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.

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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West Coast, NZ

As we leave Nelson the grey clouds are gathering – we are moving further south just at the right time. For the first hour the scenery is pretty ordinary as we travel through large swathes of pine forests, and pass trucks hauling the timber away. Things change when we get to Big Bush Pass and finally enter areas of native forest.

Apparently both the Maori and the Europeans had a field day felling the native forests, until finally even the Government became alarmed. After 15 months of negotiation, the Tasman Accord was signed in 1989, whereby the forestry companies agreed to no more logging of native timber on Crown land and the preservation of some 30,000 hectares of native forest. Thank heavens, as the native forests are a delight with their wide variety of trees, hence colours and textures. Now the drive gets more interesting.

Not native but lovely nonetheless are the wild foxgloves that can be seen everywhere, mainly purple, occasionally white. Must be a very strong plant as it is literally everywhere, probably technically a weed, but a very decorative one.

We arrive in Murchison, hanging out for a coffee. At first glance it appears a township we could easily dismiss but there is a quirky humour on display, starting with the pie van and its sign (mind you, the owner and baker is a Yorkshireman). We can’t resist the sign, so settle on the picnic table with a bacon & egg pie.

Then the sign in the award winning butcher shop takes my fancy. Convenient, and timely given the new law just passed in Victoria!

Then there is the plaque commemorating the irate farmer who blew himself up:

And, the ladies loo sign:

We will be back in Murchison on our return to Picton so shall check out more of the town’s delights then but now it is on towards the coast. Just out of Murchison we come to the Buller Gorge Suspension Bridge – apparently the longest swing bridge in New Zealand – so in we go. Lord knows why, as I’m terrified of heights, even more so when the surface is moving back and forth. But, I bravely go forth. I do decline however the invitation to return by zip line!

After this excitement we travel towards the coast, turning south just before Westport, however the No Fuel for 90kms sign has us turning back to Westport to stock up, given we only had enough fuel in the tank for 90kms.

Our next stop is Punakaiki to see the famous ‘pancake rocks’ – rock formations that resemble layer upon layer of crepes. Geologists are unsure how the formations were made, but they certainly draw the crowds, and we must admit they are pretty impressive. As is the subtropical forest lining the coast.

The day is marching on so we scamper past the outskirts of Greymouth, heading for our home for the next two nights, Hokitika. Not a lot is happening in Hokitika when we arrive around 6pm. It’s like any quiet country town – wide, empty streets, with nondescript houses neatly lined up on either side of the road.

Our Airbnb cottage, Fantail Cottage – full of fantail bird decorations, but no sign of the actual bird – is cosy albeit a bit twee, sitting on the outskirts of town but still an easy 3 blocks from the centre.

We dump our gear and walk into town in search of food. After a quick look at the beach we order a pizza at Fat Pipi Pizza, which we take to the West Coast Wine Bar which allows, in fact encourages, BYO food. We are the only customers, apart from one other couple who leave before we do.

We get off to a slow start next morning. A late breakfast in the cottage then into town for a coffee and a wander around. Both Lonely Planet and our landlady recommend Ramble & Ritual for our coffee so it’s where we head. And wouldn’t you know it but our coffee is made by an English lass. I swear there are no Kiwis actually in NZ! The coffee is okay but I think their beans are not really to our taste, quite unusual flavour but a charming little spot.

Hokitaki is a fascinating town, dotted by grand buildings that hint of a very different past. Turns out that it was the epicentre of the gold rush, and became a major, but very dangerous, port, welcoming prospectors from all around the world. In turn, business followed. Apparently in its heyday 80 hotels lined Revell St alone.

Time for sightseeing further afield so we hop in the car and head out of town to visit Hokitika Gorge. In the distance we can see the snow capped mountains.

