Dave's Blog

It doesnít seem real to me. A long awaited, once in a lifetime family trip. We leave very soon. No more school run, no more thinking about work. Thatís the rub though, I am leaving here two days before Gab Ella and Florence (and Paddy) to finish off my years work. Why canít we just all fly off together like a normal family.
Three weeks work left to finish off a great year. We donít start our Family Trip till after I finish in Melbourne on the 18th Dec. Just another work departure so it feels. Here I sit in an empty house. That's different.
Off on the trip that will be the time of our lives where Gabby and I get to really know each other at last Ö.after 12 years.
Unagi.

McLeod Ganj

Date: 10/07/2007 | Author: Dave

Have definitely waited too long to write this blog.
Home now for three weeks and our last week in India seems like it was in another lifetime. Reincarnation aside, write I must.
Manali to Dharmsala. Either a bus trip or another Toyota Qualis. The latter is the best option. It is easier to see your driver falling asleep in the Qualis and therefor safer.
It always takes longer than you would think to get around in India. I have come to expect only about 30kms in every hour and they still manage to make that hair raising.
We are starting our two part Tibetan experience, in India. First we have two nights at Norling House at the Norbulingka Institute. The accom is in a lovely circular building on the complex. At Norbulinka, Tibetan culture is kept alive in a way that is impossible in their homeland. The Tibetans are charming and gentle people. Buddhists of course, which as a religion I find hard to fault.
While there Gabby took the girls to see a Tibetan doctor (that we had met earlier on our travels) primarily to let her have a look at Ella's persistent ankle wart but also to give Florence a once over. Gabby, never short of a topic asked, "Why does Florence seem to have the weight of the world on her shoulders?". They checked her pulse and other vital signs. "She is very mature" was the diagnosis. Oh bless... that explains a lot.
We take an early taxi up to McLeod Ganj to attend a long life Puja for the Dalai Lama. I settle in with the girls, prime position up front while Gabby takes our cameras off premises. You can normally bring a camera into the temple complex but not if his holiness is going to make an appearance we discover. Not long to wait and a very sprightly 71 year old monk speeds by us in the company of his identically robed entourage. Our girls were too busy being respectful and unfortunately did not see which one was the Dalai Lama. We settle down close to the temple as an endless stream of well-wishers bring presents. We are fed handfuls of sweet rice and very weak tea poured from huge metal tea pots which is nice but I am not comfortable (physically) and after half an hour it pleases me that we have all had enough of the chanting and watching people with curiously similar looking presents file through. It was fantastic to get a glimpse of such a great man but needs must and we think we have seen a cafe just up the hill that may do a nice English Breakfast. We like McLeod Ganj a lot and spend our next four nights here at Chonor House. A lovely hotel owned by the Norbulinka Institute and overlooking the Dalai Lamas temple complex. Staying at Chonor is a real treat. We booked it about a month ago.
One wet night I met a monk up a dark lane-way near Chonor. He asks if he can come around for English lessons (and tea on the deck) of a morning. Seems like a good idea to me. Each morning we chat and I hear the story of his walk out of Tibet over the Himalayas. On the Dalai Lama's birthday my girls also chat to some young Tibetan kids preparing to dance at the festivities. (We were backstage of course.) They were carried out of Tibet as three year olds and their parents are all still there. Got the kids out but no chance to escape themselves? Hard to fathom and it's hard to ask. The more we travel the more we learn and the more grateful I am for being born in the right place at the right time. The Chinese walked into Tibet over 50 years ago and the destruction of this unique culture and the persecution of these people continues today.
I don't want to go on about it but some facts just fascinate me. Five of Asia's great rivers have their headwaters in Tibet, including the Mekong, Indus and Brahmaputra, nearly half of the worlds population lives downstream from Tibet.
While In Laos and Vietnam we witnessed peoples distress at China's plans for dams on the Mekong. I would like to see the world come to the aid of Tibet in my life-time. That would make me very happy.
Homeward bound we have just one more scary journey from McLeod Ganj to Delhi to get our flight. We toyed with the idea of a sleeper bus but the sight of a bus carcass being pulled up from a ravine at a hairpin bend just out of town sets us off looking for another Qualis. I know a lot of people travel by bus in India but we just can't face it. We talked to a chap in McLoed Ganj who said that the beds on those sleeper busses are greasy anyway and it was while riding on them that he came to the conclusion that people actually smell like dogs. He supported our decision to take a car.
We do a one night stop over about half way at Vaseela Resort near Chandigarh (Punjab). It is everything we were expecting 'Nature Notes' to be. It is charming and sophisticated. The kids appreciate the first good pool we have seen since Vietnam and the Punjabi museum onsite is very nice. We are just here to sleep but could have stayed a few days easily.
Anyway, that is about it. Airport hotel, easy flight home.
Oh, and I nearly forgot. Very very well treated by Virgin. Red wine from first class, two full bottles of Champagne and other gifts. Photos taken in the cockpit after landing.
Gabby says they simply took a shine to the girls.
I am not so sure .........but thanks anyway.

