Merry Xmas one and all from very much down under. Yes, the honeymoon travelers have arrived in New Zealand and with only six days to go till Xmas and 25 odd degrees outside I'm not sure we are going have white Xmas. As ever there is much to update you on, so bring your egg nogg over to the laptop and settle in for the next few minutes.
So the Latin American adventure is over, but in our last few days in Buenos Aires we managed to pack the activities in. Firstly there was our jaunt down to the artistic quarter of Bs As called La Boca. All very pretty, all very colourful until I was grabbed by a skimpily dressed tango dancer who wanted a photo. I a duly obliged and then the cheeky minx wanted 20 pesos (4 pounds) for the experience. Well me and wife hot footed it out of there only to be chased by her and her companion around the back streets of La Boca before finding refuge in someone's garden and joining their barbecue. Being on the run from the Tango Mafia, we thought it best to arm ourselves in the ways of the seductive dance, just in case we were trapped down an alley and the only way to fight our way out was through some sort of 'Tango dance off'. So we duly signed up for a dance lessons. Sadly from my point of view, being a married man now, the instructor was neither female nor born in the last 30 years. So I duly had to learn the steps cradling a rather sweaty and large 60 year old. Seductive it wasn't. However, by the end of the session, the wife and I were gliding our way around the floor like contestants on 'Strictly'.
There was still time to fit in some strange and experimental Buenos Aires theatre and a couple more steak sandwiches before flying back over to Santiago. I think it is only when you return to a place do you realise how much you like it and that was very much the case with Santiago. It was great to be out of the bustle of Bs As and have some room to breathe. We killed the day before our flight with a trip to the Estadio Espanol, a private country club/health club with our adopted Uncle Tito and ending up spending the day with 3 generations of Salazars reclining on sun beds and dipping into the pool. Not a bad life is it, before making our way to the airport for our flight to Auckland. There was still time for two chance meetings on the way: the first, rather excitingly, with the USA u20 female football team who had just won the world cup in Santiago...photo opps aplenty, and secondly, even more bizarrely, former Hampton School employee and fellow year long traveler Bernie Bennett, who happened to be on the same flight as us to NZ. And so we waved a teary goodbye to Latin America and began phase two of the world tour.
Arriving into Auckland at 6am, and never experiencing the 10th Dec by quirk of traveling east through the International Date Line, you are immediately struck by the cleanliness and freshness of the place. You could almost feel the health returning to both of us. That said, despite traveling through some pretty ropey areas, our attempt at cost cutting in Auckland led us into possibly the worst place we have stayed in whilst being away. So bad the walls weren't actually complete at the top and so we could hear the gent next door snoring as if he was actually in our room. Needless to say we slept in our sleeping bags that night, fearing what we might catch from the sheets that looked decidedly unchanged. It was with great relish we checked out early the next day and set off to explore the funky streets of Auckland and collect our campervan. Trying to keep fairly anonymous and low key as we move around the country is proving somewhat difficult, bearing in mind our campervan is adorned with 6 foot high cartoon characters from the children's book 'Where the Wild Things Are', meaning that pulling into any town we a generally followed by a procession a kids running alongside the van, and couldn't attract more attention if we played music and had a giant ice cream cone on the top of the vehicle. I have to confess to finding the whole experience of living in a van a little strange, especially when you pull into a campsite next to a naked German couple (yes, this really did happen), but Kirsty is more adept at feeding her inner-carnie and seems to have no trouble with the whole experience. It is surprisingly comfortable in the back though, and pulling up by the beach and barbecuing food out the back is pretty good fun. Whilst others hit the road and head out explore the sights of this country, our travel is entirely dictated by food, farmer's markets, cheese factories and wineries. We are attempting to eat our way around the country to make up for lost time in Latin America.
NZ is beautiful. It is the most beautiful place either us of have ever been. It is so beautiful I am considering cheating on the wife with it. Other countries have their beautiful parts, but I have never been to somewhere where so much of the country is so stunning. You drive for hours and ugliest thing you see is your reflection in the rear view mirror. The whole place is almost pre-historic and you wouldn't be surprised if a dinosaur poked its head out of the forest and the disappeared back into the greenery. It is untouched and undeveloped, and the fact that 4.2 million people live here in a space comparable to the UK explains part of the story and as 1.4million live in Auckland, that leaves a lot of space for the other 2.8 million. Like Costa Rica, there is a great reverence for nature here and the New Zealanders want to keep their country beautiful. It is no shock that the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was filmed here and we will be traveling to Mount Doom to return our Wedding rings into the fires whence they were forged…the only way to destroy them I hear. Perhaps the only surprising thing about the whole LOTR phenomenon is that Frodo and his chums never stopped off for surf at one of the amazingly peaceful and picturesque beaches. Surfing is awesome here, and whilst my brief dalliance with the waves in Panama was a little bit like going into the ring with Ricky Hatton, a consistent pounding, surfing the waves at Muriwai beach can only be compared going into the ring with a prime Mike Tyson…you knew what was coming, but there wasn't anything you could do about it. For your info, Muriwai is also home to a large gannet colony which you can see, and smell, circling gracefully over the rocks.
The other thing about the 'Land of the Long White Cloud' is that people here are just so friendly. Everybody is says hello to you and the fact that I was merely carrying a surfboard, not the fact that I can barely use the thing, is noteworthy of waving and acceptance from fellow surfers. People are interested in talking to you and finding out about you, and they always have some helpful suggestions about where to go or stay next.
So here is whistle stop tour of everything we have done in the last week: Heading north out of Auckland we hit Matakana's farmer's market, Goat Island Marine Reserve, the Bay of Islands, Kerikeri's farmer markets, surfing as Muriwai beach, Hot Water Beach…where you can dig into the sand and create your own hot pool heated by the volcanic activity below, Opoutere beach…the most beautiful spot in the world and the best campsite, Rotorua for mud baths and white water rafting over a seven metre waterfall….woohoo, Lake Taupo for honey tasting, lake site photosand the Huka Falls, Napier for fish and chips (or fush and chups as it sounds like over here) on the beach and a stroll through the art deco designed town, onto Hastings and Havelock North for cheese tasting, before hitting multiple wineries on the way down through Hawke's Bay. Which leaves us here today staying with some more family… no not adopted Salazars, although there is a rumour that there are some out in these parts. No, this time it is from the McDonald side of the family in the form of Kirsty's cousin Laura, her husband George and their two lovely kids Tessa and Max. We are well and truly out in farming country at the moment and the lack of noise when we arrived was almost a little disconcerting, but the scenery is stunning as per normal and it has been great to sleep in a comfortable bed for a few nights.
So plans for the future: tomorrow we head to Martinborough for more wineries, then down to Wellington and crossing over to the South Island on 23rd Dec, before spending Xmas Eve touring the Marlborough wineries by bike and selecting our Xmas wine. Yes it may not feel particularly Xmas like out here, but we are doing our best to celebrate in style.
So Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to all of you around the globe and I leave you with this age old conundrum; 'Is Mama Mia the worst, best film ever or the best, worst film ever?'. We have been trying to solve this one since spending 2 hours watching it on the plane from Santiago.