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On the way we pass the memorial erected to commemorate the site of New Zealand’s first mass murder committed by yet another psycho farmer. The memorial is dedicated to the police, both official and voluntary, who died. The gun barrel in the middle is aimed at the farmhouse site where the massacre occurred. I did however love the mention of Graham suffering an irrational conniption.

The glorious turquoise water of Hokitika Gorge is certainly worth the drive out. Really takes you by surprise as you come out of the tropical forest that surrounds the Gorge. Something to do with limestone I gather. And, another swing bridge – yeah!

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Leaving the Gorge is slightly delayed by the young tourist who managed to get his van stuck down a culvert and needed towing out by a local farmer. An entertaining diversion for us but not for the very embarrassed young man.

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We returned back to Hokitaki via Lake Kaniere and a quick visit to Dorothy Falls, displaying a completely different colour of lovely, pristine water.

A late but yummy lunch back at Ramble & Ritual before a final walk along the old quay and beachfront, learning more about the town from the information boards dotted along the river’s edge. We bump into various locals along the way, all of whom love a bit of a chat. Hokitika is, all in all, quite charming.

We end our night in Hokitika with a walk to the glow worm dell just outside of town. It is like a magical cave, but you will have to take my word for it as the glow is not strong enough to be captured by the IPhone camera.

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The Last Hurrah of the Ski Season

You have been able to tell the skiers amongst us by the smiles on the faces and the funny face tans. This has been a bumper snow season, something that has made many hearts beat faster for several months now. Mine is not amongst them, and I was frankly shocked to hear myself suggest to Himself that we return to the mountains for a last hurrah of skiing. He needed no further persuading, always eager to get out there in the fields of white.

My motivation, apart from my love of all things surrounding and apart from the actual act of skiing – the drive up through the beautiful King Valley; the lovely AAC Dinner Plain Lodge; the food & wine consumed; the beauty of the snow covered landscape – was to see if I could conquer the act of stopping. A crucial skill, and one I had yet to master. My strategy of hurling myself backwards onto my arse is not sustainable, particularly at my age. So if I am to continue joining them on the cross country slopes it is a skill I need to acquire.

The drive up was its usual delight, starting with a coffee and wine purchasing at Fowles Winery.  The King Valley was looking more beautiful than usual thanks to the budding of the multitude of blossom trees, the magnificent magnolias and the camellias and rhododendrons. Don’t just think of Bright for the autumn colour – it also revels in Spring glory.

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Bright was our lunch destination this time around, to try out a relative newcomer to the eating scene – Tomahawks  a small shed of a place in Camp Street (just up from the Chinese restaurant on the corner). A funky spot with a small but delectable menu, and staffed with charming young things. We enjoyed our lunch, but should not have indulged in the donut ice cream sandwich with caramel sauce. My guilt stayed with me until the next day, even though I only ate half of this piece of decadence.

There was still snow as far as the eye could see, from Mt Hotham to Dinner Plain. And, as promised by Himself, the snow on the cross country trails was soft and forgiving, so I buckled up for two days of slogging it up and down the trail to Wire Plain. And whilst some small improvements may have been gained, I still found myself backside down in the snow more times than I wanted. It would seem that as soon as any downward momentum is picked up, all rational thought seems to leave my head and panic sets in, making me incapable of sorting out my left from my right  and of achieving any effective inward rolling of the ankle in order to achieve the desired cessation of forward movement. I am left slightly bewildered by the person who ever thought of strapping planks of slippery wood to ones feet and walking up and down hills on them. What was he thinking (as I’m sure it had to be a He).

Thankfully  for my bones and feet (which did not take kindly to the cross country ski boots) our third day dawned wet and windy, and I was allowed a leave pass.  Instead, we climbed into the car and escaped the sleety hail/snow (called sago by those in the know) and travelled down to Omeo and up the Omeo Highway to Anglers Rest and towards Mt Wills. Another lovely, but winding (take note if you are prone to car sickness) valley, following a very full and fast moving river. The wattles were coming into bloom, in all their different hues of yellow.