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Manali and Trek 2

Date: 01/07/2007 | Author: Dave

We don't as a rule arrive in a town without accommodation already booked but having earlier spent some days in Manali it seems an OK plan. It take two rickshaws to get us and all our bags up to Vashisht. I sit with the girls and the flies while Gabby has a scout around. After an hour we realise that we have definitely come to the wrong side of the river. Lots of accom for 150 rupees..... (dirt and flies, no extra charge). We head back over the river to Old Manali where we find a more than satisfactory lodging at Veer Guest House for 400 rupees (£5) per night with great views back across to Vashisht and the waterfall. (I guess the reason I am mentioning these rates is because I am still a little vexed at having paid 6400 per night at Nature Notes.) Old Manali has more character and is perfect for us. The old wooden houses here have slates on their roofs up to 2 inches thick and are built from big timbers to support all this weight. It would have looked amazing here before concrete construction arrived in these hills.
Nine out of ten travellers in Old Manali and Vashisht seem to be Israeli. I have never seen such a concentration of travellers from any one country before! Old Manali however, has the slightly more cosmopolitan feel.
We have a few lazy days here but still manage a few nice walks. Through the forest back into New Manali is lovely and due to the 5rp fee is pretty deserted as well. Up to the waterfall at Vashisht was a good climb but with a rather precarious viewing perch at the end.
We have been talking to High Adventure and would like to do another trek here rather than wait till Dharmsala. The suitable treks for us near Dharmsala are in forest so we decide on a three day trek up to Chandra Tal in the Spiti Valley to the north of here. It is above the tree-line where things become spectacular in this part of the world and we know we can camp in forest elsewhere.
By the time we leave, we have condensed our plans to a two night trek and have a very experienced, level headed guide on board called Baggy. There is a lot of driving on this trek. Our first leg is up over the Rohtang Pass. This is the destination for a thousand Indian tourists every day for some play in a small patch of rather dirty snow. This pass in not accessible for six months of the year (winter) but right now there are lots of things to keep the Indian tourists amused, on what is probably their first visit to the snow. You can have your photo taken in front of a Ganesh snow carving, ride on a Yak or take unorthodox looking horizontal ski lessons. After a stop for breakfast we leave this 'winter wonderland' behind us and wind down into the Spiti Valley. Little rain falls here. There are no trees and the boulder strewn landscape is the most inhospitable I have ever seen.
Five and a half hours after leaving Manali in our 4WD we arrive at Chhota Dara, (houses three, population one). We have with us, in addition to Baggy, our cook Viki and from our last trek, helper Arun. They set our camp as we wonder what might be going on in Chhota Dara tonight. Disco anyone?
The views are imposing. No photograph can or will portray the scale of what surrounds us. We take a walk with Baggy up a small rocky slope. It looks near from the camp but when we reach the ridge and look back, our tents are tiny dots on a postage stamp of green. This is not nearly as pretty as our last trek but we are glad to be here.
There is no wood in the Spiti Valley so no camp fire tonight, much to our dismay. However the occupant of the nearby town is burning something, so I despatch Arun to exchange cash for timber. Alas, no joy, it will have to be an early to bed for us tonight.
We try sleeping in separate tents here, but at 3 a.m. and probably minus 3 degrees the girls come knocking on our tent flap. Nice to see the munshskins. Both Gab and I have a fitful nights sleep and in the morning I am feeling rather ropey but Gabby is worse. She is very ill. Is it altitude sickness or a stomach bug? We can't be sure, but decide that She had better stay in her sleeping bag for a few hours before we decide on the best direction to head. Gabby doesn't want to force the end of trek so I decide for her that a decent to Manali is the sensible option. If this is altitude sickness then going up to Chandra Tal would be wrong and if it is a stomach bug staying in this cold thin air will be uncomfortable. Ella and Florence are in good spirits and seem absolutely fine.
On our drive down I start feeling worse but it is tempered somewhat by the adrenaline ones body produces as a passenger on roads like these. The Indian driving style is hard to explain, it is so diametrically opposed to the Western. After a lot of consideration I have come up with a compact description.

"THE ONLY IMPORTANT CAR ON THE ROAD IS YOUR OWN, YOU CAN BE ANYWHERE ON IT YOU WANT, AT ANY TIME YOU WANT, AS LONG AS YOU BLOW YOUR HORN A LOT."

Our driver was worrying me slightly as we traversed these tricky slopes. I had been smelling petrol fumes for quite a while and in the interest of driver precision I called for a stop. I traced the smell to a cardboard box in the back of the car. Typically Indian, they turned the box over so you couldn't see it anymore.
Our driver had many stand-offs in the middle of the road with all sorts of vehicles (even army) but he had a massive disadvantage. His horn had stopped working. He kept a brave face but had to do more than his fair share of reversing.
By the time we arrived in Manali Gabby felt a lot better, but my condition had deteriorated and I spent most of the next 24 hrs in bed at Veer Guest House. So glad I wasn't in a sleeping bag, 100 kms from the nearest flushing toilet.
By day two back in Old Manali things had settled down for me as well so both Gabby and I felt compelled to treat ourselves. I have not had a massage in India since Kerala 18 months ago. I was a bit put off them there, to be honest. Don't want to go into the details. Anyway, we had seen a place nearby called 'Lotus' with two very satisfied men exiting, and they did not look gay. We settled the kids down to some homework in their reception and both had a very good massage. My bliss was dented slightly when I was told by the masseur that at 47 I had the body of a 55 year old! Of course, I have been thinking of doing yoga (to improve my flexibility) for about 5 years now.
I will start tomorrow.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Date: 24/06/2007 | Author: Dave

