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Walking in the Asturias 

Inntravel call our walk the Picos de Europa, but I feel it is more accurate to call it The Asturias walk, as we turn our backs on that impressive mountain range,  and the Picos National Park, as we walk out of Arenas de Cabrales and into our 6 day walk. The walk will take us from the mountains to the sea, through a verdant green landscape with many ups and downs as we traverse different mountain ranges.

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The name Asturias comes from the region’s Celtic origins, and helps explain the predilection for cider, and the Celtic music that is on repeat in one of the restaurants we visit. Apparently, the local Celts, or Astures, were subdued but never completely conquered by the Romans. Or, indeed the following Moors. The mountains and the rugged life involved was not for the faint hearted of any kind. And that is probably still the case.

However, it has become a very popular area with Spanish holiday makers. The combination of rugged mountains, deep green pastures and beautiful beaches, plus a plethora of stone houses and cabins dotted through the countryside, has resulted in booming local tourism and the buying up of property to restore as holiday houses, or chalets as they tend to be known. We get the impression that there is more money in this region than we have seen elsewhere – villages and hamlets may be quiet and empty but they are not neglected, with many beautiful traditional homes to be seen.

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We spend our days accompanied by the constant harmony of bells – the deeper clang of the cow bells with the goat, sheep and horse bells adding a higher note. We are never far from their clanging, tinkling and jangling. Combined with the mountain backdrop, I keep expecting Heidi and Grandfather to appear round the next bend. But, to my disappointment we see virtually no else on the tracks we follow, however we do come across a lovely Maremma dog guarding a herd of goats one day. He is torn between his desire to say Hello and protecting his flock. The flock won out, and he shepherded them away from the path, so no photo I’m afraid.

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Birdsong is also constant, as there are many forests. I hear my first cuckoo, much to my delight. And birds of prey are often gliding above us, enjoying the updrafts from the valleys.

The tracks we follow are often little more than animal tracks. Compass and close examination of maps is occasionally required. Thank goodness for the detailed walk notes provided by Inntravel, and the bush walking ability of The Husband (except for his spectacular map misreading on one day – more of that later). Some sections we are forced to do battle with gorse bushes and blackberries, and have the scratches to prove it.

The food is probably the only let down of the walk. The Asturians seem to believe in quantity, of very basic meals. The portions are invariably huge, but several times we just push it around our plate and leave most behind. And oh for vegetables.

Day 1: Arenas de Cabrales to Pandiello, 18 kms, total ascent 1108 m, total descent 700m.

Our first day, through birch, oak and sycamore forests, affords us many views back to the Central and Western Massif mountains that make up the Picos. We even manage to get another look at the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes, or Urriello, as the clouds part for us.

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The morning starts with a consistent climb up the hills that we could see in the foreground from our room at Hotel Torrecerredo. In fact, at one point we can spy the hotel from our hilltop.

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We then drop down into the little village of Carreña, where we stop for a coffee, and a slice of cake kindly provided by the owner. He has gone to a lot of trouble decorating his bar, and his pride in the establishment is evident. I had visions of the coffee and cake scenario being repeated on subsequent days, but this proves to be the only village we pass through with either a bar/restaurant, or one that is open. Much to my disappointment. Lucky it was such a nice one then.

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After coffee it is back to walking up again, as we climb towards the top of yet another mountain range. In fact, over the course of the walk I come to dread downs, as I know they will be followed by more ups and I feel I have just wasted all that effort to get the top. But, the reward for the hard slogs uphill are the vistas of the mountains all around us, and later, the sea beyond.

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Our destination for our first night is the tiny hamlet of Pandeillo, perched on the side of a hill and the Casa de Aldea la Portiella del Llosu (the name is almost longer than the village). Our host, José, has meticulously restored an old stone house, and has also been partly responsible for designing the walk.


After showering and changing, we tell José that we are going out to have a walk around the village. He says that he will see us back in 5 minutes, and he is not far off. There is little sign of life, although many of the houses have been lovingly restored. We suspect many of them may be weekenders or holiday homes, as having a chalet (or holiday house) in the Asturias seems very popular.

So, we return to our cosy little hotel and settle in with a bottle of red wine. José cooks an enormous meal that evening, and uncommonly serves it to us at 8pm. Thank goodness, as we are more than ready for bed after the day’s walk.

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Day 2: Pandeillo to Bobia de Arriba, 18 kms, total ascent 803m, total descent 800m

Although this reads like a less strenuous day than yesterday, it was actually much harder going as the climbs were much steeper. I felt at the top that we were in the eagles’ lair itself, with views across to the Bay of Biscay, and mountains everywhere you looked. We were bombarded with colours of green and blue. Beautiful. Breathtaking – in both senses of the word.

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The day started innocently enough with a walk to the next village of Canales. As we walked through the village a car came to a grinding halt. It was Jim, mine host from Hotel Torrecerredo! A quick chat, and off we go in our different directions. Ours takes us up a dirt road, past a disused mine, before we start to rise steadily.

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Our notes warn us that the mid section of the walk, where we tackle the Sierra Gustaselvin, requires good visibility as the tracks are indistinct and the drops down into valleys are vertiginous in parts. Our day is clear blue in all directions, so onwards and upwards we press.

Up at the top we share the view with the Asturias ponies grazing on the pastures, and the birds of prey. We think they are buzzards, but are not sure.

But, all this up makes for a long, slow walk down to our base for the night, Bobia de Arriba and Hotel Rural El Rexacu, and we arrive grubby and weary; falling  upon a glass of wine before tackling the stairs to our room.

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Bobia is a tiny hamlet, made up of two parallel rows of houses, all facing yet another mountain range. Despite its small size, the hotel is relatively substantial – with 15 rooms, a bar and restaurant. That night, it is obvious that the bar is something of a meeting spot for visitors and locals alike. We join in, chatting to a lovely lady who has excellent English thank heavens, as our Spanish continues to be virtually non existent.

Our room has a little sitting area, with views across the village to the distant mountain range. Lovely.

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Day 3: Covadonga Lakes to Bobia de Arriba.

This was the day Himself got it wrong. We were supposed to walk about 14kms, with an ascent of 410m and descent of 1080m. But, we managed to walk 20kms, with an ascent of 910 metres!!!

It all started innocently enough with a 40 minute taxi ride to the Covadonga Lakes. The drive up is windy and steep, and today there was a bike/run/walking race on up the mountainside. I was very very grateful to be doing the climb in the back of a taxi, and not on my feet. Crazy people. The ascent from Covadonga to Los Lagos is a key stage in the Vuelta a España. At 12.6 kms, it has an average gradient of 7.3%. In one section this increases to 15% over 800 metres. This hill climb has broken hearts, little did I know that I was going to join them!

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As the car climbed we caught glimpses of the amazing views we would see once at the top. And then the gorgeous Our Lady of Covadonga Monastery came into view. More wows. The basilica was built to house a statue of Mary that is believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in an 8th century battle. The current Monastery dates back to the 16th century, and is a place of pilgrimage.

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When we finally reach the lakes themselves I am already punch drunk from the beauty we have seen, but there is more to come. Los Lagos de Covadonga consists of two glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina, and are actually in the Picos de Europa National Park. Lake Enol is 1,070 metres above sea level and Ercina tops it at 1,108 metres above sea level. Behind the lakes are snow covered mountains. In the distance is the Bay of Biscay. Stunning.

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We are dropped off beside Enol, and then walk over the lip to Ercina, where we stop into the restaurant for a coffee. It is over coffee that we hatch the plan to abandon the walk notes and take a shortcut up beside Ercina, with the intention of joining back into the intended walk just behind the hill in front of us.

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Our problem is that there are two paths, initially travelling in similar trajectories. We miss seeing the second path and head off, at a brisk pace, away from where we thought we were. And despite me saying, on several occasions, We are doing a lot more climbing than I expected, we keep making like mountain goats ever upwards. As we almost reach the top, Himself calls a halt and we finally agree that we have gone wrong somewhere. Problem is, we are not exactly sure where we are, but we do know we have to go down. So down we go, then regroup in a valley basin.

We finally place our trust in the Maps.Me app and let it guide us down the mountain over non existent tracks. After half an hour we finally get back to the spot we should have been 3 hours earlier. From there it is a slow and very tired trudge down, down, down. I refuse to talk to himself until finally back at the Hotel and have been revived with a very big gin tonic.

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It’s all I can do not to fall asleep in the soup that night. But, it has given us a tale to tell for years to come.

Day 4: Bobia de Arriba to El Allende, 13.5 km, total ascent 580m, total descent 710m.

Thank goodness today was a shorter, easier day as the legs were  feeling a little tired.  We were driven to the hamlet of Cuerres to start walking, which made the section more than manageable.

At one stage we were walking through a eucalypt forest, with a thick carpet of leaves and bark. The smell of gum trees transported us back home, albeit home with the clang of cow bells.

We stopped for our picnic lunch in the small town of Riocalente. Here we sit amongst the cluster of hórreos and a charming sculpture of a market woman, with an attendant, and very hopeful, puppy.


Hórreos are everywhere in the region, and are essentially a wooden food storage shed on a raised platform, supported by 4 pillars, each with a rodent barrier to keep the precious food supplies safe. We have seen them in all states of repair, from derelict to beautifully restored. They are quite beautiful.