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The valley was once dotted with gold mines and their accompanying townships, most of them well gone by now, although their names remain on the map. Between Glen Valley and Glen Wills we came across the Glen Wills cemetery, the burial spot for some 97 locals between the years 1894 and 1920. 40 of the 97 were infants. A sobering reminder of the hardships of the pioneering life.

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After a brief look into the famous Blue Duck Inn at Anglers Rest we returned to Omeo, and enjoyed a tasty home cooked lunch at the Homestead House Cafe, opposite the Golden Age Hotel.

Our entertainment was provided by eavesdropping into the Ladies Golf Club Committee meeting, all 3 of them, as they debated the catering for an upcoming event. One of the three was keen to offer the slices and cakes free of charge. Another took quite some persuading, but grudgingly agreed to give it a try. We also know that sausage rolls, meat pies and dim sims will be available for sale. We were tempted to ask when the event was being held as the post game tucker was sounding quite enticing!

We took a brief detour outside of Omeo, lured by the Winery 16kms sign. It sure didn’t look like grape growing country, so we were intrigued.  Turns out there is a very small acreage at Cassillis, but the wine makers are now semi retired. Their tasting shed is closed and they only sell at local markets. However, the chap who has recently bought the grape vines plans to keep growing the grapes for them, and will have the wine available for tasting and sale on Public Holidays and maybe the occasional weekend. He’ll put out a sandwich board on the Great Alpine Road when he is open for business, so unless there is a board don’t take the turn off the road if wine is what you seek.

Next morning the promised snow showers were a fairly wet affair, but our time had come to leave the mountain. Our drive down to Harrietville was a slow one, thanks to the cloud and wet snow fall –  not much to be seen out of the windscreen.

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We rewarded ourselves with a coffee at Sixpence Coffee, a small coffee roasters, cafe and bakery in the backstreets of Bright. Despite the wet and cold day, the little space was packed with people enjoying their lattes and a freshly baked cake or pie.

Then it was onwards to Melbourne. Already my vow to abandon any further attempts at cross country skiing was starting to fade. Like childbirth, you forget the agony and sink into the après ski glow. But hang on, I stopped at one child, so perhaps not the best analogy for me! Will I keep trying to conquer this exasperating sport so I can enjoy all the trappings that go with it? I’ll see how I feel come August next year, and how much of the agony I remember.

 

 

Champions in Kingscliff

Kingscliff is a bit like the old Gold Coast – still relatively low rise, with a small set of shops and a thriving bowls club and Surf Life Saving Club. The golden sands of the beach stretch off into the distance, admittedly currently marred by the upgrade and redevelopment that will result in fabulous beach access, and hopefully protect the beach from further ravages by the relentless sea. The vibe is low key and relaxed. And, the sun is shining. What more could you want.

We are Airbnbing here, and this is the true Airbnb experience – genuine people who are keen to meet others and share their beautiful locale. Elizabeth and Steve have Orient by the Sea, which is essentially the downstairs of their two storey town house, in spitting distance of the shops and beach. We have a bedroom, a sitting room, a bathroom and a little kitchenette. We share the front door and entry foyer. You can mix, or not mix. We do both. Our hosts are super friendly and keen to chat and share experiences, but are also aware of letting us have our privacy to do our own thing. That to me is what Airbnb should be all about.

Our focus is on the IRB National Lifesaving Championships, so we spend most of our time standing on the beach. To the initiated, IRB events look chaotic – inflatable rescue boats (IRBs) zooming all about; people in wetsuits running up the beach and flinging themselves into IRBs; people being flung into and out of IRBs; people moving up and down the beach. But, rest assured, it is organised chaos.

 

Movement is constant, as to make things fair, teams move lanes between every event, as there is no controlling the waves and when and where they fall.