We had been promising ourselves a trek in the Himalayas since our journey started last year and promising Ella and Florence a donkey or horse on this trek in case they need it. We book with a company called High Adventure. They chose a three day trek for us and paced it perfectly. We packed a rucksack each and left our bags at Jimmy Johnson's. High Adventure's office is almost next door and our team are busy repacking as the Indian family that were to trek with us have cancelled at the last minute.
We set off and travelled for 45mins in a taxi until a rope across the road stopped us. Time to jump in the 4wd with our porters and guide. 5 minutes later we are stopped by another rope across the road that this time signifies 'Government Vehicles Only'. It takes only ten minutes for a friend of our driver's to appear in a Gov't Vehicle. India works in mysterious ways, but it does work, and this new car takes us to the start of our walk at the head of the Solang Valley.
With our backpacks on the horse we follow the River Beas up a valley that becomes increasingly steep and spectacular. After about an hour and a half we reached a nomad camp and share some hot buffalo milk while we rested. Our girls use the horse for most of the climb from there. It takes another hour and a half to get to our campsite at 3500m. Gabby and I have lagged a little behind the rest and the tents are almost pitched as we arrive at Baker Thach (place for shepherds). We are not walking at our usual pace in this rarified air. We have all been in mountains before but this is bigger and more spectacular. Higher peaks and larger valleys. Welcome to the Himalayas. We are blown away by the beauty of this place. We have two tents but choose to all sleep in one for warmth.
Sometime in the middle of the night I wake with a pressure on my lower abdomen. I reach down and feel something wet. I reach over my head and grab a torch. I have a black and white dog, I have never seen before, curled up on my sleeping bag. 'Get Out' I say, and without argument she returns to the cold. I fully zip the tent.
The second day we walk to Beas Kund, the source of the River Beas. We climbed from our camp up a hill that is actually an old buried glacier face. On the top there has been a very recent subsidence and we get to see a portion of this 300m deep block of glacial ice. It probably hasn't seen daylight for about 80 years as the glacier has now receded many kilometres up the mountain from here. We stare as the sun carves it's way into this super hard ice. Rock and dirt is sliding down into the hole as the ice melts. It is not the safest place my family and I have ever lingered.
From here we descend into the old Beas Kund lake bed. Traverse it's many streams (including a warm one!) uphill all the way over stone and ice till we finally stop at the base of a waterfall, the official source of the River Beas, at about 4200m. I know it's not Everest, but I think this is our family altitude record.
Camping at Baker Thach was ideal. Shalu cooked great food and in the evening we lit a toasty camp fire in-between two large rocks. Dead wood is hard to find here. We Braceys only ever managed to bring back a small handful of sticks whereas Rajul would appear sooner or later with a massive faggot on his back.
On our last morning our horseman appears with impeccable timing and we make our decent back down to the Solang Valley. As we drive back into Manali we are already talking about doing another trek. This was a highlight of our trip without a doubt.

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Getting to Manali

Date: 21/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Gabby found Nature Notes on Trip Advisor and everything pointed to it being the best place for Florence's birthday. Cabins right next to the River Beas in the beautiful Kullu Valley. The web site and Gabby's conversation with Amit sold it to us and we paid for our five days in cash as we left Rishikesh to secure the last two cabins. Nature Notes sounded like an Indian version of Centre Parcs with all inclusive facilities and "five star nature". At 6400 rupees per day it will easily be the most expensive place we stay at in India on this trip. Florence is a bit sad that she won't be seeing any friends for her birthday, so we want to make it as special as we can.
It has been a gruelling journey from Shimla and we arrive at Nature Notes in time for a late lunch. I am a little confused and not sure if we are in the right place as we get out of the car. The location is nice but we can see at a glance that we have arrived at something less than we were expecting. You know that sinking feeling. Owner in your face asking what you think of the place. "Great location" is all I can say. Gabby's only words to me are "F***ing hideous". I try to make sure the kids can't see her crying but Ella spots it. It had meant a lot to her to get this right for Florence and it is looking very wrong. We knew the rooms would be small but they are tiny, dirty and characterless. The promised facilities do actually exist. The children's play area is a small plastic slide and the pool is a direct feed from the river. Only members of the Bondi Icebergers swim in water this temperature. They seem to have an easy answer for any questions we have about their establishment. We are majorly disappointed and although the place grows on us a trip up to Manali on day three seals our destiny.
We find Jimmy Johnson's Lodge, the eighty year old building in the grounds of Johnson's Cafe. We look at a space with two large bedrooms (one with a fireplace), two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living space opening onto a garden. Very neat and oozing with charm, all for 4400 rupees per night. Still expensive by local standards but worth every rupee. For Gabby and I the choice is clear but we do the right thing and let Florence chose where she would like to spend her birthday.
She ponders this over lunch and excellent chocolate cake at Johnson's Cafe.
The following morning we pack our bags and check out of Nature Notes. I receive a bill for all of our non-veg food but in a conversation with U.S Chawla (Amit's dad and onsite boss) he not only tears up this bill but gives me 6400 rupees in cash. We are very happy to be leaving and this partial refund takes the edge off our disappointment. U. S. Chawla keeps repeating "so our account is closed, yes?" I agreed, so true to my word I will not be going back to Trip Advisor to leave a review. He did not have to give us anything. Our cottage at Johnson's is fantastic for three days and Florence has a wonderful birthday. They made her a superb chocolate cake.
We were invited that night to the hotel of a very nice Sikh family from Delhi. They were aghast at our Indian trials and tribulations so far and to my surprise had U.S.Chawla's phone number on their mobile. For a moment there was a fervency to make a call! An interesting evening with a very nice Sikh family. These encounters with Sikh's are becoming a welcome and quite regular occurrence for us.
Our tide of bad luck has turned in India and we are literally headed for the hills. The Himalayas beckon.