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Our home for the night is Casa Rural Montaña Mágica, or Magic Mountain. The source of the name is twofold. One is the view of the Picos we get from our bedroom window. This will be our last view of this magnificent mountain range, so we sit on our lounge chairs and drink in the view. The other influence on the name is the novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (not one I’m familiar with).

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The setting is just lovely, but the evening meal is a low point in this culinary journey through the Asturias. I watched as other tables pushed their food around the plate also – a plate of admittedly soft but completely tasteless octopus (boiled perhaps?) with slabs of boiled potato, and an Asturian version of a parma, with soggy chips.

Day 5: El Allende to La Pereda, 19 kms, total ascent 690m, total descent 870m

This was a day of choices as 3 different routes were on offer: a lift to the coast then walk along the coast to Llanes; an easy walk along the valley; or the high route option, up into the hills to reach a pass overlooking the sea. The last route was only recommended in good visibility as once more it was on indistinct paths. As it was to be our last day in the mountains, and the weather was fine, we opted for the high route.

We caught a lift with the luggage down to the village of Vibano, which saved us a 2km descent. We hop out and then stand looking at the map and walk notes, trying to work out where exactly we are. A lady hanging out her washing on her balcony spies us and comes down, in her housecoat and slippers, to ask whether we need help with directions – in Spanish. Somehow, between us, we manage to communicate, with many hand gestures. The one thing I clearly understand, when she works out where we are headed, is Mal camino (bad path). This does not inspire confidence, but it turns out that, although indistinct in parts and we do have to battle gorse and blackberries in a few spots, the path isn’t too mal and we find our way through.

It is a slow but steady climb for several hours, up the hills towards a lovely hidden valley. We pass only one other person along the way – an elderly farmer coming down the hill, using a crutch to help him. His grizzled look tells us he is used to this trek, so we had better man up and stop puffing.

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We use the cabañas, in various states of repair, to help guide us. A cabaña is a stone hut, used as housing by the shepherds and mountain farmers. Some we have seen through this journey have been lovingly restored, probably to be used as weekenders. Others have seen better days. But they make good way markers in the walk notes.

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After about 2 and a half hours of steady ascent, on tracks made by horses and cows, we finally emerged at the very end of the valley and stood at the edge of the cliff face, looking down to the coast spread out before us. Unfortunately, a sea mist blurred the view but it was still a great feeling of achievement.

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The zig zag path down the face of the cliff wasn’t quite so much fun, nor was the hour walk through the slightly spooky forest at the base, riddled as it was by paths made by pesky dirt bikes.

But, we finally made it through the forest and back into civilisation. Tiredness was starting to set in, but spirits revived as the path took us through some charming villages complete with the grand homes of the Indianos. In the late 1800s, early 1900s much of the population emigrated to South America to make their fortune. Having made their money, many then returned to the Asturias and built grand mansions. These returnees were known as the Indianos, and they have left behind a legacy of magnificent houses that are slowly being restored to their former grandeur by a new generation of wealthy migrants to the region.


Our home for the next two nights, Posada del Babel, sits in the charming village of La Pereda, just outside the seaside town of Llanes. It comes as something of a surprise as whilst the main house is a simplified recreation of more traditional architecture, the owner’s home that sits in front, and the separate guest accommodation behind, are a vision of modernity – and well before their time as they were built in 1997.

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The Posada is a delight – simply but beautifully decorated , dotted with some fabulous works of art. There is currently a photographic exhibition on the walls, by a famous Spanish photographer and his daughter. Our hosts are Blanca and Lucas, but sadly Lucas is currently in hospital awaiting surgery. Whilst it is a worrying time for Blanca, she does not let this interfere with being a charming hostess and we are graciously welcomed, muddy boots and all.

Lucas is the chef so evening meals are not currently available. No matter, as Blanca has booked us into their favourite restaurant in Llanes, La Cuiera, for dinner both nights – and acts as our chauffeur there and back. It is in fact the best food we have had since leaving San Sebastián, although I am sorry not to have been able to sample Lucas’s cooking.

“We” has become 4, as another couple had been on the same walk from Bobia. An American couple, originally from Seattle but now retired in Hawaii. Once we established they were card carrying Democrats, we got on fine.

Day 6: La Pereda to Llanes and return, 10km, flat.

Our last day was a day of rest – sleep in, late breakfast and stroll into Llanes for a look and lunch, stroll back. Very pleasant.

The walk in is both easy, and pleasant. Llanes is a fishing town that is making the most of being a tourist attraction for locals and foreigners alike. It is also on the Camino Norde route, so there is the constant tramping through of Camino pilgrims.

We have a good look around the medieval centre, and go down to the port to admire both the fishing boats returning with their catch, and the Cubos de la Memoria – the painted concrete cubes that are part of the breakwater. They were painted by artist Agustin Ibarrola, a now elderly Basque painter and sculptor. We had come across him on our visit to Spain in 2015, as he is the artist that created the Painted Forest of Oma.


Lunch is taken by the river – sharing an anchovy & endive salad and a delicious plate of lightly fried prawns, with crispy, crunchy shells. Washed down with a glass, or two, of vino. An excellent way to finish what has been an interesting, occasionally challenging, walk through yet another region of this diverse and fascinating country.

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And wonder of wonders, apart from the one day of rain when we walked the Cares Gorge, we have managed to do this walk with no rain. That is a miracle for us, particularly given this region is a deep, deep green for a reason. So, I send a big Thank You to the walking Gods. Perhaps the curse has been lifted!

My Seniors Moments

I’m still not sure what criteria is used by the curators of Palace Cinemas somewhat patronisingly called Young at Heart Seniors Film Festival (#youngatheartff) but who am I to knock back the chance to see a range of films all priced at $8. Bargain.

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Most are obvious for their inclusion as they feature older citizens as the protagonists, or they harken back to an earlier era (or both). But then they throw in the soon to be released Gurrumul documentary, who tragically died well before he could qualify for his Seniors card.  I’m glad they did however as it is important that we all get to see this film that documents the work, and some of the life, of the man with the voice of an angel.  Uplifting and ultimately so sad.

Two of the films in the Festival had already been shown in the British Film Festival – On Chesil Beach and The Bookshop – so I could tick them off the viewing schedule (both are worth a look when they get released).  And, I had caught the lovely Agnès Jaoui in the enjoyable Aurore during the French Film Festival. So, after Gurrumul I plunged into the world of Italian seniors seeking to see the sea, via the Sea Girls Dreaming documentary. A quirky doco, saved from the irritating narration likening the women to some mythical  landlocked fish by the larger than life personalities of the women themselves. An entertaining story that managed to survive the film maker’s conceits.

Next up was another marvellous actress of a certain age, this time Paulina Garcia (you might have seen her in Gloria) who plays an unassuming Chilean maid cast adrift by her ‘family’ and forced to cross Argentina to take up work for another family.  The Desert Bride is a little film, and by that I mean it runs for only 80 minutes; it covers but a few days; and it focuses on two older, somewhat marginalised, people. But, in its short running time it manages to capture and convey a hell of a lot. Understated and touching.

My last two films take me to the home of the brave, America. Last Flag Flying is the latest film from Richard Linklater (Director of the wonderful Boyhood). It deals with friendship forged in war, the ties that bind, and the creation of myths and so called ‘heroism’ from the grubby, frightening, ridiculous truth of war. A fitting film as we come to ANZAC Day tomorrow – a day that has slowly been highjacked by false sentiment and jingoism. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) is a stand out in this funny and emotional road (or actually, train) trip.

I finish with Chappaquiddick, a name that any Australian Baby Boomer with even a passing interest in American politics will know. This film takes the known facts and fleshes them out, but does not shy away from showing the unethical behaviour of Ted Kennedy, his father and the Kennedy spin doctors after the crash. The full tragedy for Mary Jo Kopechne, and her parents, is laid bare, and you can only wonder how Ted was able to eventually repatriate himself to become the Lion of the Senate (although his hopes to ever become President of the USA were also drowned).  Fascinating.

Thank you Palace Cinemas for yet another enjoyable festival of film.

My French Film Festival 2018

It’s good to see that the Alliance Française is getting value from their advertising, as I watch the same ads about learning to speak French and not talking through the films as I saw last year. Not that I am complaining as they are, unlike most advertising, mildly amusing and easy to like – and, blessedly short. So, here I am once more, sitting in the cinema, desperately  wishing I spoke French but in reality managing only the occasional word whilst speed reading the sub titles. I’ve managed to chalk up only 9 of the 50 films on offer; a mere scratch of the surface but an enjoyable one.

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I start with Lola Pater, chosen purely on the basis that it stars the incomparable Fanny Ardant whom I haven’t seen in a film for many a year. Fanny is Lola, an exotic woman and teacher of belly dancing. But, 25 years earlier Lola was in fact Farid, a husband and father to young son Zino. Upon the death of his mother, Zino goes in search of his long missing father, and discovers Lola instead. He does not take the revelation well. Ardant is fabulous in the role. Recommended.

Next day I am transported to the wine seasons in Burgundy, and the trials and tribulations of small, family owned wine making in this sacred soil. Back to Burgundy even has an Australian element as the estranged eldest son has been off licking his wounds in Australia (not sure where his vineyard was but it looked very dry!). Sibling rivalry, child angst, family love and winemaking; all set in beautiful countryside. What’s not to like.

