Los Angeles

We met Vic’s second cousin, Claire, at the airport on Sunday 15th as she had kindly offered to put us up (or put up with us) for a few days. Claire lives in Laguna Hills in Orange County, about an hour or so drive south of LA International airport. There we met her children, Natasha, Kayla and Erik, and her husband, Marty, who all made us feel welcome. We weren’t really sure what we were going to do in LA, so Claire helped out by taking us to the Mission San Juan Capistrano and then on to Laguna Beach.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County
Marty also let us use his car so I braved the US roads for the first time and we got horribly lost on the way to Irvine Spectrum Center. We ended up at Fashion Island, a similar shopping and entertainment complex in Newport Beach so had dinner there instead, before getting lost again on the way back.

After that experience we had another go and managed to navigate successfully all the way up to Venice Beach where we had a walk along the seafront. As it was pretty fresh, no one was outside at Muscle Beach, the famed work-out spot, but there were lots of people selling art and bits and pieces on the pavement. We then drove up to Malibu where we looked at the huge houses up on the hillside before driving back along highway 405 through the rush-hour traffic, this time finding the Spectrum Center and stopping for dinner.

I’m not the most enthusiastic driver so facing the freeways and driving on the right-hand side of the road took some getting used to, but I seem to have managed it okay, though navigating our way around has proved to be more difficult as signs seem to be used only to tell you which street you’re about to cross rather than what destinations are in particular directions.

On Thursday, Claire and the children took us to Disneyland, which I must admit I’d been really looking forward to. We weren’t disappointed either. The place seems so huge and within minutes of walking through the gates we were on Main Street and Mickey, Goofy, Pluto, Donald and Minnie were there in front of us celebrating the 50th year of Disneyland. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there were virtually no queues for any of the rides, the longest wait we had was about 10 minutes, and that was later in the day after school had finished.

So what did we do? We started with Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, then on to the Jungle Cruise. After that it was the Thunder Mountain roller-coaster, the Alice in Wonderland spinning tea-cups, the Matterhorn roller-coaster, Pirates of the Caribbean, Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters and Space Mountain. That was before lunch! We also went on Star Tours (virtual Star Wars ride), and then over to the California Adventure park (also run by Disney and next door to Disneyland) for “Soarin’ Over California” (a virtual flight over Californian landmarks), “Monsters Inc. Sully and Mike to the Rescue” (which wasn’t terribly good, though the visual effects on Randall were good) and the Hollywood Tower of Terror. We went on the big roller-coaster, California Screamin’ and Claire and Vic sat it out while I went on the Mali-Boomer (shooting up vertically in a seat and the falling back down). Then we tried the very jerky “Mulholland Madness” roller-coaster.

Vic and Nigel in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, Disneyland

We had time to head back to Disneyland to go on “It’s a Small World”, one of the first rides when Disneyland opened in 1955, a very quick ride on the mini-coaster in Toonland and a repeat performance of Space Mountain.

All in all, we crammed a lot in, had a great time and picked up some souvenirs. I’m particularly pleased with my Mickey Mouse-earred flying helmet.

Off for a meal at BJs and then home for a well-deserved sleep.

On Friday, Claire kindly took us out to a clothing outlet store as Vic was after a warm coat for some of cooler forthcoming destinations and I picked up a couple of pairs of jeans to replace damaged trousers from our travels. We ventured out for a meal in the car again in the evening and made it to our destination without too much trouble. Getting back wasn’t so simple but after a couple of wrong turns we made it back.

Photos from LA are now posted in the gallery.

Rarotonga, Cook Islands

We’d somehow managed to book ourselves onto a flight leaving Auckland at 7:15am so had a very early start on Wednesday 4th January. The previous two days had been public holidays and lots of shops etc had been closed.

We flew to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands with Air New Zealand, taking just under 4 hours and arriving at about 12:10pm. Because we were crossing the International Date Line, we arrived on Tuesday 3rd January, which was once more a public holiday. The Cook Islands have a close relationship with New Zealand, sharing the New Zealand dollar as their currency though the Cook Islands produce some coins and bank notes of their own. For example, they have their own NZ$2 coin which is triangular in shape.