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India please be good to us

Date: 15/06/2007 | Author: Dave

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the local time in Delhi is 9:30 p.m. and the temperature is 44 degrees Celsius." So glad to be on this Jet Airways flight. They really helped us out.
We settle into the 'Master Paying Guest House' quite late and have a 7am train to catch in the morning. The idea is to head to Rishikesh early and escape the Delhi heat. We already know that it is no cooler in Rishikesh but it is at the start of the Himalayan foothills so we are headed in the right direction. Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of the heat but dirty, dusty, smelly humid heat is not my cup of tea. Speaking of tea, we have chosen to spend time in the holy town of Rishikesh. Yoga and dipping a toe in the Ganges, yes, alcohol a definite no. Booze is not available and that can only be good for us. Anyway I am getting ahead of myself.
Back at Delhi train station and I am being 'helped' to the ticket confirmation office. We haven't managed to print out our e-ticket and the 'helpful man sitting across the desk from me under the almost official looking 'Govt Tourist Office' sign is repeatedly connecting with an automated message on his speaker phone. "Computer down" he says. In-between phone calls he is giving me quotes on cars to Rishikesh and beyond. US$1300 for one month. Very small car. Time is ticking by and that bloody computer is still down. I grab my stuff and run for it. "We will have to take our chances" I say as I run out the door and back to my family. There are no flies on me. I have allowed us 15 minutes to get to our train, totally unaware that platform 12 is a 12 minute sprint from where the girls are standing with all our bags.
That car sure would have come in handy if I had been delayed much longer.
This was not too stressful and we settled into a comfortable train journey to Haridwar. Haridwar train station was boiling hot and our car was not there to pick us up, even one hour later. It took that long to arrange a car. This area is full of pilgrims at the moment.
So started five days that made us feel like calling off the rest of our trip and going home.
Getting to our hotel in Rishikesh was a physical and mental endurance test. We dragged our bags for a kilometre through the crowds and cows after having to leave our taxi on the wrong side of the river. I left Gabby and the girls while I pressed on with two bags up about 60 steep steps to where I could finally get a rickshaw to our accommodation. Peasants Cottage did not have our booking but luckily a room was available. We stayed there in the High Bank area of Rishikesh for three nights, venturing down into the town or wandering along the ghats watching the pilgrims bathe in the Ganges and joining in the arti at sunset. As Ella sent her burning offering (puja) down this most holy of rivers she took a wrong step in this brown water and disappeared up to her neck.
It was over 40 degrees when we arrived in Rishikesh but some monsoon rains took the temperature way down.
High Bank is a backpacker enclave. Our neighbour at Peasants Cottage, Ashlie, recommended a place further up the Ganges called the Glasshouse. Peasants Cottage booked two nights there for us but as we were leaving the next day mentioned that the booking was only 99% confirmed. Our bags were already in the car so 99% sounded good odds at that point.
It is easy to guess what happened next. An hour and a half later we arrived back at Peasants Cottage. Gabby is still holding the bag of sick (flo's) as we demand the return of 1000 rupees for the taxi and our old room back for the night. The boss here, Rajeev, has been booking everything for us this side of Delhi and has been responsible for 99% of our grief so far. No one even hints at an apology and Rajeev, cleverly, never introduces himself.
We organise our own car to take us to Manali. It is a 9hr drive to Shimla, a high hill station that must have seen better days. Our hotel, 'Little Inn', is in the process of being brought up to international standards by a very patient Kiwi. He has a long way to go and we were royally overcharged for our room. A disappointment but all our fault. Our driver has stayed with us and early the next morning speeds off down the windy mountain roads toward Manali. Florence seems to have received the mantle of car-sick daughter from Ella, who now handles car journeys very well. There is nothing like the sound of someone being sick in your car to slow you down a bit around those tight curves.
After seven hours in the car we arrive at our destination for the next five days, 'Nature Notes' on the River Beas, just 25km short of Manali. We have high expectations as this is the place we have chosen to spend Florence's 7th birthday in 4 days time.

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Toward India

Date: 10/06/2007 | Author: Dave

We have spent time before in Goa and Kerala. We love India, but it is the most frustrating country in the world - a cautionary tale unfolds before we even leave Vietnam.
I have made six calls to the Virgin Airways Contact Centre to change the date of our Bangkok - Delhi flight. Over four hours on the phone and all I got was erroneous information and bad advice from Ashu, Yamini, Anesh, Abhi (twice) and Paul. I am not exaggerating. Yamini told me to go to the Virgin counter at Bangkok airport to get our tickets endorsed. I was to discover that there is no Virgin counter at Bangkok airport. Three times I had to fax a copy of our tickets to them. The whole story is hours long, boring and sad to recount. It was a comedy of incompetence on the part of the Virgin call centres. Abhi had never heard of Vietnam so had trouble even appreciating where I was calling from!
All of these call centre travel professionals are based in Delhi and Mumbai.
I am good at remaining calm when all seems lost and as an introduction to India perhaps Virgin have helped prepare me for what is to come.

p.s. I arranged our new fights (myself) for the Bangkok - Delhi leg at the airport early on the morning of our departure. A lucky encounter with a local manager of Jet Airways turned the tide of my torment. He could have turned me away but instead made me smile and all for no extra charge.
Virgin are a good airline but somehow they created impossible from the incredibly simple.
tip: Avoid paper tickets if you think there is any chance you may want to change a flight.

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Hanoi

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Hanoi is the place where are travels combine with real life the most. Hair cuts, new glasses, camera repair etc. We experienced this fine city in three bursts. Twice at the Hanoi Paradise Hotel in the Old Quarter and then for our last two nights at the lovely Kate's house.
The Old Quarter is by a long shot the maddest piece of a city I have ever been in. Most of the pavements are occupied by the contents of shops, street restaurant seating, cooking, bicycle repair stations and parked motorbikes. Consequently, pedestrians get to share the road with the (5) millions of motorbikes said to be in Hanoi on any given day. My first 24hrs in the Old Quarter involved three near misses. Here (as in Saigon) they are the masters of the near miss. To cross the road without flinching takes a few days of practice. (tip) Move at a slight diagonal toward the traffic and never ever stop. Gaps open up for you.
In the same way as being four up on a small motorcycle with no helmets in this traffic feels irresponsible, dragging one's children out into this oncoming traffic feels the same. You are just trusting that no-one will hit you.
We arrived back from our trip to Sapa at 5am. The life in the city at this time of day is amazing. Our taxi took us via the lake back to the Hanoi Paradise. The hotel opened up and took our bags. Straight away we jumped onto motorbikes and went back down to the lake. We probably would never have dragged ourselves out of bed that early just to see people exercising but once we started walking around Hoan Kiem Lake I was so glad to be amongst the action. We are watching an early morning ritual, as suggested by Ho Chi Minh, that thousands still partake in today, some 40 years after his death. If Tony Blair said that we should exercise in Hyde Park at 5am I doubt that 40 people would turn up. (see video)
From here we head to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum to pay our respects to this country's eminent leader. We thought we were getting a head start on the crowds but joined a queue that we could not see the other end of. After filing in strict silence past his body we carried on to have a look at his humble stilt house in the grounds of the presidential palace. A rather fractious day this turned out to be and we all should have had a siesta.
We adopted the very cosmopolitan streets near St Joseph's Cathedral for shopping and dining. There is a great tapas bar there called 'Salsa'. Ella and I both had haircuts around the corner from 'Salsa'. Mine went well, but Ella was in tears for two days. The rest of us thought it looked great!
There are many artists in Hanoi that copy (oil) paintings and we found a pencil artist that we liked and had him copy a photo of Ella and Florence. It looks fantastic. We got him to sign it so that it is not as easily mistaken for a black and white photograph. We need to post this (and also the impressive pile of dresses that Gabby has purchased) home before we leave for India.
When we first arrived in Hanoi we went out to West Lake to meet Kate and her boys. Kate had emailed us a few recommendations for Vietnam before we arrived in Asia and we were keen to meet her. An affable Australian with three very nice boys. They live, with their French dad, in a big house by the water with a pool in the attic that opens up to a nice view of the lake. After our trip to Halong Bay, we spend our last two nights in Vietnam at Kate's. Her hospitality was outstanding. A very cool lady.