My next film, Custody, literally takes my breath away as I found I was holding my breath  in fear and trepidation towards the end of this film. Please, please, please make everything all right. This is a terrific film, with an amazing performance from the young lad who plays 12 year old Julien. And yes, it is about a custody battle. This was my pick of the films I saw. Brilliant.

It was nice then to relax into Aurore, and the adventures of a 55 year old menopausal woman seeking recognition, work and romance. The lead actress, Agnes Jaoui, was wonderful in the part. There were many titters of empathy from the largely female audience (little wonder Aurore will also be shown in the Young at Heart festival coming soon to Palace). An enjoyable, feel good movie.

Normandy Nude was another charmer, making its point gently about the problems besetting French farmers thanks to the EU, small land holdings, and bank loans. A familiar face, François Cluzet (he was the doctor in last years The Country Doctor, and the guy in the wheelchair in The Intouchables) is the village mayor, who puts the welfare of the village above everything, including his personal life. He seizes upon an opportunity to raise awareness of the farmers’ plight, but struggles to convince the villagers to get on board. Fun.

My second film that day was another I chose purely because of the actress – this time Sandrine Bonnaire, whom I feel in love with way back in 1985 in the film Vagabond, which was directed by none other than the inimitable Agnes Varda. Catch the Wind is a different take on the migrant experience as our heroine, a rather blank faced Edith, is retrenched from her job in a textile factory when the factory closes down in favour of the cheaper option of Tangier. Unlike her fellow workers, Edith takes up the opportunity to transfer to Tangier – despite the fact that she knows no-one, and the pay will be significantly less (in fact, it turns out she will also be simply a machinist rather than a Supervisor, which she is currently).  She finds life, not surprisingly, very difficult. Her passivity is somewhat annoying, but I found the film interesting  – and good to see another wonderful French actress back on the screen.

I’m not really sure why I chose Bloody Milk, which was somewhat bizarrely described as a psychological thriller in the programme, but it was definitely worth a look. Pierre, of the fabulous cheekbones, is a small scale dairy farmer who lovingly tends his small herd, each of which have a name. He has taken over the farm from Mum & Dad, and lives and breathes his cows – much to Mum’s chagrin as she’d like to see him married off. He is terrified that a highly contagious, and bloody, virus will infect his herd as the rules are that the entire herd must be slaughtered. He drives his vet sister nuts getting her to test for it, but lo and behold, of course, his herd does become infected. He goes to increasingly  unsustainable efforts to try and hide this from the authorities. An interesting film from a first time director.

C’Est La Vie was a completely different experience – all froth and bubble. Sure to be a crowd pleaser. Ageing event planner with marriage and mistress problems; a cast of eccentrics as his staff; a wealthy narcissistic groom – what can go wrong? Everything. But of course it all comes right in the end. A light hearted night at the cinema.

I ended my 2018 French Film Festival on a high, with The Guardians. What a beautiful, beautiful film – in how it was told; in how it looked; in the womenfolk; in the scenery. Understated and subtle. And as the programme described it: visually sumptuous. I loved this film. We see how WW1 affects those who go and those who stay. We see the hard graft of farming, and the changes wrought by technology. We see the seasons, and years, passing. We see love and passion, jealousy and betrayal. We see a matriarch who will stop at nothing to do what she thinks is best for her family. We see a beautiful, strong, resilient young girl grow to womanhood. Beautiful.

Adelaide’s Mad March

For 11 months of the year Adelaide is a relatively quiet town, where nothing much happens, but come March the town explodes into a hyperactive teenager with ADHD. They cram everything into the month – Clipsal 500, which is apparently some Supercar motor racing; the Adelaide Festival; the Adelaide Fringe Festival; WOMAD, and Adelaide Writers Week. Throw in an Ed Sheehan concert, and you have all tastes covered! Mad indeed.

We are here for 4 days to enjoy 3 of those events – the Festival, the Fringe Festival and Writers Week. That is more than enough to keep us busy.

Wednesday

We are off the plane and straight to the hire car desk on Wednesday morning as we have a 1pm play to get to, and of course we must have lunch beforehand. Luckily for us, the play is at Her Majesty’s theatre, just over the road from the Adelaide Central Market. Park the car and high tail it into the Market, where we perch on a stool at the famous Lucia’s and partake of one of their very tasty made to order rolls; washed down with a piccolo of prosecco. An excellent start to our Mad March adventure.

Cross the road to join the crowds surging into Robert Lepage’s show The Far Side of the Moon. The program touts this as “the greatest and most acclaimed work by iconic Canadian auteur, Robert Lepage”. I beg to differ. Having seen The Blue Dragon and 887 at different Melbourne Festivals – and been entranced by both the creative use of multimedia and technology in telling the stories, and the stories themselves – I found The Far Side of the Moon to be, well, to be honest …. slightly boring. Whilst the cleverness of the staging was not in doubt, the story itself was boring, and I failed to grasp the parallels between the space exploration clips and references, and the story of the two brothers. It was also a little bit hard to hear from the back row.

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Down to the other side of town and a quick pop in to see what is happening at Writers’ Week. Nothing much engages us but we do spend a very happy half hour browsing the veritable treasure trove that is the Book Tent and fighting the impulse to load ourselves up with purchases.

Then across the road to the Space Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Centre to see Simon Stone’s Thyestes. What can I say but WOW, WOW, WOW. One hour and 30 minutes of in-your-face, thrilling, funny, horrifying, mesmerising theatre performed by 3 fearless young men. The audience was left gasping at the end. I really need to see it again, now that I understand the play’s structure, to make sense of what unfolded before my eyes. Apparently the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne – please bring it back Malthouse.

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Breathless and exhilarated we made our way to Osteria Oggi to recover through great food and wine. The place is buzzing so we fit right in. We have grown to 5, so opt to get a variety of dishes and share them. Everything tastes terrific, and we leave for our beds exhausted but very happy with Day 1 of our cultural odyssey.

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Thursday

We have devoted today to the Writers’ Festival but start with a coffee at the charming Lounders Boatshed Cafe by the River Torrens.

Then it is on to the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, where two stages are set up for the week of the Writers’ Festival. Grab a chair and try and find a piece of shade that will remain in shade for the duration of each talk. This proves be a challenge beyond us. Firstly, we have no idea which is the East Stage and which is the West. A quick query at the very friendly information desk sorts that one out. But then we have the problem of working out where the sun will go and how that will impact on the shade we are clinging to. I can attest to the fact we got it wrong every single time, so ended up sweating in the glare of the very hot Adelaide sun by the end of each session.

We start with Sarah Krasnostein and her interesting discussion about writing the Trauma Cleaner, which we have both read. Next up is Kate Cole-Adams talking about her book Anaesthesia, a tome that Heather has bought to take home to her anaesthetist husband.

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Wilting in the heat we decide to repair to the rooftop restaurant 2KW for the panoramic views over the park, and a refreshing cocktail and nourishing bar snacks.  Aah, lovely.

Back then to listen to two articulate, funny and insightful authors discussing their life and work as contemporary Arab women: Manal al-Sharif and Amal Awad. Next up was two female poets, Sarah Holland-Batt and Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. I’m not a great poetry fan, but both these talented women had me in the palm of their hand reading and discussing their work. We finished the day with the ever chortling and highly delicious Alexander McCall Smith – a prodigious writer of books, and marvellously and unselfconsciously entertaining. Phew, what a day.

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Time for (more) food. Tonight we dine at the wonderful Africola. If this is what African food is like then I’m going! Everything we tried was absolutely delicious. Please open an outpost in Melbourne.

Time to fall into bed once more.

Friday

A leisurely start to the day (at least for me – Heather runs 10km before I am even out of bed).  We have nothing planned for the day so decide to head out of town for lunch and end up at Summertown Aristologist, which had been written up in Epicure a few weeks earlier. It seems to be the epicentre of Summertown – locals, kids, dogs are all hanging out there. Have you got a booking we are asked? No we answer. No sweat – a young couple (who turn out to be local winemakers) shuffle up one of the outdoor tables and make room for us. The vibe is relaxed and easy going, but don’t be fooled. These guys are very serious about both their food – wonderful – and the wine they sell. We are soon joined by another couple, who question the waiter about the chardonnays on offer. Not content with describing them he brings out 3 bottles and gives them a taste of each before they settle on their choice. Now, that’s service. We of course join in, and decide on a glass each also (after our locally made, organic version of an Aperol Spritz to whet the whistle). The menu is described as a guide rather than a menu. Much is left to the imagination, and the tastebuds. I can tell you that the bread and butter alone is worth the drive out there. Plus we share the peppers saltfish, the calamari and the grains, herbs, labne. Yum, yum, yum.

We wend our way back via Stirling, where we ask the local hairdresser for advice on the best coffee in town. She steers us to an unprepossessing spot called The Essence Cafe, but turns out she is right. The coffee is great.