Friday the respective state teams compete. There is fierce interstate rivalry, but, at least in Victoria, strong intrastate support. Much to the annoyance of all the other states and their individual teams, the various Victorian teams show strong support for each other, and even have a Victorian chant: We love you because you’re Victorian …… clap, clap, clap, clap.

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The camaraderie is in fact one of the reasons I love watching these championships. The Williamstown crew are a tight knit bunch. It is one for all, and all for one. They suffer for each other, and rejoice in each other’s victories. I am grateful for the care they shower on my highly anxious pre race daughter, cushioning her in their support. As parents we are largely superfluous; we’re not part of the inner circle; we are not the ones they turn to first for the encouraging hug. And, that’s how it should be. I am moved to tears when I see the Team Coach, and chief wrangler, in tears after Abby’s gold medal swim. He has known her since she was 16. They are family.

As always there are dramas – we get disqualified in a couple of events; the rope to start the motor breaks in another so we never get off the beach; a patient isn’t hauled in on the first run in another; and most dramatic of all, a crew member goes flying out of the boat and ends up with a damaged knee. But, despite these obstacles, Williamstown Life Saving Club comes third overall, an excellent achievement.

Our girl and her team win the Gold Medal in her particular event, for the 4th year in a row. The event is called The Tube. Let me talk you through it. The driver and swimmer are on the beach, the starter’s gun goes and they race to the boat. The driver starts the engine, and then the swimmer (Abby) leaps in. They race over the waves towards the patient, who is patiently bobbing about waiting to be rescued. The boat gets to the first can and Abby heaves the rescue Tube into the water, followed by herself. She then swims to the patient, throws the tube at him. He clips the Tube around himself and she then proceeds to swim back to the boat, towing him behind (he is allowed to kick). The boat can’t wait for them at the end of the run – rather must drive off, keep an eye on proceedings and then race back in as the swimmer reaches the end can. The swimmer heaves the patient and then herself back into the boat, and the boat races to the shore. The boat roars up to the sand, the driver leaps out and runs to the finish line. The first driver at the finish line wins. There you have it, the Tube Race. And they won. Hurrah!

The Championships run over three days, so there isn’t much time for anything else. But, we do manage some extra curricular activity. Friday evening as the sun is beginning to set we go walking along the breakwater, and are delighted to see two migrating whales putting on a display of dives and leaps in the middle distance. A thrill to see them.

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Saturday afternoon we get an early mark as racing is called off due to wind and choppy seas. We take the opportunity to visit the Tweed Regional Gallery in nearby Murwillimbah. What a beautiful Gallery it is, making the most of its location in the valley. The current exhibition is an A-Z from the collection – and it is a delight to work out the curator’s thinking behind each choice. And then there is the Margaret Olley Centre attached to the Gallery. They have been blessed by a grant from the Margaret Olley Trust and now house a recreation of Margaret Olley’s home and studio. Plus, a grant from her Trust enables an artist in residence, and a showing of their work. And, on our visit there is an exhibition of Margaret Olley portraits, by herself and others. Wonderful. I am moved to tears by the stories and portraits- there was just something about her face that endears her to you; I feel a connection. All in all, an enchanting experience.

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And of course, nothing is complete without visits to restaurants. We visit two, Fins at the Salt complex in Kingscliff, and Taverna, just a few minutes walk from our accommodation. Fins is jam packed on a Saturday night, and the wait staff are working overtime. They are not helped by an accident in the kitchen involving a knife and stitches, which holds up service. The seafood is delicious, but goodness me, not cheap – with mains around $47, entrees at $26. At those prices I think it is rather rich (excuse the pun) to charge for bread & butter. We decline.

Sunday night at Taverna is Chef’s Table night, which translates to no choice, set meal, $39 a head (dessert and drinks not included). It is a lovely space – white, bright and light. And absolutely packed. Yet the staff manage the tables with grace and efficiency- and the food is delicious. What a bargain. We walk back up the hill very happy campers.