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Ahh... Halong Bay. With 3000 limestone islands rising steeply from the bay, this is a must see. We had heard that Halong Bay was dirty and crowded but visiting with this in mind we were pleasantly surprised. Twice we swam off the back of our boat. The water is a milky turquoise (probably from the limestone) and so has limited visibility but it is not polluted. As we chug slowly around in our boat we do see the occasional shoe or plastic bag floating by but this is Asia and unfortunately that is normal.
Our boat is the Lagoon Explorer, a junk that sleeps seven and boasts that it is the only junk in Halong capable of actually sailing. Always a romantic notion but I wasn't really expecting them to attempt it. The sails were hoisted for atmosphere only.
A one night trip only scratches the near edge of the bay but still manages to show us enough to satisfy. We were taken on our tender through a low cave into a peaceful lagoon completely surrounded by virgin jungle and rock escarpments. We ruined the peace of several kayakers as we chugged in, but switched our motor off and joined their tranquility for a while. Next stop was Dao Titop for a quick walk up the 402 steps to the viewing pagoda. Well worth an elevated look over the bay from here. (see photo page)
We were sharing our boat with three Australian ladies. An ex-schoolteacher, Sue, provided Ella with hours of chat. It was a match made in heaven. Someone that seemed to know something about most things and Ella, who is never short of a question.
All of the junks moor up overnight in the same location (so the police can keep an eye on them) which makes the bay seem crowded as we settle down to our dinner. Dinner, mon Dieu, I have never been so overfed. Six courses and a lot of it. Good, fresh seafood.
First stop in the morning was Hang Sot Cave, which has three chambers and a total area of one square kilometre. All the usual cave highlights here. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you use your imagination you can see..." a woman praying, a lion, a peacock and some broccoli, all very nicely lit. Myself, I was impressed by the enormity of the main chamber (the biggest I have seen) and the caves premier stalagmites, the giant pink penis and the big green turtle. No imagination required for these two.
A short trip to Halong but perhaps that is all we needed. Happily heading back to Hanoi.

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Respite from the heat

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Sapa sits at 1650m on the side of a beautiful valley north-west of Hanoi and close to the Chinese border. We caught the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then early on a very misty morning wound our way by bus the last 38km to Sapa. As we drove, we climbed 1000m with the lush scenery teasing us through the fog. Sapa is touristy but we were expecting that. Our original plan was to head due north from Hanoi into reputedly stunning mountain country around Dong Van and Meo Vac. Untouched territory barely mentioned in guide books. But for several reasons (including malaria, rain/mud, and some long car journeys) we adjusted our compass from intrepid back onto the tourist trail.
We checked into the 'Royal View' and indeed, as the clouds cleared, it certainly was. I can see why the French came here to escape from the heat. Across the valley is Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and stretching out below us a variegated carpet of rice paddy terraces. We spend our three days in Sapa mainly walking through the nearby minority villages. Although a bit touristy they are far more interesting than the villages we saw in Thailand. The H'mong and Red Zoa peoples have farmed this valley for generations and would be here regardless of tourists. These villages are a model of tranquility. Water buffalo preparing the flooded ground and the hand planting of the rice seedlings. The green is vivid and the views reflecting in the flooded terraces are serene.
However, as in Sapa, all western tourists here pick up a small entourage of women and children carrying their brightly dyed wares. The older women all have blue hands from a lifetime of using their home-made indigo dye and the call of "buy for me, buy for me" is a strain on ones good humour after a while. In this temperature I could sit and stare for hours but you are not permitted to become that relaxed.
After three days I am excited about returning to Hanoi.

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Hue - tourist dollar rant

Date: 27/05/2007 | Author: Dave

We took the day train from Danang to Hue. Not the Orient Express but it can boast some lovely elevated coastal views as it strains at walking pace up and around several headlands and bays. In Hue we have booked into the Saigon Morin. It is the oldest and one of the nicest hotels in Hue. It's great to treat ourselves occasionally. Gabby books all of the hotels and , in theory, I control the purse strings. The system is a simple one - She says "Darling can we stay somewhere really nice in Hue" and I say "Of course we can" - and everyone is happy.
It is normal for motorcycle, cyclo and taxi drivers to try to overcharge but as we get further north in Vietnam it is getting worse. I am becoming a lot less soft about parting with my tourist dollar. It is culturally bad manners to loose your temper with these people so even in the face of daylight robbery (they work well in pairs) I am managing to calmly admonish them for their indiscretions. We spent an hour visiting the remains of the Purple Forbidden Palace and then took a pair of Cyclos around the old citadel. As the girls wander back into the hotel I am left trying to pay our drivers the agreed price. I am beginning to realise why they always drop off just out of sight of the hotel entrance. They come up with many reasons why I should pay them more. Keeping your Dong in your hand in these situations is tricky. I don't seem to have the correct change and they grab an inflated fee from my hand. It seems easy enough to take it back from them and I sort it out in the end. Their final ploy is always to look very sadly at you. I know that western tourists = cash in their eyes but overpaying doesn't help. There are 16,000 Dong to one $US.
Even on a more official level there are different prices for Vietnamese and foreigners. Separate queues for foreigners tickets and even menus written in English will have bigger numbers on them than their Vietnamese equivalents.
Food in Vietnam is definitely more expensive than Laos and Cambodia. We don't eat street food with the kids and Gabby and I like occasionally to find a nice wine list. I know that it is not a giant leap from noodles to pasta but spaghetti bolognese can be twice the price of say, noodles with crab. No prizes for guessing which is our girls favourite.