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We get back to the city just in time for our meeting with Heather’s sisters at the Garden of Unearthly Delights; an Adelaide Fringe Festival institution. Theatre tents jostle for space with food tents and trucks. There are rides and games for kids, and a bar for adults. Tables and chairs are dotted around under the trees, which come alive at night with fairy lights. A delight indeed. The heat of the day forces us towards the Pimms tent, and the purchase of a jug of said refreshment. The girls then go off to forage for (more) food and we graze on a weird Indian version of nachos, called Nanchos (!), and some tasty Caribbean chicken and green papaya salad.

Based on a 5 star rating in Thursday’s Advertiser we had procured tickets, somewhat against our better judgement, for a Fringe show called The Worst. Turns out we should have listened to our better judgement. The reviewer needs to be immediately sacked as she was obviously the sister of Clara Cupcakes, or, seriously under the influence of drugs. This show turned out to be very aptly named. It was indeed the worst thing I have ever seen. There were about 18 of us sitting on benches in a small circus tent being “entertained” by a woman with a shrill voice, dressed in a pink leotard as a blonde octopus. We sat through 20 excruciating minutes before she turned her back to the audience and we 4 took the opportunity to get down low, and go, go, go. We burst through the tent entrance like women demented, much to the surprise of the door bitch, who promptly tied up the doorway so no other poor lamb to the slaughter could escape.

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Laughing hysterically with relief at our escape we headed into the streets. A drink was much needed, so we returned to 2KW to admire the evening view and enjoy the now balmy night on the outdoor terrace. The place was rocking with a mainly young clientele, so we enjoyed our drink and returned to the streets in order to admire the Parade of Light – a light display on some of the buildings along North Terrace (a la White Night).

Saturday

We meet our mate Lizzie at Lounders Boatshed Cafe for brunch before returning to the Space theatre, but this time to see a Belgium play entitled Us/Them. Who would think 2 actors on a bare stage, telling a story about the terrorist siege of a school in Beslen, Russia where over 300 women and children died, would be riveting theatre. Both amusing and heartbreaking in equal measure.

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Time to read the papers and catch our breath in the afternoon before heading out for our last Adelaide evening. We start with an early meal at the Social, a quaint local eatery in the suburb of Croydon. Yet another Aperol Spritz to go with a terrific shared pizza and a roast pumpkin salad. Again enjoyed outside as the heat of the day lingers.

Our final theatre experience was at the Holden Street Theatre and recommended by my friend Annie, who had brought her drama students to Adelaide earlier in the week. Her best experience at the Festival she claimed. It was a play called Borders, performed on a completely bare stage by two actors (a bit of a theme of this festival). Thank you for the recommendation Annie – it was indeed an engrossing experience. I was also fascinated to read that the Syrian civil war grew out of graffiti art after Assad had a group of young graffiti artists arrested and tortured for their protest art.

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So, 4 plays – 3 of  which were exceptional, and one okay (and probably much better if you were new to his work). 1 Fringe experience that was truly dreadful. Some fascinating writers. And some wonderful food. I call that a very, very successful Adelaide Festival foray.

A Rutherglen Stopover

I can’t ever see myself being a Grey Nomad. I’m just not made for sitting in a car for long distances. I’m more the I wonder what’s in that town? I’m sure there is somewhere near here with a great restaurant. Are we there yet? type of traveller. The Grey Short Tripper doesn’t have quite the same ring to it though does it. Anyway, the thought of driving from Sydney to Melbourne in one go definitely does not appeal, and why should we – it’s not as though we have to get back for anything. So, where to stop? Ah, I know – Rutherglen, a town I haven’t been to for over 27 years. Time to drop in and reacquaint myself with a favourite stomping ground of my younger days.

But first, a coffee stop in Berrima, and a need to confess. I want to send a heartfelt apology to the café in the courtyard area off the main street. I really didn’t mean to walk off without paying for our coffees, I simply forgot that it had been table service on the verandah and that I hadn’t paid. I didn’t in fact register my omission until we were driving into Jugiong to have lunch at the Long Track Pantry . It wasn’t a very good coffee but that is no excuse. Next time I’m in Berrima I promise to drop by and make amends. Meanwhile, we enjoyed our lunch at Long Track Pantry.

Home for our night in Rutherglen is Carlyle House (www.carlylehouse.com.au) , built in 1896 and once the home of the local GP, but a charming B & B since 1996.  We are warmly greeted by Sharyn, our host, and shown to our room – the Muscat Room, where a complimentary glass of said muscat awaits (from the legendary Chambers Winery no less – and apparently old Bill Chambers is still alive and well). A treat we delay until bedtime.

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Carlyle House is just around the corner from the main street, so we take a stroll up and down to get our bearings. Not much appears different from my last visit, and it is a quiet little spot on this Saturday in mid February. The locals seem to be gathering for some event at the Star Hotel, but our destination is the Thousand Pound Wine Bar (https://www.thousandpound.com.au ), winner of the Best Small Bar in Victoria award in the recent Hotel & Restaurant Catering awards.  I can imagine it must get pretty noisy on a busy night (so what else is new) but it is only half full tonight, and we are in a side room (or old hallway probably more accurately). A small but enticing menu, and interesting wine list. We share the Scallops to start then venture into unknown steak territory.  Himself has the Petite Tender with a Blue Cheese Butter, and I have the Hanger Steak with red wine and shallot butter. Washed down with a Jones Winery Shiraz. Delicious.

Then it is home to the Muscat Room, and our evening night cap of said tipple, and a complimentary chocolate, or two.  Excellent night.

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Next morning we have breakfast on the verandah, and already the day is hotting up. It will reach the mid 30s by noon.

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Our aim is to visit a couple of wineries before heading off.  I promise that we won’t buy anything but a few bottles, as the cellar is full to bursting, but you know how it is – you taste a few and don’t want to offend by not buying.  Our first stop is All Saints as I want to buy a couple of bottles of the delicious (but expensive) rosé I had last night. The magnificent alley of ancient elm trees that leads the way into the winery is just as I remember it, and the castle itself is looking very spick and span, owned now as it is by a branch of the Brown family. I remember the days when George Sutherland Smith, a descendant of the original founder, used to lure young things down the back of the winery to taste directly from the wine barrels. My lovely blonde friend Lyn and I got to try some pretty special wines in those days!  Of course we end up buying just more than the rosé.

Back into town and a stop into Jones Winery, a charming little winery on the outskirts of the township. Mandy Jones is the winemaker, with grapes grown by her brother.  We purchase a few more bottles of the shiraz and promise ourselves to return one day to try out the french inspired restaurant.

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A quick look at the Big Bottle – a clever reimagining of the ubiquitous Australian small town water tower – before a stop at our last winery, Scion.

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Scion is one of the newer entrants into the crowded Rutherglen market, but comes with history as Rowly Milhinch, owner and winemaker, is a member of the Morris family, one of Rutherglen’s royalty.  We were interested to visit as Rowly makes the wines by hand, and has been strongly influenced by France, and his love of food. Sounds like out sort of guy, and my did we love his wines. So much so that we joined up on the spot to be Scion members. Highly recommend a visit to this low key little winery when next you are in Rutherglen – even if it is just to meet Sally, Rowly’s partner, who runs the tasting room with loads of charm.

Our whistle stop tour of Rutherglen certainly ended on a high note and reminded us that we shouldn’t leave a return visit for so long next time.

 

 

Sail Ho!

The following words were ones I thought I would never hear myself utter, but wonders will never cease and here goes: I spent 3 days and nights on a yacht, and enjoyed it! Himself is the yachtie of the family, taking to the high seas, or more accurately the Bay, each week, but me ….. no thank you very much. So what then changed my mind? It was the lure of the beautiful Sydney waterways that sunk the hook in, and the company I would be doing it in sealed the deal.

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Local friends have taken the plunge (excuse the pun) and bought a yacht, a lovely little DuFour, which was, and still is, moored in Pittwater above Sydney. Captain Janet escapes to it whenever she can, so when I heard she & Best Mate Pete were going to be spending a fair bit of time aboard in January and February I invited ourselves along. Fortunately, they agreed. So it was that we met them at their mooring at Church Point after our Canberra sojourn.

We loaded ourselves on board and after a brief tour of the galley and snug cabins (there are 3) and instructions on how to use the loo (slightly terrifying), off we went. The wind was up so the sail up Pittwater towards Lion Island was brisk. Wednesday afternoon sailing competitions were in full flight, which was how we found ourselves staring down Wild Oats as she whisked across our bow. It was certainly an exhilarating introduction to sailing. I thought the wisest thing was to stay very much out of harm’s way, so installed myself on the so called Princess Seat, pretty much for the duration of the adventure. Perched out of the way I could see everything but not get into any trouble.

We turned left at Lion Island and headed off down Cowan Creek to find a small cove and mooring for lunch. Then ventured further down Cowan Creek towards Bobbin Head for a mooring for the night. The sky was clear, the wind was gentle and the stars were out. Best sleep I’ve ever had, enclosed in the cocoon of the berth and rocked gently to sleep (helped by the fact it was nigh on impossible to wiggle out of the bed, and going to the loo in the middle of the night was out of the question unless I wanted to wake everyone up – amazing how the senior bladder can last when necessity, and fear, demands it).

The morning is still and beautiful. How lovely to be greeted by the sun rising over the eucalyptus adorned hills and lighting up the surrounding forest.