Monday morning the sun is still shining brightly but we must drag ourselves away and begin the journey home. Thank you Kingscliff, we will stay longer next time.

Road Trip to Aussies – Orange to Bellingen

We keep to the back roads on our way further north, with the next leg in our road trip being Orange to dang, dang, dang Tamworth – home of country music. Watching the changes in the landscape keeps us fascinated.

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Just before Tamworth we are intrigued by the white fluff along the roadside. Wool that has been desiccated by the mower? We stop and have a feel and are still unsure. Pete hazards a guess at cotton but we look around at the dry paddocks either side and think, surely not. But, Lo & behold shortly after we pass fields of harvested cotton and HUGE bales of cotton wrapped up in yellow plastic. It would seem that the bales moult as they are transported, leaving a white fluffy carpet beside the road. A mystery solved.

In Tamworth we stay at the rather bizarre Retreat@Froogmoore Park – I couldn’t resist a place that had a Dungeon Room, replete with a whip. Although much to Pete’s disappointment we are in the Madea (Japanese) Room. The interior decoration in this place is interesting to say the least. But, the gardens are beautiful.

My main impressions of Tamworth are a wide, palm lined main street; statues of Australian country singers; a stunning Deco pub; and a very loud and crowded bat colony along the river.

We have a lot to do the next day, so decide to skip breakfast at Froogmoore (never did work out why the odd name) at $25 a head and head to Armidale instead. But, we ended up stopping in the lovely village of Uralla, just before Armidale, and chanced upon the terrific The Alternate Root Café, housed in a beautiful 1908 shopfront with a magnificent old tin roof. Excellent coffee and a very tasty breakfast left us very happy road trippers.

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We merely passed through the outskirts of Armidale, intent as we were on travelling along the poetic sounding Waterfall Way. The name conjured up visions of a lush green landscape, but we were still moving through grazing pasture land. Where were these waterfalls then? 40 kms later we veer slightly off the highway and into the parking area for the Woollombi Gorge. A short walk later we see in front of us a magnificent Gorge and a series of beautiful waterfalls tumbling down the rockface.

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We travel a bit further along Waterfall Way to the minuscule hamlet of Ebor where we discover the beautiful Ebor Falls, Upper and Lower.

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As well as the waterfalls there are panoramic views across the valley. Who would have thought that all this beauty lay just beyond the boundaries of a not very interesting road.

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From here it is on to Dorrigo and its UNESCO World Heritage listed rainforest – a micro climate again tucked just off the Waterfall Way. Unfortunately , we arrive too late to take advantage of the walks on offer, but we do get a feel for this unique environment.

It starts to drizzle as we hop into the car, and so we follow the rainbow into Bellingen, a delightful village nestled into this beautiful valley. Day disappears with a glorious sunset, a fitting end to a day of natural wonders.

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We are staying at the Bellingen Valley Lodge, a motel stuck in the time warp of the 1970s. Good bones but needs some love and care. But, we did have that glorious view of sunset, and the bed is comfortable.

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Dinner is at the newly opened Popla and it is fabulous, one of the most enjoyable meals we have had in a while – great food and charming staff. Worth a trip to Bellingen just to eat there.

Next morning we explore the hippy haven of Bellingen, starting with an excellent coffee at Amelia Franklin – they roast their own beans, and run barista courses, all out of an ex servo in the Main Street. Coffee is followed by breakfast at Black Bear, a cafe recommended by the lass at Popla last night, whom we bump into both at Amelia Franklin and at Black Bear. It is a small place! Breakfast is followed by a quick peruse of the shops before heading to the Pacific Highway and the last push to Kingscliff.

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We stop into Ballina for lunch at the cafe at the Surf Life Saving Club, overlooking the glorious beach. Leaving town, we stock up on local oysters and prawns for our evening feast at our Kingscliff Airbnb. To be washed down with one of our bottles of Orange wine. Sorted. It has been a highly enjoyable road trip. Now on to the next chapter.