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Hoi An - Cham Island

Date: 24/05/2007 | Author: Dave

Hoi An is the City of Tailors and this is my favourite city on our travels so far. The ancient town centre here was thankfully untouched by the war. Half of the shops here in Hoi An are 'cloth shops' and I think there must be at least 500 of them. I doubt that there is one tourist or backpacker here that is not having something made.
Yaly is the obvious choice if you want to spend a little more money and avoid the stress of choosing from the rest. I had two suits made by Yaly and they do look stush. These two plus about twenty other dresses, shirts and shorts all for less than I would have paid for just one tailor made suit in London. Oh yes, and postage here is cheap and easy as well. The post office comes to your hotel with a box and some scales.
We had been recommended the Thanh Xuan (Long Life) Hotel by two separate south bound travellers that we had met on our way up the country. The Thanh Xuan recently added a pool and breakfast area out the back adjacent to the paddy fields that we view from our room. Only 500m walk to the ancient town and if there are friendlier hotel staff anywhere in Vietnam I will eat my hat. Not the hat the Kea stole in NZ but my new one.
5 Kms away from the Ancient Town is the beach. It is magnificent. A wide clean beach stretching 30km north to Da Nang and barely a hotel in sight. From this beach on our first day we saw Cham Island. Two years ago foreigners needed a permit to go there but now, day tours are free of such paperwork. We discover that it is possible to also stay overnight in tents on a beach there. We have enough time in Hoi An to do this so we break our daily ritual of Yaly visits and head on over. As well as us on the boat, there are only two other locals on a day trip. We stop first at a village for a stroll and then our boat takes us on to our beach. It looks idyllic but there are signs that they are preparing to build. They have already formed a bed for the creek to stop it cutting a random path to the ocean when the rains come. (Oct - Mar) Still, this beach is pretty postcard perfect and we are almost alone. There are two small restaurants here and a few divers are drinking at one of them.
Late that afternoon our bliss is slightly dented by the arrival of (ironically) a group of Vietnamese travel agents. They have arranged to play loud music on the beach after dinner. Their idea of paradise differs slightly from ours. Our guide, Hwa, pitches our tent and then we drag it 50m down the beach to a more intimate location. I had a chat with Hwa yesterday as we walked through the village. He said that eventually you will be able to get jet skis here and those parachutes that you tow up behind a boat. I knew he was not joking and explained to him that the availability of jet ski hire is reason enough for us to avoid a beach. I don't think my comment even registered in his top 100 tourism anecdotes.
That night, high tide comes closer to our tent than I would have expected. We all awake, dry, at 6am. It was not the best nights sleep I have ever had (should have levelled out the sand first) but I dare say as a camping location it would be very hard to beat.

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Whale Island

Date: 17/05/2007 | Author: Dave

It was bucketing down as we left Saigon. Almost couldn't get a taxi for the five minute drive from Christine's house to the train station. The train was a nice way to get up the coast to Nha Trang. The soft sleeper cabins are four berth so we score privacy with our overnight comfort. We hear stories of the bus journeys here and they are scary.
Whale Island Resort mixed up our arrival day so we had to call them at 7am from the station. But, from that point on their attention to detail (and their resort) was excellent. Not on Whale Island itself but on the small island of Hon Ong positioned between the peninsular that juts outs 60km north of Nha Trang and Whale Island.
The resort calls itself a hotel run marine reserve. They have the potential for about 70 guests (all in bungalows) but we land there during the month when they are sometimes empty. It is truly lovely here and after a few days we are so relaxed that moving on from this place just seems foolish. They feed us well and I find it refreshing not to have to look at a menu for five days.
We spend a lot of time snorkelling. A boat leaves at nine every morning to a couple of sites with good corals but not a lot of fish. The local fishermen still use dynamite occasionally and of course they are anti the marine reserve. As I saw in my youth in Tasmania, it will take ten years before the fishermen realise that their fish stocks are increasing because of the marine reserve.
On our first trip out we detoured via a small fishing village. A great place to pick up some soft shell crab for dinner that night and partake in a spot of karaoke while we were there. Gabby was straight on the mic. Ella and Florence were shy for a minute and then completely took over.
We noticed on the dive board that PADI do something for 8-9 year olds called 'bubble maker'. Ella was keen to try as long as I could go too. It was a shoredive spending about one hour at around two metres deep in the marine reserve in front of the resort. The dive master, Fabrice, held Ella's tank from behind for most of the dive to help with her buoyancy control. I was there primarily as official photographer. She had a guided tour of the reserve and its inhabitants and did seem to be having a great time. Very relaxed and finning so well that Fabrice was occasionally using her like an aqua-scooter. Afterwards she was not as enthusiastic as she had appeared while we were down there. Youth of today, I don't know.
We spent two afternoons sailing on one of their Hobiecats. All three girls took it in turns to go out with me. I even managed to capsize once with Ella on board. It was impossible for me to right the 16 foot catamaran alone but we had flipped it in sight of the resort and two lads came out and gave me a hand. It took the combined weight of the three of us to get it upright. Ella loved the capsize. That day the wind was perfect and we could sail around the island in 35 minutes. I had a ball and Ella in particular wants to keep on sailing. She wants her own boat and knows that moving to Auckland or Sydney will assuage her desire.
Great resort, great family bungalow, great staff and a great five days. We have to leave here.... surely not!