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Breakfast over we return up Cowan Creek to the mouth of the Hawkesbury River. We can only go as far as the Hawkesbury Rail Bridge, just beyond Dangar Island, as the mast won’t fit under the bridge. So, we have a little mosey around before heading back around the island and return to Cowan Creek. Moor, lunch, swim to a little sheltered beach, wander around, swim back to the boat – luckily avoiding the masses of jellyfish that populate parts of Cowan Creek.

Lunch over,  we set sail for Smith’s Creek, deep in the heart of Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.  The colours of the trees and the variations and shapes of the rocks are stunning. Overhead we admire sea eagles cruising the sky in search of dinner. We see plenty of fish in the clear waters, but only manage to catch one small one who is very grateful, but highly traumatised, to be set free.

Repeat the behaviour from the previous night – drinks and snacks on the deck before an excellent BBQ meal and then early to bed.

Another glorious morning greets us.

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Heading back up Cowan Creek we pass Cottage Point. Apparently the restaurant there is famous, but it is the Cottage Point General Store that is calling to us this morning as I am sure a coffee awaits, and sure enough, coffee can indeed be had (and a cream tea if we had been so inclined). We moor the yacht and clamber into the tender and row across to the General Store. Ah, this is the life.

Back into Palana and we set sail to the Hawkesbury’s mouth and then into Pittwater. We head for Barrenjoey Beach, moor and row to the beach. A short hike through the dunes has us out on Palm Beach, or what younger TV viewers might know as the beach in Home and Away.  We pose for photos before heading back for a swim off the boat and lunch.

It is then a tack down Pittwater and around Scotland Island before landing back at Church Point. Time to wash down the yacht and pack things away before heading off to the Waterfront Store at Church Point Wharf for a cheerful evening meal – excellent pizzas, despite the fact the owners are Nepalese!

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We return to spend the night on the boat and then alas, it is time to pack and leave.  Bye bye Palana, you little beauty.  Thank you so much Janet and Peter for having us aboard.

Culture in Canberra

Who would have thought that I would visit Canberra, the never missed home of my youth, not once but twice in 12 months (and, have plans to visit again later in the year). Wonders will never cease, but then Canberra today bears little resemblance to the place I grew up in. Nowadays there is a good café on almost every corner, terrific restaurants and fabulous exhibitions to explore. It is the latter that brings me to Canberra once more.

I had managed to spy, via my incessant social media trawling, an article about the Seven Sisters Songlines exhibition at the National Museum of Australia – and had noticed, to my horror, that it had been running since September but only had a few weeks remaining. This amazing exhibition did not get the publicity it deserved – certainly , the advertising for it came no where near the saturation heights of say the (over rated) Versailles exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia last year, or have I just been living under a rock for the past few months?

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Never mind. I had seen the article and quickly organised a short break to our nation’s capital. And am I glad I did. The exhibition was wonderful. I am constantly humbled at the richness of the Indigenous culture, and equally cross that their stories and art are not an integral part of our education system. Australia is definitely the poorer for not embracing and revelling in all that our Indigenous people can offer us.

I knew about the Songlines, thanks to the beautiful book (written in 1987) of the same name by the legendary Bruce Chatwin. A songline is a path across the land (or sky) taken by “creator beings”. The songlines are recorded in art, song, dance and stories. Armed with the songline, a person can navigate this land as the words of the song describe landmarks, waterholes, food sources. Australia has a network of songlines that traverse different mobs and hence different languages, but the rhythm of the song is the same. As the exhibition notes explain: “Like the epic poems of the great oral traditions, songlines are a way of holding and passing on knowledge.”  How lovely is that.

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This exhibition tells the songline of the Seven Sisters, a bawdy tale about seven sisters who are fleeing across the country, escaping the licentious interest of  Wati Nyiru and his special companion, a super sized penis. Some things never change, across cultures.

The Seven Sisters tale is told in the exhibition through paintings, weavings, pottery and very clever use of audio visual technology. For us, it was a 3 hour immersion in a major story about our land. Exhausting but exhilarating and I am so grateful to have experienced it. The exhibition finishes on February 25th – so get to Canberra quickly.

We had walked to the Museum from our hotel (The Burbury, in Barton) and there is no doubt that Canberra is a beautiful city – orderly, ringed by the Brindabellas, crammed with trees, anchored by Lake Burley Griffin.  The National Museum of Australia sits perched at the end of the Acton Peninsula, overlooking Commonwealth Bridge and the lake.  The day is hot, our feet are tired and our minds full of all that we have seen, so we quickly make our escape to the nearby Hotel Hotel and its dark but cool (in more ways than one) bar, where we collapse on a couch and order a cold drink and share a sandwich to restore ourselves.

Fortified we Uber it to the National Gallery of Australia, where we are able to squeeze in a quick hour before closing time seeing the HyperReality exhibition – beautiful in parts, weird in others, and occasionally poignant.

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As an old Canberra girl it continues to surprise me that our capital city is no longer the culinary wasteland it once was. In fact, quite the opposite as there is a plethora of good restaurants to choose from – just not on Sunday and Monday nights, which of course is when we are there. However, we had managed to find a couple of places open, and had enjoyed our meal at Agostinis (situated underneath the East hotel in Kingston) on our first night.

Tonight we were again in Kingston, this time at Otis Dining Hall, where my yellowfin tuna and compressed watermelon entree (whatever that is, tasted pretty much like normal watermelon) was both beautiful to look at and gorgeous to eat. And, the Braidwood lamb to follow was also darn good.  Good thing we were walking back to the hotel!

Next morning we returned to Maple + Clove for a scrumptious breakfast, followed by coffee at Hideout which touted itself as the best coffee in Canberra. I’m afraid we disagree – in fact, we both left our coffee sitting on the table unfinished. However, it is certainly a popular spot – with 5 barristers pumping it out, and what I’m sure was an out of work actor calling the names of the take away punters as he had the most fabulous voice, which he was putting to great use. Fascinating to watch.

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Not quite properly caffeinated we then set off to walk to the Australian War Memorial, admiring the various memorials adorning ANZAC Parade leading up to the Museum. Looking through the museum can be a daunting task as it is huge, so we decided to join a tour of the WW2 section, taken by one of the voluntary guides. Apart from the exhibits there is an amazing archive of information held at the War Memorial, which allows people to trace and track their serving family members. All in all it was a sobering experience.

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For a complete change of scene we then took ourselves to the National Portrait Gallery to see the excellent Starstruck exhibition – an exhibition of still photographs from the Australian movie industry. Not only were the photographs terrific, but it was grand reliving all the movies we have seen over the years.

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We then hightailed it back to the hotel for a much needed drink, before dining at Lilotang, one of two restaurants downstairs at The Burbury – delicious and different Japanese food.

Once again, a very successful sojourn in our nation’s capital, with body and soul well satisfied and replete. I shall return.

 

Cool Summer in the High Country

It was purely serendipitous that we managed to escape the run of very hot days in Melbourne during our latest trip to Dinner Plain. The timing of the visit was dictated by the public holiday rather than the weather forecast, but how grateful we were to be in 24C rather than the 37- 41C temperatures that plagued Melbourne.  And, no blackouts up there either. There is no doubt that the mountains are a lovely place to be in the height of summer.

As always, the spirits lift as soon as you leave the Hume Highway, heading off tangentially into the Alpine Valley on the road that runs from Oxley and Milawa, through Myrtleford, Porepunkah, Bright and Harrietville before the steep climb up to Mt Hotham and down to Dinner Plain.  We stop in Bright for lunch at Tomahawks, the funky corrugated iron shed in Camp Street that serves very good dude food that caters to all ages.

From there we pop in to the Billy Button Cellar door (11 Camp Street) to stock up on their very good rosé, a 2017 Nebbiolo Barbera called 2 x 2.  I am rather partial to a good rosé in summer. The cellar door is also a handy spot to pick up some yummy cheeses should you be so inclined.

A walk further up the street where it curves around to become Wills Street and we reach the very newly opened Reed & Co Distillery, which co-exists with Sixpence Coffee. The distillery is the lovechild of Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed, of Tani fame. They have abandoned the life of chefs and restaurateurs for the still, producing their first batch of Remedy Gin, a heady mixture of juniper and mountain berry, lemon myrtle, finger lime and eucalyptus amongst other things.  A small taster of gin was had, washed down by the excellent Sixpence coffee.

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There is more to see, do, eat and drink in Bright but the mountain calls so off we head. Lucky we did as the heavens opened not long after we arrived at the Australian Alpine Club Dinner Plain Lodge, and we were able to watch the torrent from the comfort of the lodge. Others in our party were not so lucky, and arrived somewhat white knuckled from the drive over Mt Hotham which was doing its best to impersonate a waterfall.  But, the deluge was short lived and occurred like clockwork at 5pm each day we were there – short, sharp, noisy, heavy but gone within an hour.

The forecast of rain and thunderstorms for each day did however influence our walking plans, as no one had any desire to be caught out in heavy rain, lightening and thunder. So, we planned morning walks only, which meant covering familiar ground. But, each time we walk these tracks it is different – the colours, the re-growth from the bushfires, the wild flowers. And always the glorious views.

