check. Gangnam Style H20? Check. It’s a bit like someone has read my mind and then purposely created a place for me to exist (ok maybe with the exception of the Gangnam style H20, but you can’t win them all). And i’m not even out of the city yet. I could definitely get used to this place.

Highway to the dangerzone

So Auckland is pretty sweet.

Ok, so i’ve only been here a few days, but from what i’ve seen so far, Aucklnd and me are going to get along just fine.

The hostel I am in is right near Mount Eden (see pic above for the view from the top) and it is really chilled. I’m sharing a 4 bunk dorm with a french couple and a french girl, so conversation sometimes involves a little effort, but they seem nice enough. I arrived Thursday night around 7pm, and was so jet lagged I pretty much passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow at around 7:30pm, and didn’t wake up until 9am the following morning. Having drank a lot of water and beer on the plane, and also having not eaten anything for about 24 hours at this point I woke up seriously hungry and on the verge of wetting myself, which would have been an interesting way to introduce myself to the french girl sleeping in the bunk below me.

After a shower I quickly found a little local cafe for breakfast, and opted for the aptly named ‘Mammoth Breakfast’ (they really weren’t kidding), and then weighed up my options to get some stuff done. The local shopping mall seemed like an easy way to tick off all my to-do’s in one go, including trying (and failing) to open a bank account, sorting out a New Zealand mobile number, buying some food, suncream and insect repellant and other super fun tasks that I had been too busy/lazy to do before I left. A shop called K-Mart managed to fulfil most of my needs, resembling something like a huge Wilkinsons, but where all the staff are really friendly and they play ‘Highway to the Dangerzone’  by Kenny Loggins throughout the whole store really loud. My kind of shop.

There are a lot of similarities to the UK here, some small, and some more significant, but it’s definitely a much easier transition than arriving in say, the US, Asia, or some parts of Europe. Obviously everybody speaks english, a lot of the food is very similar (they have Fish and Chips everywhere, although over here its pronounced ‘Fush un Chups’), They drive on the left, they like their beer and ales, and the similarities don’t stop there. The differences are usually fairly small, but noticeable. Small things like the fact that corner shops are called ‘Dairies’ even if they don’t sell milk, or that supermarket trolleys are called ‘Trundlers’ (I kind of prefer trundlers to be honest) or that they sell pies in McDonalds. Yes, pies. They’re pretty good too.

Don’t judge me, curiosity got the better of me…

Macdonalds Pies!

He might as well be on the moon

So I did it. I’m finally here. Hello New Zealand.

I’ve always found long haul flights to be pretty bearable, and never really understood the horror most people display when discussing an upcoming flight to some distant land, and this one was no exception. In fact it was quite enjoyable. Two long haul flights to be precise, back to back with a short stop in China. The second flight was much more enjoyable thanks to the lovely lady at check in finding me a window seat on an emergency exit row. The crème de la crème of airplane seats. Leg room ahoy!

Leg room ahoy!

My body clock was pretty up in the air at this point, so I settled down with some of the in-flight entertainment, namely The Martian, followed by Everest. Martian was pretty good considering i’m not really a fan of Matt Damon, and parts of it resonated well with me as someone also travelling long distance in a confined space. I’m fully aware that travelling to mars makes a 14 hour flight look like a walk in the park, but I definitely related to the central character’s complete lack of enthusiasm for reheated, dehydrated ration pouches that taste nothing like the ‘Sweet & Sour Chicken’ so optimistically promised by the label on the front.

The next film, Everest was a little disappointing, being a remake of one of my old favourites – ‘Into Thin Air’, a terrifying true story, documenting precisely just how bad an idea it was/is to attempt to take paying tourists up to the summit of the worlds highest mountain on a guided tour, the likes of which are normally reserved for run down national trust properties in the lake district. The remake was lazy, borrowing entire scenes and huge chunks of dialogue from the original, although on the bright side they had also kept one of my favourite lines from the original – referring to the hopeless and complete isolation and inaccessibility of somebody trapped on Everest – ‘He might as well be on the moon’. The realisation that pretty soon I too would be as far away from home as I had ever been in my meagre 30 years on this planet had started to sink in a little and that particular line struck a chord more than it usually might.

After just shy of 38 hours travelling, I arrived at Auckland airport on a Thursday afternoon, quickly collected my checked luggage and headed for the exit. The hostel I’d booked into for a couple of nights was just outside the city centre in a chilled suburb near Mt. Eden (I’d booked this one on purpose so I could just chill for a few days and shake the jetlag without everything being too hectic), and the management had kindly emailed me complete instructions on how to get there by bus.

Pretty much my first encounter with a kiwi was the bus driver, a friendly older chap who proceeded to explain over the tannoy how everyone on the bus could download google maps from the app store and then use it to find out which stop we needed and track our journeys progress. He seemed to have a better grasp of smartphone technology than many of the so called ‘Geniuses’ at the apple store. Back home you’d do well to get a bus driver to speak at all, let alone provide detailed instructions on how to download an app and navigate this strange new city. I already like New Zealanders.