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Saigon / Cu Chi Tunnels

Date: 12/05/2007 | Author: Dave

Saigon is now officially only the name of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City but the locals all seem to call the city Saigon. On Phu Quoc our girls met Saralinh, a 7 year old multilingual resident of Saigon and her mother, Christine, invited us to stay at her house. Always a treat to be in someone's home rather than a hotel. Christine has lived here for 17 years, works long hours and her home is kept in shape by two maids. Her long serving maid, Madame Ha, is an excellent cook.
The night before we left Phu Quoc Florence became very ill so our first task is to get her to the family medical centre recommended in the Luxe Guide. That afternoon Gabby and I have pre-booked dental appointments. I need to get a crown on my NZ root canal work and while there I agree to a few other minor repairs. I know that here their standards will be excellent and about one fifth of the cost of the same at home. I have become an accidental dental tourist. Four and a half hours in two sittings with my birthday sandwiched in-between. I may be missing the best of Saigon but the Dentist and her nurse are both lovely.
We spent our last day visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. A tourist trap yes, but also fascinating. This is not the only place in the country where the North Vietnamese guerrillas (VC) used tunnels from which to attack their enemy, but it is well set up for tourists to get a good look at what went on there. The tunnels are a labyrinth of small crawl spaces connecting many rooms at 3m, 6m and 10m deep. The Vietnamese started digging tunnels in the red clay here in the late 40's. In Cu Chi province alone during the American War there were 250km of tunnel. Americans unknowingly built a huge base near Cu Chi right over the top of these tunnel networks. Their strategy of dividing the population into small hamlets failed because the VC could control these hamlets from within, via the tunnels.
The entrances were tiny and everything was perfectly camouflaged. We saw how smoke from an underground kitchen passed through three chambers before being leaked out onto the forest floor some distance away. Cool smoke of course does not rise and disappears very quickly. We saw how they converted unexploded bombs into delay mines that could disable a tank and how they made a variety of nasty traps to kill or at least make sure you could never have children again.
Effective ingenuity in the face of superior fire power. Viet Cong strength at Cu Chi, so close to Saigon, was one of the reasons America entered the war but despite heavy human losses and eventual destruction of many tunnels they remained effective to the very end.
I left Cu Chi with a heightened respect for these people and a better understanding of where their feisty edge comes from. Well worth the trip and a crawl through.

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Phu Quoc

Date: 08/05/2007 | Author: Dave

Cambodians have a different name for this island. The border between these two countries does a jaunty swerve to include Phu Quoc in Vietnam. The fast ferry lived up to its name and we got from Rach Gia to the port at the southern tip of Phu Quoc in the time it takes to watch a Chinese warrior movie badly dubbed into Vietnamese (i.e. only one voice) and badly subtitled in English. Coming into port was one of the funnier nautical experiences I have ever had. Our large Australian made Seacat Ferry approached the bay slowly and simply pushed the fishing boats out of the way. The ferry captain did not stop and the wide eyed fishermen had to work fast to get their boats off the bow of this behemoth. This ferry runs every day so I was left wondering.
We had not made a booking here but there was a van waiting to pick us up. It was from TNK Voyages, true to the end, delivering us to our destination. We drive down the track to Mai House on Coco Beach with our fingers crossed. It looks good here, the beach is lovely and they have space for us. Gabby likes to have a nose into the other places along the beach and we soon realise that for our tastes we have chosen very well. French run, stush bungalows and Gerrard has an excellent sense of humour.
Sometimes when travelling the people you meet make the place. Here they were a bonus. Eric and Taylor from NYC, straight talking and fun. Morris and Veronica from Australia, retired, ex-army. Morris visited Phu Quoc regularly during the war to check that the Viet-Cong prisoners were still here. They were not locked up. I think it would take a dedicated fighter to want to escape from this paradise. Morris and Veronica have travelled a lot but on this trip have been on Phu Quoc for 5 months so far. We are paying (with children) $55/night and they are next door to Mai House for $10/night. Here for the year they are now preparing for the imminent onset of the south-western monsoon.
We lost one day to a storm so Gerrard directed me to the Vietnam Airlines desk in the huge, state owned resort up by Duong Dong. I was able to change our flight so we stayed one extra night and were happy we did. We ventured on our last day over to Bai Sao beach on the east coast. It looked like the Maldives but with hills, gorgeous.
There is so much scope for development here. Long beach has almost nothing on it but a few ominous placards advertising future resorts. Please don't build an international airport on Phu Quoc and perhaps all that will happen here is those plans will fall flat.

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Mekong Delta

Date: 05/05/2007 | Author: Dave

This was a far cry from our last journey down the Mekong (in Laos). We had booked at the last minute on the internet with Hanoi based Green Trail Tours for a three day/two night trip down through the delta and over to our (yet to be booked) hotel on Phu Quoc Island. They wanted payment by bank transfer. Slow for them and costly for me so I offered them cash and they sent their local guy around to our hotel in Phnom Penh to pick it up. The following day this same guy picked us up in a van, continued to fill it with backpackers and dropped us all two hours later into a small slow boat. We cruised uncomfortably down the river quickly realising that we were not going to see either of the nice boats mentioned on our emailed itinerary. To add insult to injury we had paid a lot for some extra comfort and our companions down this river were on the cheapest trip they could find.
Across the border we went into Vietnam and onto an even worse boat. We arrived in Chou Doc (having travelled for four and a half hours longer than scheduled) and were delivered to our guide for the next two days holding his sign. 'Green Trails Tours Welcomes The Bracey Family'
He could perhaps see that steam coming from our ears was not our normal look and quickly mentioned that he knew of our 'problem' and from this point on he would endeavour to make the rest of our time most enjoyable. We were figuring that some cash back would help our states of mind as well.
Over the next two days we were treated to a truly fascinating look at the Mekong Delta, the most densely populated area in Vietnam. Everything here seems to happen on a small local scale. I lost count of the industrious activities we visited. Some of the things that I expected the least from amazed me the most. The rice noodle and incense making factories were fascinating. I also had no idea what to expect from the floating market at Can Tho. At dawn all the traders pull up with boats so overloaded with sweet potato, pumpkins, pineapples and whatever is in season they look like they are going to sink. There must be 100 boats with an example of their produce flying above the boat. Their customers weaving between them against the current.
We had chosen a homestay for our second night and arrive there mid afternoon. Exhausted, we had vetoed any more sights for that day and it was great just to walk through the local village along the canal. Our feisty guide wanted us to be up ready to start at 5:30 the following morning. We felt he was trying too hard to compensate for our 'problem' and 7:30 would be more suitable.
News Flash: We will get $8 each as recompense for our travels on the first day. I did not think this completely fair and voiced my opinion in my usual mild mannered way. Anyway, by mid morning his office, TNK Voyages, was, out of the blue, giving us also, flights from Phu Quoc to Saigon and four tickets for a soft-sleeper on the train from Saigon to Nha Trang all included in the price of our tour. What happened?
We are dropped at the fast ferry to Phu Quoc at 1pm all agreeing that the last two days on the Mekong Delta have been magnificent. You need guidance through his area and our man from TNK did his job really well and we thank his company for our last minute extras. A happy family board the ferry to our first Vietnamese Island.