We lunch both days at The General, the only spot open at Mt Hotham. They’ve reworked the offerings since winter, and what a good job they have done. There are 3 burgers on the menu and only 1 comes with chips – how unAustralian but fabulous is that? The lamb kofta burger comes with a serve of green beans whilst the chicken burger comes with bbq’d corn. Both are delicious. There is also an excellent chargrilled watermelon and pomegranate salad on the menu. Way to go Genny.

The evening of Australia Day (or Invasion Day as we prefer to call it) sees us dragging  bean bags and beach chairs to the beginners ski slope at sunset for Travelling Flickerfest – a road show of international and Australian short films from the Flickerfest competition. In honour of “Invasion Day” the films we see are all Australian made, and all are highly enjoyable (although slightly marred by the blurry projection).

The next night Dinner Plain’s very own brewery, Blizzard Brewery, hosted a live gig. The band, twin brothers from Sweden and their Gippsland pianist, were called Amistat. Foot tapping fun. Thanks Blizzard – a great initiative.

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All too soon our 3 nights are over and our party of 8 disbands. We’ve enjoyed a lot of laughs, some exercise, a bit of culture, an immersion in nature, some great food and a bucketload of wine. Unfortunately, the fisherman in our party failed to bring home the goods, but we did not starve! The workers sadly return to the demands of work, but we are lucky enough to be able to continue the mountain experience by moving on to  neighbouring Falls Creek.

We go the back way, down into Omeo, along the very windy Omeo Highway (not for the car sick inclined) and then into Falls Creek along the Bogong High Plains Rd. But first, a pretty good Sensory Lab coffee in Omeo at the High Country cafe (opposite the art deco Golden Age pub) before we take a detour to visit the historic Hinnomunjie Bridge. Pete tuts and shakes his head at the bad farming practices on display along the Omeo Valley – barely a tree in sight on the rolling hills and the poor cattle have no where to shelter from the blazing sun. Talk about a slash and burn mentality – the land will not thank them for it.

The Hinnomunjie Bridge, built in 1909/1910, is historic because it is the only remaining multiple-truss bridge in Victoria, constructed using hand hewn timber. You can see the broad axe marks on the sturdy timber beams. Those were the days.

The climb up to Falls Creek takes us to the Bogong High Plains, which, like Mt Hotham, were ravaged by terrible bush fires in 2003. The regrowth of the gums is slow but sure, and provides a ghostly beauty of white branches reaching to the sky.

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We are staying for the next 2 nights in the QT hotel. I’m less than happy when I discover that, despite a virtually empty hotel, we have been given a room that looks out over the ….. carpark. Not happy Jan. But, a phone call to Evan the very new GM results in a move to a room with a view down the valley, and a much happier me. The room is very comfortable but could do with closer attention to maintenance – you can’t close the fridge door due to a build up of ice on the small freezer compartment so we attempt to defrost the fridge on their behalf. It is still a work in progress when we leave 2 days later.

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Even though there are very few people staying on the mountain (although apparently the previous 2 nights it had been jam packed with bike riders and dragon boat racers) there are several choices for dinner. We opt for the BE Foodstore, and are very glad we did. We sit out on the deck to make the most of  the balmy evening (meanwhile Melbourne is sweltering in 41C) and enjoy our very good meals, washed down with an excellent Pizzini Sangiovese.

We go back to BE for lunch – the best egg and bacon roll ever – and an excellent coffee (beans from Melbourne’s Proud Mary), before heading off for the Wallace Hut Heritage Walk that takes us to Wallace Hut and then on to Cope Hut on a 5km circuit. Wallace Hut was constructed in 1889 by the 3 Wallace brothers. Each year the Wallaces drove their stock up to the high plains for summer feed, and the hut was built to provide shelter for the cattlemen. The hut is now a refuge for walkers and skiers.

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The gums surrounding the hut are a work of art in themselves.

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Further on we come to Cope Hut, which unlike Wallace Hut, was built expressly as a refuge for cross country skiers in 1929.  The view from the hut is lovely.

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Our walk back to the car takes us past “Maisie’s Plots”.  In the 1940’s a woman called Maisie Fawcett observed the long term damage done to the alpine grasses and flowers by the cattle allowed to craze in the Alpine area, so she conducted an experiment to test her theories on regrowth – or lack thereof.  And guess what, she was right. So, why on earth did we need to study this again, and why do cattlemen and the Liberal Party still deny that crazing cattle do irreparable harm to the natural flora of the Alps?

Walk done we drive past the Rocky Valley Storage ‘lake’ and up to the top of Mount McKay to admire the glorious views across to Mt Feathertop and down the valley to Mount Beauty.

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Next morning, our stay in the High Country is over, and right on cue the rain comes and our view from the hotel is shrouded in cloud. It has been a delightful respite from the heat of the City. We will be back.

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The Queen Charlotte Track

At last the reason we are in New Zealand finally arrives as 11 of Roslyn’s nearest and dearest come together from the “West Island” to celebrate her entry into her 7th decade of a fabulous life. In typical Roz fashion she has chosen an adventure to mark this significant birthday – the intrepid Group Doyle are to walk (or tramp as the Kiwis so quaintly call it) the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km hike around the Marlborough Sounds (http://www.qctrack.co.nz/).

The advance party attends our walk briefing given by the walk organisers, Wilderness Guides. Marty speaks so quickly that we are all slightly bamboozled by the directions, but between us seem to have grasped the most pertinent points: where the loos are on the track; the ferry taxi departure times; where we can telephone from if travelling faster or slower than anticipated; beware of sandflies; carry water. Clutching the track map and an the instruction to be at the Wilderness Guides office at 8.30am, we return to the motel where the last members of the party have assembled.

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The motel is called the Harbour View for a reason, and we are entertained by watching the ferries from Wellington come and go on a regular basis. We are not so entertained by the drill that seems to work all day and night.

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We are a motley crew, and almost no one knows everyone, which gives us much to talk about over the next 4 days as we interrogate each other about our whys and wherefores. We have experienced walkers and novices amongst us. And, a variety of ailments, including cracked ribs, broken toes, buggered knees, hammer toe, damaged ankle. We are the walking wounded, but chin up and alcohol medicated we shall be fine. The one thing that draws us together – apart from the love of a good laugh, good food, and good wine – is our strong affection for the birthday girl.

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Our first evening together in Picton starts as we mean to go on, bonding over a couple of bottle of bubbles, before we cross over the road to dinner.

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Little did we know that the restaurant owner obviously has a deep love of Christmas and had gone all out decorating the space. So much so that we felt we were dining in Santa’s Cave. Nothing like setting the atmosphere.

 

 

But the night was not just about twinkling lights and Christmas trees. The NZ earth decided to give itself another shake, just to test our mettle. However, the noise around the table was so loud that only a handful of us felt the earth move. A 4.8 this time. The serving staff shrugged their shoulders and carried on; just another day for them.

Aware of the task in front of us the next morning the night was reasonably young when we staggered into bed. Not all were bright and bushy tailed next morning as Craig was felled by either a 24 hour virus or a dose of the dodgy prawn and had been up most of the night. But, trooper that he is, he fronted up to the ferry, slept during the ride then shouldered his day pack and trudged stoically through the 15km required that day.

Meanwhile, the rest of the merry band sat up top in the bright sunshine admiring the views of where we would be walking, whilst listening to the very entertaining patter of the boat’s driver, who, apart from a wide knowledge of the geography and history of the Sounds, had a deep interest in the real estate prices of the bachs dotted along the foreshore.

 

 

Apart from house prices, we heard stories about the salmon farm’s problem with marauding seals (and a seal bobbed up just to prove his point) and were blessed by a group of friendly dolphins riding shotgun for a while. We disembarked in high spirits (Craig aside) at Ship Cove, the start of the track. Ship Cove is famous for being the spot where Captain James Cook anchored over five visits to this area.

 

 

The track starts with a steep climb up from Ship Cove, through regenerating native forest. The Dept of Conservation is undertaking an aggressive policy of trying to eradicate the much hated Australian brush tailed possum, so as well as forest we see lots of wooden traps. There no sympathy for the possum to be found amongst our group.

Once we reach the summit we are rewarded with beautiful views, but of course, after an up comes a down, so it was a steepish descent to Resolution Bay followed by a steady climb back up again to Tawa Bay Saddle, and our picnic lunch stop.

 

 

From here it was a slow descent back to the water’s edge at Endeavour Inlet and our accommodation for the night, Furneaux Lodge. The main house, housing  the all important bar and restaurant, is the original home of one of the early key conservationists of the area. The grounds are lovely, as are the views from the bar, where the group gathers for some cleansing ales and wines before dinner.

 

 

The meal was a bit of a revelation – so much so that we demanded to meet the chef, who was reluctantly dragged forward by the waitress to receive our praise. Turns out she was a young lady who used to be the sous chef at tomorrow night’s lodging, Punga Cove. This is her first head chef gig, and she is definitely kicking goals. The food  was washed down by some lovely New Zealand Sav Blancs and Reds.

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Next morning dawns bright and sunny again and we are able to enjoy a reasonably leisurely start as we only have a relative amble of 12kms today, with no big ascents or descents. We are heading to Punga Cove, which we can see across Endeavour Inlet from Furneaux Lodge as our walk takes us around the coastline of the Inlet.

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The heat of the day makes the day’s tramp a bit harder than anticipated, and our arrival at Punga Cove is a welcome sight, even more so when we realise that the bar is located right on the jetty. The green jersey winners – Sue and me – decide that a jug of Pimms is required to accompany our packed lunch.