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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!

The Picos de Europa

Every time we told people in Australia that we were going to visit the Picos de Europa the response was invariably the same: “Where?”. Compared to say The Dolomites, or The Pyrenees, The Picos are relatively unknown – at least Downunder – but they deserve to be up there with the other mountain ranges as they are stunning, and we have only scratched the surface of what they have to offer.

They are called the Picos de Europa, or Peaks of Europe in English, as they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas. They sit 20km inland from the northern coast of Spain, with the highest peak reaching 2,650 meters. From San Sebastián to Arenas de Cabrales, the main township in the Central Massif, is 288kms. So it took us most of the day to reach Arenas by public transport.


We set off to the San Sebastián bus terminal with plenty of time up our sleeve for coffee before boarding our 9.10am bus to Llanes. We had a 15 minute window of opportunity at Llanes before catching the bus to Arenas. But, as you know, the best laid plans often go astray. We enjoyed our coffee and turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the bus. Only problem, no bus. Thirty minutes later a replacement bus screeches into the allotted bay, and a bus load of very agitated passengers pile on board. We know our window of opportunity has been blown out of the water. What can you do? Nada.

The trip is a bit of a milk run, as we stop at what seems like every town between San Sebastián and Llanes. We do not make up time, so are not surprised to see a completely empty bus station when we pull into Llanes. But we were surprised to find the station locked up tight, so no chance for claiming a refund on the ticket. Never mind. We trundle off in search of a taxi, only to find none at the rank. Never mind again. Sheenagh whips out her phone and her Spanish and manages to organize a taxi to take us on the 30 minute journey to Arenas. 10 minutes later we are in the cab and on our way.

We are staying at Hotel Torrecerredo. The hotel website had promised rooms with a view and we are not disappointed. What a view it is.



Arenas de Cabrales is a charming, small, village. Quiet now but it is obviously jam packed in the season. Every second building is either a cafe or a local produce store. After we have finished oh and ahhing at our view we have a wander round the village to get the lie of the land.


The area is famous not only for its mountain range but also for its blue cheese, Queso de Cabrales. Once upon a time, the cheese was made by the shepherds in their small mountain huts and left to mature in the many limestone caves that are dotted through the mountains. The cheese was made from goat and sheep’s milk with a dash of cows milk. Upon maturation, the cheeses would be wrapped in leaves and brought down from the mountains for sale.

But, since the local cheese became recognized as unique to this area and acquired an EU DO (Designation of Origin) status, all the romance has gone from its production. No longer is it made in the small stone huts of the goat herders. No longer is it wrapped in leaves. And no longer is it made predominately from goats milk – rather, it is mainly made from cows milk due to the greater milk production of cows compared to goats or sheep. But, it is still matured for 3-5 months in the caves.



We learn all this from our tour of one of the local cheese makers, where we also get to taste, and smell, the cheese. Which they serve with a dash of the local cider. Luckily, the very kind lady serving us the samples didn’t stay to watch our faces, as the cider was tipped out into the Rio Cares flowing beside the cheesery, and I held my nose whilst tasting the cheese. Blue cheese is one of life’s great dividers and I happen to fall on the hell no side. Sheenagh and Pete however assured me that it was good blue cheese. I’ll take their word for it. All three of us however agreed on the cider – disgusting.


Reconnoiter over, we head back to the terrace of Hotel Torrecerredo to soak up the view and plan tomorrow’s walk, with the help of our very genial English mine host, who knows the region intimately.


We go to bed not only well fed by Jim, mine host, but also with a clear plan of attack for the next day, which dawns with clear blue skies. Our plan is to set out from nearby Poncebos and hike up to Bulnes, then further up again to the Pandebano Pass and over to Sotres. Jim has very kindly offered to drive us to the start of the walk and collect us from the end.