On arrival we were greeted by the sounds of a man playing a ukulele in the arrivals hall. After clearing customs we made our way to the desk labelled for Vara’s which is who we had booked our accommodation with.

When the minibus had filled up with other guests we drove to Vara’s on Muri Beach, about 11km around the island from the main town, Avarua, which is also where the airport is located.

There’s basically one main road on Rarotonga which goes all the way round the edge, totalling about 34km. At various points there are parallel roads a little inland but there are no roads crossing the middle of the island which is quite mountainous.

We had a beachside studio apartment at Vara’s which was very nice. Good view and a kitchen with gas hob etc. Vara owns around 40 properties around the island including some which are further inland and uphill a little.

Muri Beach is one of the most popular places on the island and the few shops in the area stay open until quite late. We bought some basic food items from the local shops there but the choice isn’t great, especially for vegetables etc. The paw-paw (as they call papaya) is very good though.

Muri Beach, RarotongaUnbeknownst to us, we had arrived during cyclone season so the weather on Rarotonga was a bit stormy at times. Most of the time it was sunny though, and we only had one incident where it rained very hard late one evening and into the night.

Our first neighbours where Justin and Raquel who live in Dublin and had been enjoying a 6 week holiday in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand before reaching Rarotonga.

After a day settling in and familiarising ourselves with the local area we caught a bus into Avarua and did some more grocery shopping. The FoodTown in Avarua was better stocked than the local shops, but some items were still difficult to get or very expensive.

We enjoyed ourselves relaxing by the beach and on our balcony, sheltering from the rain when the weather was rough. On the Saturday, Justin and Raquel flew to LA and some new neighbours, a Dutch couple called Henk and Truus moved in.

We hired a car for a day and drove round the island a couple of times on the Sunday but the weather was pretty foul and we couldn’t see much through the rain. To drive a car in the Cook Islands you need a Cook Islands driving license which you can obtain for NZ$10 by taking your home driving license to the police station in Avarua. If you want to drive a scooter/motorbike and don’t have a bike license you have to take a driving test with the police.

The main road, RarotongaFor the next week we had a very easy time, reading, walking round, sheltering from the ever-threatening rain etc. We hired the car again for the last two days on the island and went souvenir shopping.

Our flight out was at 10:20pm so we loaded all of our gear into the car and went to get something to eat before the flight. We had some excellent fish and chips from a harbourside shop close to the airport.

Our flight to Los Angeles consisted of two parts, a one hour forty-five minute flight to Tahiti, arriving around midnight and then an eight and a half hour flight on to LA, with a two hour wait in between. Tahiti airport isn’t much to talk about, we crashed out on some seats for the time we were there. The flight on to LA wasn’t great as everyone was tired and the in-flight entertainment system consisted of a screen 12 rows in front of us which we couldn’t see because of all the heads in the way. We did our best to get some sleep but woke up unsurprisingly groggy the next morning.

Auckland for Xmas and New Year

It was time to return to Auckland where we had an apartment booked from Friday 23rd December. After a slight detour to the Botany Town Centre shopping centre for a spot of shopping, we made our way to the Remuera
area of Auckland where Neil and his wife Kate live. They kindly offered to put us up for the night and took us out for a few beers and a meal in the area.
The next morning they led us back to Onehunga where we dropped off our van, Herpie, and they then gave us a lift to our apartment at Quay West, with a stop for some food in Ponsonby.

The apartment was great, our first proper home with a kitchen and bathroom since we left our flat in London in June 2004. We had 2 TVs, with satellite, a DVD player and a music system.

We did some last minute shopping on Queen Street on Xmas Eve and enjoyed the space and facilities of our apartment.

Christmas Day was quiet and relaxed, we both opened our presents in the morning and had a late lunch after watching part of the Queen’s Speech on TV. I did well in presents, getting a Lego Darth Vader pen, a copy of The Two Towers (I’m re-reading Lord of the Rings), and some funky little catroon figures called Major Moulty’s Amazing Magical Plastic Band .