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Lunch done, a pat of the orphaned baby goat and into our rooms. The view from ours makes the most of Punga Cove’s location.

 

 

There had been hopes to do some kayaking, but the wind is up and the sea too choppy for any water activity. What a shame, I’ll just have to sit and enjoy the view instead, whilst trying not to worry about the Earthquake Instruction notice in the room.

 

 

There were high hopes again for dinner as we had encountered a fellow guest on the track who had raved about the venison. Most ordered it, but I chose the spaghetti vongole instead and was happy with the choice, getting my venison fix via the venison pâté. I was glad to see venison on the menu as we had seen so many deer farms on our travels but no venison on any menu – I had been wondering where the deer were ending up. And the wine list was terrific, a real added bonus.

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It was an early night for most, after a visit to the glow worm grotto and a failed attempt to see the phospherescence in the water, as we had a long day and an early start (8am) the next day.

Day 3 is our big day – 23km, and we have to be at Torea Bay no later than 4.45pm to catch the water taxi that will whisk us to Lochmara Lodge, our home for the night. No pressure.

Two of our party opt to travel with the water taxi that is transporting the luggage from Punga Cove to Lochmara Lodge, so they cheerily wave us off as we set off to rejoin the Track.

It’s a constant climb up to the ridgeline, which we then traverse – with several steep ups and downs – for most of the day. The day is overcast, and drizzle starts before long, turning into light rain as we slog our way upwards. However, the rain is never heavy, and the overcast skies mean the climbing isn’t as hot as it would have been on the previous days.

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We set a pretty cracking pace, no doubt urged on by the fear of missing the water taxi. We are ahead of schedule by lunchtime, which creates much discussion as to calling the water taxi to ask for an earlier pick up. Stop and smell the roses was the vote. Try a spot of meditation even.

On we go, and the sun decides to come out for the last part of the day. We see mussel farms in the distance, and start salivating at the thought of freshly harvested mussels for dinner. Several were moving slightly stiffly as we made the last descent to the Torea Bay pier and our transport. We were an hour ahead of schedule. Thank heavens the birthday girl had over ridden the vote and made a secret call to the ferry company – we breathed a sigh of relief to see the boat steam into view not long after we arrived at the jetty.

 

 

Lochmara Lodge is a Wildlife Recovery & Arts Centre as well as accommodation, but our focus is on the spa tub to ease aching muscles.

 

 

And then it is repeat the established behaviour – gather for pre-dinner drinks, followed by dinner. Tonight I do choose the venison, and it is beautifully tender (unlike the previous night apparently). The meals have certainly been one of the many pluses of this tramp.

 

 

Our last day starts with a 45 minute climb, past the llama and the weather forecast board,  back up to the ridgeline and the Track.

 

 

But after that the day is largely downhill. 18 km in all, through some lovely pockets of rainforest and native beech trees.

 

 

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Lunch is at Davies Bay, where the blue water beckons to a couple of our intrepid walkers, who take the opportunity to cool off as once more we are walking under a blazing sun. Here we meet a young Canadian woman from the Yukon who is hiking the length of the South Island, on her own. We are in awe of her adventurous spirit.

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We also meet a party of 3, who had also been staying at Lochmara Lodge. They are 85, 82 and 76 respectively. Seriously impressed – and cross our fingers that this will be us when we are their age.

Less than an hour after lunch we reach the end of the Track, where a little green caravan café is cleverly positioned. Very enterprising.

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Despite injuries, we are all in good spirits, proud as punch that we’ve done it. The views have been magnificent. The lodgings were lovely, and the food terrific. We’ve gotten to know each other, and many laughs were enjoyed along the way. What a wonderful way to celebrate turning 60. Thank you for the opportunity young Roz.

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Kaikoura

A year ago the ground under Kaikoura decided it had had enough and threw a major tantrum. One of the many results of this was that the Coast Highway from Christchurch to Blenheim, through Kaikoura, was closed in numerous spots, isolating the locals from the rest of NZ for some time. Now, the coast road to Kaikoura from Christchurch is only open from Friday to Monday – and even then with lots of Stop/Go points – but from Kaikoura onwards the road remains closed. Word is that it will open on the 15th December, but no one is holding their breath.

Luckily for us, it is Monday, so it’s up the coast we head. Lucky not only because it is a lovely drive but also lucky as it takes us past Black Estate Winery, which I have earmarked as the perfect lunch spot thanks to Jeremy & Clare’s recommendation. I’m not sure why it is called Black Estate but they have adopted the colour with gusto – from the cellar door and restaurant to the labels.

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We do a spot of tasting first, purely to decide on what wine to have with lunch of course. The wines are proudly organic, and are quite delicious I must say. Pete & I have never been one for Pinot Noir but since coming to NZ we have changed our mind (Daryl Morris are you listening!), and the Black Estate pinots reinforce this. And their Chardonnay and Reisling are also excellent. What to choose??

Settling back at our table we drink in the view across the vineyards to the rolling green patchwork hills beyond. And the food proves to be as delicious as their wine (although I am slightly miffed to find that when I ask for a bit more bread to finish off my duck parfait that I am charged $12 for a serve of ciabatta bread – not a generous act).

Back into the car well fed and wined, and ready to tackle the road. I can tell you that the two manufacturing businesses to be involved with in NZ are making orange road cones, and,  Hi Vis vests. The cones are constant along all the roads we have travelled on – I suspect they are breeding.  And Hi Vis vests have become the fashion de jour, thanks to all the road workers. The occupations for your sons and daughters to be in are engineering, construction, surveying, and road building. The employment levels must be 100% judging by the number of men and women working on road reconstruction alone.

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We are stopped so many times on our journey that we have ample time to chat to the Stop/Go people. One was a young engineering student from India, who seemed somewhat nonplussed to find himself standing in the scorching sun turning a sign backwards and forwards – or, was he confused by the crazy woman chatting to him from the stopped vehicle?! And I don’t know whether it is part of the customer service, boredom or simple friendliness but all of them give a wave as you pass by. Our hands are quite tired by the time we finally reach Kaikoura; I know just how the Queen must feel.

But, lightheartedness aside, the devastation wrought by the earthquake is still so very apparent, and so very frustrating for the locals, especially those who rely on the tourist dollar. The scenery surrounding Kaikoura is simply stunning, but the township itself wears a mixed mantle. Some places are up and running. Some businesses and homes are proudly displaying their brand spanking new premises, but others sit forlornly lopsided, crumbled, and empty. Surrounded by fencing and branded with stickers that say Restricted or No Access. What you want is a Can Be Used sticker.

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Susan, our Airbnb host, tells us a little about the night. The earthquake struck on the night of a super moon, and was fierce from the beginning. They had a guest staying – fortunately she sat up in bed as the large painting above the bed fell off the wall and smashed. Susan was upstairs, her husband downstairs. The house swayed and shook wildly. Bill downstairs watched the massive oven shake violently from side to side as paintings smashed to the floor. Susan clung to the side of the bed as was shaken from side to side. She said she stayed in the same clothes for 3 days because she was too frightened to return upstairs. When she finally changed out of her clothes she discovered her whole left side was black and blue from being buffeted against the side of the bed. They fled from the house into the car. The directive is that you have 3 minutes to get to higher ground in case of a tsunami, so it is go, go, go. Of course, everyone is doing the same thing so the roads are gridlocked. Susan says she still does not feel comfortable sitting in their enclosed verandah upstairs. Perhaps she never will.

But, her B & B is lovely. A charming old weatherboard house set in a beautiful garden. Called Blue Heron House. No herons to be seen but it is a blue colour. The front of the house is devoted to guests. There are 2 bedrooms, with a guest sitting room. Both bedrooms open via French doors onto a wide verandah. And the house is full of beautiful artefacts and textiles gathered over the course of their well travelled lives.

The coastline of Kaikoura is stunning. Blue waters against the backdrop of steep snow capped mountains. Glorious. The beach doesn’t invite us, thanks to the black sand and rocks. But, the water is a beautiful blue, and since the earthquake the seabed is now a meter higher so it is a gentle slope, and warmer due to shallower water.

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We dine at the Pier Hotel, one of the town’s orgininal establishments (although in a different spot to the original – when they moved the pier they also moved the pub!). Nothing to write home about. Half the tables are reserved for the NCITR. We spend the night trying to guess what it stands for. The local paper provides the answer – North Canterbury Infrastructure and Transport Recovery. And NCITR workers are everywhere. The accommodation and food businesses that survived the earthquake are certainly reaping the benefits of reconstruction – almost all the motels are full, and all the restaurants are on the roster to provide the evening meals.  It is wall to wall Hi Vis vests. It is ironic that business is booming for some.

The beautiful weather continues so our walk around the peninsula the next day is under blazing blue skies. But of course we have to have a coffee first. The café recommended in Lonely Planet, a coffee roaster, is no more. Another casualty of the earthquake. Apparently the building’s owner expected them to organise and pay for repairs. So, we settle for Cafe Encounter instead, where a very cheeky sparrow steals my complimentary piece of fudge that was served with the coffee!