We had originally planned to take the funicular up to Bulnes, but Jim had persuaded us to walk, claiming it was a beautiful hike, and how right he was. A bit of a slog, but oh so worth it.



We were more than ready for a coffee at Bulnes. From some way away we could spy a stone building on high, with what seemed like a terrace and umbrellas. The thought of sitting on the terrace drinking coffee spurred us on. As we got closer we saw that we had a choice to make: a last, steep, climb to the cafe or skip coffee and keep pushing on to Pandebano Pass. Up to coffee was the decision, so we slogged on up. We were greeted at the top by the charming but rather surprised owner of Mirador la Llende – surprised because he wasn’t expecting to see 3 very puffed walkers poke their heads over the embankment of the hill. Turns out that if we had continued straight ahead we would have reached the village of Bulnes and then been able to walk up the paved, albeit steep, road to the cafe, rather than make like goats and scramble up the face of the hill itself! Never mind, as it was well worth the scramble – a fabulous view, a reasonable coffee and we even managed to rustle up a take away tapas picnic lunch from the very obliging host (again, Sheenagh’s Spanish lessons came in very handy).


Legs rested, we hit the trail again for the push up to Pandebano Pass. The hike afforded wonderful views of the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes (otherwise known as Picu Urriellu), a rock climbers dream.



We were more than ready for our picnic lunch when we finally reach the Pass, although the temptation to at first spin around in circles singing the hills are alive or high on the hills lived a lonely goatherd was almost overwhelming. A temptation I, thankfully for the others, resisted.



From here it was a relatively easy one hour walk downhill towards the township of Sotres, via some hungry donkeys who were reluctant to accept No we don’t have any food left, and the remnants of a Roman road (they sure got around, those Romans). As arranged, our lift back to the hotel was waiting as we arrived. I do love it when a plan comes together.



A terrific day’s walk – 14km and an elevation gain of 1,174 metres. Did we sleep well that night.

Next morning the heavens were singing a different song – low cloud and drizzle, with heavier rain forecast for later in the afternoon, continuing into the next day. We bit the bullet and decided to walk the famous Cares Gorge regardless, worried that Thursday’s weather would be worse, and not prepared to leave the Picos without doing this walk. Again, Jim obliged by transporting us back to Poncebos for the start of the walk.


The track runs along the Cares Gorge from Poncebos to Cain, a distance of some 11kms (so, 22kms return). The track is actually the path built to allow for maintenance workers to get to the hydro electric water canal, which was built between 1916 – 1925. The canal, and the path, is an amazing engineering feat, clinging to the side of the rock walls and often burrowing through the rock itself. The Gorge walk is the most popular in the Picos, and even today – a wet weekday at the very beginning of the season – there is a constant parade of fellow walkers (which makes a quick “bush wee” very difficult, and stressful, to achieve!). Even in the wet conditions, the drama of the setting is easy to admire.



Luckily it is only a light drizzle on the way out, but a kilometer out of Cain the rain has become consistent, so we decide to turn back. It is then heads down and just walk, as we get wetter and wetter. No time now for admiring anything. Good thing we had taken all our photos on the way out. Even better that there is a welcoming bar awaiting back at Poncebos, where the staff don’t mind if we leave big pools of water all over their floor.


Imagine how cross we are next morning when we wake to clearer skies and even periods of sunshine. Oh well. The rain does eventually arrive around 3 o’clock, so we would have ended up wet if we had waited to do the walk today. Instead, we enjoyed a late start to the day and another wander around Arenas.


Tomorrow Pete and I start our 7 day hike from here back to Llanes, through what is known as the Asturias, while Sheenagh returns by bus to San Sebastián (fingers crossed for connecting buses). We have put the Picos on our Must Return list, as there is still so much to see. Wish us luck for the next part of our adventure, as this area is verdant green for a reason, and as I finish writing this the rain has closed in and I can no longer see the mountains. Must be gin tonic time then.