We received packages from our parents with cards and presents which made us feel much closer to home. We used Skype on my Powerbook with my new Bluetooth headset to call home for much less than a normal phone call, though the quality wasn’t great, probably due to the low throughput we were getting on the Woosh wireless broadband setup that came with the flat.
We haven’t done a huge amount in Auckland, though we have used the gym in the building and had lots of home-cooked meals.

On Friday 30th, I broke a tooth, the one that the dentist in Thailand said would need root canal work when we got home. We got an emergency appointment at the White Cross Medical Centre on Ponsonby Road on New Years Eve. The excellent dentist there started a root canal procedure on the tooth with the intention of covering it over until I could get something more permanent done to it. As he worked he found that he couldn’t get into two of the three root canals as they were “calcified” so he ended up having to take the tooth out and sewing up the resulting hole.

That put a bit of a downer on our New Years Eve celebration as my mouth was bleeding quite badly for a while and I had to take pain-killers and antibiotics. Vic was also unwell with stomach-ache so we had a quiet night in, heading out to the balcony at midnight to watch the fireworks from the top of the SkyTower and send text messages to our friends, a full 13 hours before the UK saw the New Year in (which is a bit mind-bending if you spend much time thinking about it).


We had booked ourselves onto the Black Labyrinth trip at the Black Water Rafting Co. .

The rain had continued to tip down all morning and we thought that the trip may be in jeopardy but the company decided to go ahead with it, albeit with an extra guide due to the high water level.

We were taken round the back of the building to kit up. We donned wetsuits, very tasteful shorts and helmets with lamps. We then loaded ourselves into a minibus for the 5 minute drive to the cave. There were 8 visitors and 3 guides on the trip.

The first activity was to check that our rubber inner tubes would support us. Ths was done by getting each of us to hold our tube onto our backsides and then leaping backwards off a jetty into a stream. Vic and I were both less than keen on this but we both carried it off with
relative aplomb. So now we were cold and wet, as well as clad in soggy wetsuits. We jumped back into the minibus and were taken to the cave.

The entrance to the cave was a pretty small hole in the ground into which a fast flowing stream was gushing. The extra guide went frstto check out that the caves were still navigable due to the water levels still rising. He came back and gave the all clear and we then entered the caves one by one, taking great care not to be swept away by the thunderous force of the stream pouring into the cave.

Once we were all in we walked a little way in the caves before coming to our first “awkward bit”. This was passing through a tunnel into the next cave, but the water level was so high that you had to float through the tunnel lying flat on your back with your face an inch or two from the tunnel roof.

After that we got to float along tunnels on our inner tubes with our head-lamps turned off; the caves lit only by the glow-worms on the ceiling of the cave. The guides call the glow-worms “canniballistic maggots with shiny poo” which is apparently a more accurate description of them.

The next challenge was the waterfall. We had to leap off the waterfall into the dark holding on to our tubes, and then catch up with the rest of the group in the pool below.

We both managed that with not too much trouble, though Vic couldn’t see when she hit the water due to her contact lenses moving.

After that it was mostly more floating in the dark while holding on to the feet of another member of the group, and then paddling through the dark to the exit.

All in all we were underground for well over an hour and some parts of the trip were quite challenging with the huge amount of water flowing through the caves threatening to sweep you off your feet.

Emerging from the caves it was a relief to see that the rain had stopped, but the water level had risen even more.

We retired to our campsite and the pub and pizza restaurant across the road for some hot food and a beer before turning in early exhausted.

The next morning we woke to aching limbs, particularly our thighs from the semi-crouch walking in the cave. We picked up a couple of t-shirts from the caving company and dropped in at the Shearing Shed which specialises in products made from Angora rabbit wool, though we didn’t buy anything there.


More rain, with half-hour breaks, just long enough to think it might be worth doing something, but not long enough to actually do it.

We booked ourselves onto a white-water rafting trip on the Kaituna River, but the amount of rain coming down made the river dangerous enough that the trip was cancelled.