A beautiful week in Valle d’Aosta

Snowboarding, bruises and an obscene amount of molten cheese.

I’m sat here in Munich airport drinking what can only be described as a monster beer, contemplating the amazing week i’ve just had, and the whole new year that is stretching out in front of me like a lovely long, sunny, mysterious ribbon off into the distance.

I’m on my way back to the UK for a few days after spending a fun but tiring week in Gerdaz, in the Aosta Valley region of northern Italy. A friend of mine that I hadn’t seen for years runs Nexus Snow Camps, an all inclusive week long snowboarding camp at a ski resort called Pila, and after years of wishing I could snowboard, and with no plans for New Years Eve, it turned out there were a few spaces on one of his early pre-season camps, which just so happened to span New Years Eve. Perfect. The Nexus Snow Camps include self catering accommodation, transfers from the train station at Aosta (if needed) a six-day lift pass, and five days of tuition, catering from everything from complete and utter beginners (like me!) to advanced riders looking to perfect their style or learn new tricks.

I’ve always loved Italy, and northern Italy in particular, and this trip was no different, with stunning scenery and friendly, welcoming people, and Pila itself is a sprawling resort with all kinds of runs to satisfy every skill level and ability. After landing in Turin on Boxing Day, we picked up our hire car and drove the 90 minute drive over to our apartment in Gerdaz, a small, picturesque village on the mountain just below Pila. We arrived too late to really appreciate the views, but after a long day of travelling and with a week of snowboarding on the cards,the view wasn’t high on my list of priorities, and I turned in fairly early.

The week mainly consisted of snowboarding in the daytime, with copious amounts of alcohol in the evenings. We stayed in for a couple of nights, playing shithead until the early hours, and also spent a few nights out in Aosta. If you ever happen to be in Aosta, check out Pizzeria Ristorante Stadio. The owner, Antonio made us feel very welcome and the food was delicious. New Years Eve itself was pretty special, if slightly surreal. We ventured down to the Piazza in central Aosta, along with our instructor Wes and his housemates, after some fairly serious pre-drinking at their house. Italy definitely knows how to see in the new year, for a small(ish) town there were a lot of people there and the atmosphere was pretty jumping. I don’t really know how to describe it other than kind of a cross between a christmas light switch on and a rowdy sixth form trip. Strange, but great fun, with the hangover to prove it. Saying that, I know of no better way to get rid of a hangover and blow away the cobwebs that sliding down a frozen mountain on a thin piece of wood at speed, so hangovers weren’t really a problem this week.

nexus snow camps - pila

As far as the snowboarding goes, as a complete beginner I fully expected to be on the baby slopes, sliding around surrounded by toddlers for the first few days, with hopefully the prospect of graduating to a blue run by the end of the week if I was lucky. As it happens, our instructor Wes had other ideas and had me and the other beginner in our group straight on to a blue run to put us through our paces and get to grips with the basics, before sneakily taking us back down a red run that same afternoon. It was pretty dicey in places, but when we got to the bottom in one piece and Wes let slip that we’d just nailed a red on our first day we were pretty stoked! Whether it was my natural ability or Wes’ awesome teaching skills (I’m pretty sure it was the latter), I progressed a lot quicker than I hoped with the boarding, and by my last day I was shredding down the mountain at a fair speed, with nice fluid, smooth turns.

One of our group, Marco, is Swiss, and had driven over the alps, bringing with him a car full of assorted treats including schnapps, skateboards and a hell of a lot of cheese. As a long-time fan of fondue (who doesn’t love dipping things in molten cheese?!) I was pretty excited, but the star of the show turned out to be Raclette. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Raclette is actually a type of semi-firm cows milk cheese, but is also shorthand for the art of melting little trowels of cheese in a specifically designed grill, before pouring that cheese over anything you can get your hands on. Traditionally potatoes, but experimentation over the week proved that cured meats, crisps, pasta, bread and even more cheese all work just fine. Delicious as it was, after multiple meals consisting pretty much of assorted carbs smothered in molten cheese, I can feel the gout beginning to set in. I’ve never been more ready for a nice salad and a bit of fruit.

raclette

After a week on the slopes I’m battered and bruised, with an almost entirely purple arse and a less than perfect liver, and i’m pretty sure i’ve cracked a rib and twisted my shoulder, but i’ve definitely caught the snowboarding bug. The cold crisp mountain air and the adrenaline rush you get as you shred down the mountain are incredible, and i’m pretty sure i’ll be hitting the slopes again before long. I cannot recommend Nexus Snow Camps enough, and particularly our instructor Wes, he explained things simply and clearly, was patient with us being complete beginners and helped us progress much more than I though possible in a week. If you’re thinking of giving snowboarding a go, you should definitely do it, i’m annoyed with myself for putting it off for so long.

For now i’m off to get another monster beer and catch my connecting flight back to the UK. Looking forward to a few days of relaxation before I head off to New Zealand, and i’ll definitely be dreaming of snowboarding tonight. Snowboarding covered in lots of molten cheese.

Ciao!

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