Our walk is about 10km in all and allows us to admire the views both up and down the coast. We also get to watch the seals sun themselves on the rocks, play in the water and get out of the way of the stupid tourists, both in the water and on the rocks. Taking tourists to swim with the seals and dolphins is big business here, and some obviously don’t get the Don’t approach, let them come to you message.  There is also a big whale watching business,and there was much relief in town when both the whales and seals returned after the earthquake. We decide watching it all from atop the cliff face is enough for us.

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Descending from the cliff top we come across the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ stall, and we are starving so we put in our order for the seafood platter for 2 and take a seat, not before warned to be VERY mindful of the thieving seagulls. And how right they were, the rats of the air were like stealth bombers. Pete was ready to punch them in the beak.

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The platter was bountiful – whitebait fritter, cray fritter (the Kiwis are fond of fritters), mussels, scallops, prawns and grilled fish. The only problem was that they had cooked the fish to an inch of its life. But, never mind, it was fresh, and beside the waterside, in the sun. So, not to worry.

Then keep walking back into town and a wander around the little village of Kaikoura before having a glass of bubbles at the recently repaired and reopened Kaikoura Boutique Hotel (where the only choice by the glass is  Mumm, wankers!), and returning to our delightful B&B for rest and recuperation.

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We decide on the local Thai for dinner, despite Susan and Bill’s hesitation in recommending it, and are pleasantly surprised. Whilst not what we would class as great, it was flavoursome and the heat level was pretty good. The place was packed with Hi Vis vests, and the sole waitress was skipping around the tables doing her best to charm and placate everyone. And, she succeeded. We bumped into her the next day and she thanked us for our patience, bless her.

Next day we wave Susan & Bill goodbye (not before Bill has a chance to tell Pete about a 3 month ride he should do from Canada to Mexico!!!) and tackle the inland route to Murchison, stopping at Hamner Springs for lunch.

It turns out to be a slow and nail biting journey due to the constant roadworks. Closer to Kaikoura this can be explained by the earthquake, but further away it would seem the damage to the road is being done by the significantly increased traffic. Since the closure of the coast road from Blenheim to Christchurch all cars and trucks have to come via the inland route. Apparently the road was not made for this level, and weight of traffic. So, there is a never ending job of filling holes and resurfacing, resulting in almost constant loose gravel covering the newly sealed road surfaces. But, this does not slow the trucks down, and our hire car is continually sprayed with gravel. How we managed to get the car back to Picton with an intact windscreen is a minor miracle.

We spend the night in Murchison, at the Murchison Lodge, which a week ago was taken over by its eager young owners, Phillip and Daphne. Phillip is from Switzerland, Daphne from Germany and owning and running this B & B is their next big adventure in life. They have quite a task in front of them as there are 5 rooms and large grounds, and they are doing it all themselves – cleaning, gardening, making breakfast, welcoming guests. Good luck to them.

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We dine at the Lazy Cow pizza joint behind the Backpackers Hostel, where you can design your own pizza and bring in your own alcohol from the pub over the road. Everyone is sitting out in the garden as it’s 26 degrees at 7pm, amazing. We get chatting to the other tables and end up having a very social evening. A charming way to end our road tour.

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Off to the East Coast

Christchurch is our next destination so it is across to the east coast we go, climbing into the mountains before descending to the Canterbury Plains. There are small patches of snow on the mountain summits, but I struggle to imagine how it would look covered in white.

The changes in the terrain as we head up, up, up, then slowly down, down, down is fascinating. Even the flowers have changed, with wild foxgloves giving way to beautiful wild lupins, and then patches of yellow gorse.

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The thought that men carved through these mountains by sheer physical labour boggles the mind; and vestiges of the old Cart track can be glimpsed.

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Lord of the Rings has been a bonanza for tourism operators throughout this land, with every opportunity to exploit the link grabbed with gusto, as we discover as we arrive at Otira.

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Descending from Arthur’s Pass the hills change character again, becoming an interesting montage of dirt, gravel and hardy grasses and the occasional rocky outcrop.

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As we approach Christchurch the land is completely flat, our hill climb but a memory. But not for long, as we are actually staying in Governors Bay, so must climb the rim of the crater that surrounds the bay. The whole area is in fact a series of (hopefully) extinct volcanoes, with the various craters merging together like honeycomb. It is a crazy cyclist’s dream as there are an endless number of steep hills to climb, with gradients that would break many a heart. The local car hoons and motorbike riders are also in their element as they attack the curves and steep ascents and descents with gusto, and noise.

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Before Governors Bay we stop off in Lyttelton, a township that suffered badly in the 2011 earthquake, which was centred just outside the township. The port seems to be back in full swing, as containers line the wharf and trucks beetle back and forth, and London Street is definitely open for business, with new funky cafes and shops, but it has been a hard struggle back, and many properties are still waiting to be repaired.

The road from Lyttleton snakes around the bayline to Governors Bay. Sitting pride of place is the Governors Bay Hotel (  http://www.governorsbayhotel.co.nz/)  owned by friends of ours from Elwood Primary days, Jeremy & Clare. They have turned what was once a down at heel hotel into a thriving gastro pub, catering to very happy locals and tourists alike. As we arrive on a hot Friday afternoon, the locals are gathering, eager to end their week on the lawns, enjoying the Bay breeze and the bay views. Clare and Jeremy dispense drinks and food with a welcoming smile for all; making all the hard work look effortless.

The hotel has 7 rooms upstairs, 4 of which open out, through French doors, onto the upstairs verandah and the views across the bay to Quail Island. The pub does a pretty good accommodation trade, and the verandah can often resemble the United Nations, with a variety of accents holding forth.

We join the crowd on the deck, and soak up the warmth, the views, the wine and the excellent food. Joined eventually by the exhausted mine hosts, ready to share a cleansing glass or two.

Next day is devoted to exploring Christchurch, which is still a building site. But slowly, a new city is emerging from the horror of the 2010/2011 earthquakes. And one day it will be lovely again as they seem to have planned in a lot of open space, and inner city living.

As always my eye is taken by the street art; many walls have been given over to large street murals.

We visit the temporary cathedral, and the White Chair memorial to those who lost their lives. And, the remains of the old Cathedral, where a lively Korean Festival is taking place.

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Lunch is at Madame Woo, providing some much needed Asian food for Himself.

Then a visit to The Tannery complex and a mooch around the shops before heading back to the Governor for drinks, and dinner, on the deck.

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Sunday we devote ourselves to exploring the Banks Peninsula, setting out to circumnavigate it in a clockwise direction. As you travel around the coastline you get wonderful views of the crater walls, and the various bays that cluster around the coast.

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Our first stop is Diamond Head, where we discover, to our joy not one but two coffee places to choose from. We choose the one on the left, that may or may not be called Preserved , a Café come home brewery come Cooking school. It has a deck and seats out the back that provide grand stand viewing over the sports oval behind it.  Clare tells us later that she used to watch her sons play sport from the comfort of the cafe. The coffee is made by a biker looking guy who tears himself away from his home brew making, and would you believe it turns out to be the best coffee I’ve had in NZ thus far. He is thrilled when I tell him so.

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We carry on, sticking to the coast road, which turns out to be a winding one lane dirt road until we get to Pigeon Bay. Luckily we only came across one other car, and it was in a spot that he was able to edge across, allowing us to squeeze past ( do hope the rental agreement didn’t mention staying on bitumen only – there’s been a lot of dirt roads on this trip!).

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Pigeon Bay is quite the hive of activity – turns out there is a bitumen road into it from the other side of the peninsula. There is a junior boat race in full swing, and we spy a sign advertising high teas outside the village hall. How can one pass that up? So, we slam on the brakes and hop out. Have we made a booking we are asked. Well, no – who would have thought that one needed to, but it turns out that Deb puts on a highly sought after high tea in the hall on the first Sunday of the month. But, our lack of booking doesn’t prove to be an obstacle as Deb rustles up a table for us, although apologises for the lack of flowers on it.

We get talking to some of the fellow guests. One couple are local farmers, bemoaning the lack of rain. He agrees to stop wishing for rain until the 13th December, which is the day we leave! The other pair work at the nearby luxury accommodation, and since Googling it, do I mean LUXURY (check out Annandale Luxury Villas), and one of them is from Melbourne and used to work at Zartowa, Elwood’s very first café. How’s that for coincidence!

The high tea is a delight, and Himself is in heaven with the clotted cream.

Happily full, and with just a little bit of a sugar rush, we head off for Akaroa, a small French settlement, and major tourist attraction, on the peninsula. The cruise ships that used to dock at Lyttleton pre earthquake have defected to Akaroa, so at times it can be absolutely heaving with tourists.

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We wander up the street as far as the lighthouse, before heading back to the car and the return journey.

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That evening we dine, with Jeremy & Clare, at their son’s bar, Civil & Naval, in Lyttelton. Louis has been one of the pioneers of the revitalised Lyttelton, and the bar is abuzz with customers. The staff are all young and groovy; the vibe is laid back. There are almost more dogs than people, as all the locals seem to bring their dog with them, and one of the staff also has a dog. Add into the mix a resident cat and things can get quite rowdy!

The menu is small and designed around sharing, and everything we try is delicious. An excellent way to end our Christchurch sojourn, even if it does make me feel ancient to think that I last saw Louis as a small boy and here he is running a very successful establishment.