We consoled ourselves with a trip to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Close to the park there was a great pool of bubbling mud with huge bubbles of steam plopping through the grey mud. The actual park was pretty spectacular, lots of steaming craters, coloured by different chemical compounds. Some of the pools are full of fizzing water caused by carbon dioxide in the water.

Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu

It was great to walk round the pools in the rain with clouds of warm steam blowing round you.

The rain continued to soak the area and we decided to move on to Waitomo the next day.

Napier to Taupo

The next day we drove to Napier where we had decided to stay for a couple of days.

Napier is famous for its Art Deco architecture, a result of rebuilding following an earthquake in the 1930’s which destroyed much of the town. We drove up to the top of a hill in the middle of the town which had great views over Hawke’s Bay and the town.

We enjoyed a day relaxing in the town and van, making the most of the sunny weather. We also paid a visit to Opossum World which is a slightly disturbing shop stuffed with possum-related products, and an associated exhibition of the life and times of a possum in NZ.

After a couple of days in Napier we moved on towards Lake Taupo in the centre of the North Island. The journey was very scenic, passing fabulous waterfalls and landscapes formed following volcanic erruptions at Taupo.

As we travelled, the weather changed and it started to rain. And it rained and rained and didn’t look like stopping.

Arriving in Taupo we checked in at the campsite and then went for a meal in town. It continued to rain on and off for the rest of the day.

The next day we drove the short distance to a couple of the local Taupo attractions; the Huka Falls and the Craters of the Moon .

The Falls were in full flow after the rain, letting the water out of Lake Taupo into the Waikato River. It continued to rain while we were there, and hadn’t really stopped for a day or so.

The Craters of the Moon is a strange place. Formed when the nearby Geothermal Power Station was constructed in the 1950’s causing the water-table level to drop and causing the remaining water to boil up through the ground reating craters and steaming vents. The area is quite eerie, particularly in the gloomy rain-soaked weather we were experiencing. Clouds of steam rise from craters and vents, mud pools bubble and there’s a smell of sulpur. Strange but interesting place, and free to visit.

The next day we drove down to the Tongariro National Park, again in the rain. Having seen the area in the Lord of the Rings films, where it was used to depict the wastelands of Mordor, I had expected to drive through miles of volcanic rocky landscape. In contrast the area was actually very green and it’s only as you get higher up and closer to the various volcanoes and mountains that the area starts to take on the expected character.

As we drove up through Whakapapa, and past the Grand Chateau, the weather got worse and cloud came down. Reaching the end of the road at Iwikau Village and the Whakapapa Ski Field on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, the mountains had disappeared into the cloud and the rain poured down.

We popped into the shop and bought some bits and pieces, and by the time we emerged the rain had stopped and the cloud had lifted so we could walk around a little and take some photos, including one of the neighbouring cloud-cloaked mountains Mount Ngauruhoe, which was digitally enhanced in the LotR film trilogy to play the part of Mount Doom.
Mount Ruhapehu

We then drove back down to the Tawahi Falls in the greener area of the park to take some photos and have a spot of lunch.

After that it was on to Rotorua for a few days.

Catching Up – Bay of Plenty and East Cape

I’ve been slack so will catch up rapidly, probably skipping lots of detail that I’ve forgotten in the few weeks since the last update.

After the Coromandel Peninsular we drove East through Tauranga to Ohope (just past the town of Whakatane). Nice campsite, another Top 10 with access straight onto the beach.

The next day we drove right along the coast to Te Araroa, and then took the 20km gravel road to East Cape, the most easterly part of New Zealand, which is also home to the most Easterly lighthouse in the world (i.e. furthest East from the Greenwich Meridian). We didn’t walk up the hill to the lighthouse, but did take some photos of the area.

Vic and Nigel at East Cape, New Zealand

After driving back along the road we drove South down the East coast to Gisbourne. The roads along the way were in a pretty poor condition with large sections of road washed away during the Winter which slowed the journey quite a bit.

We reached Gisbourne quite late after a long tiring drive, but having enjoyed the countrside and views of the East Cape area.