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The Killing Fields

Date: 01/05/2007 | Author: Dave

I am finding this blog hard to write. Hard to start even.
Phnom Penh is a great city. We are not staying along the busy river-front but have found a quiet hotel, 'The Scandinavian'. The owner has offered us the pool front room for the price of a regular twin. A great launch pad for the girls late night skinny-dipping sessions. Apparently with a chequered history, this hotel has been recently renovated, is leafy, has style, and we like it here.
Our first day is spent pottering about the waterfront. There is a blind massage school here and we all partake in the 'seeing hands'.
The Russian market in Phnom Penh is a good place to pick up a Buddha statue, so I do. The Royal Palace is good for a stroll and we spend an hour there just before closing time. Nice browsing streets are easy to find armed with the Luxe guide. We see some nice bits and pick up a couple more statues.
Of course all this Buddha accumulation required another shipment home. I take a few nick-nacks and three statues to DHL. Bearing in mind that the 10kg I sent via EMS from Laos cost $130, I get a shock when DHL charge me $443 for 16kg. I see an EMS the next morning. You win some you lose some.
There is no easy way to write the next bit - I have spoken to several people who have said, "the Killing Fields, there is not much there" - well, I am not made from as hard a stuff as they. It is definitely the most grim and disturbing place I have ever been.
Stand by a mass grave for several hundred people that contained not one head. Stand by the tree used to kill the infants. Here they either hit these babies against the tree or threw them up in the air to come down on another Khmer Rouge's knife.
Stand by the 'magic' tree. Here hung a speaker that played continuous music so that people in the surrounding fields could not hear the constant sounds of death. They preferred not to waste bullets here. 300 people per day were clubbed to death. It is not the memorial tower containing 800 skulls that I will remember as years go by but the bones and clothing underfoot as you walk. Sombre.
Next stop was the Bhodi Tree Cafe for lunch. Gabby and I left the kids here while we took it in turns to visit Tuol Sleng. A school used by the Khmer Rouge to torture 17,000 of their victims before sending them to be executed at the Killing Fields along with their whole families. It is today, pretty much as the Khmer Rouge left it in 1979. Complete with victims photos and blood stained floors. The wide eyed fear in these photos I will not forget either. From 1979 the Khmer Rouge fought/existed for another 20 years in Cambodia and Pol Pot died of old age.

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Cambodian Beaches

Date: 28/04/2007 | Author: Dave

We keep changing our minds. Shall we give the Cambodian beaches a miss and wait till after Phnom Penh and Saigon? The Vietnam coast does seem too distant for both the kids and us, in this heat, so finally it gets the nod.
We get the public bus, (the Mekong Express) as far as PP and apart from having to endure a (Cambodian?) pop promo dvd for the whole trip it was very comfortable.
We stop for lunch in PP and decide over a ploughmans at the Green Vespa Cafe to head to Sihanoukville rather than the closer Kep (our original choice). We pass through some torrential downpours and our driver does modify his driving style for the conditions, which pleases me.
The lovely German couple at the Gibbon Experience had mentioned Queen Hill Resort as nice but we decide to try the more developed Serendipity Beach instead.
Pretty, clean, squeeky white sand, but without the sunset over the sea that we had hoped for. The water was very warm and looked clean too, apart from some plastic bags and the like in the high tide line. We pick up quite a few. The next morning the rubbish is, surprisingly, ten times as bad so we take a tuk tuk to look at Queen Hill Resort. It is on the headland between Occheuteal Beach and Otres beach. A quick swim and lunch confirms that we should move here tomorrow. Back at Serendipity we talk to Khmer and some European locals and they all have a different story about the litter in the water. "It's not there all the time!" they say. One beach restaurant manager told us they don't have time to pick up that rubbish. Gabby and I think that they will have a lot of time on their hands if they ignore it. Where does it come from and if it is not there all the time, where does it go to?
We have just discovered that Coasters (one of the better resorts at Serendipity and almost next door to our increasingly spooky accom) has some bungalows on an island just one hour by boat from here.
A friendly Aussie, nursing a tuk tuk crash injury at Coasters, called his stay on Bamboo Island the highlight of his travels so far. Sounds good.
Less than 24 hours after our first swim at Queen Hill we are running happily back into the sea there, now, as residents. Thirty seconds later we are running, screaming, OUT of the water. We have all been ravaged by sea-lice. The worst I have ever experienced. The girls are crying, the restaurant staff are rubbing lime juice on them and Gabby is crying because the girls are in pain. Seeing their mum upset has a certain recuperative influence on our lovely caring children.
Anyway, we rescue that day by renting a boat and going for a snorkel out by the closest island (over some dynamite fishing deceased coral) and are buoyed by the thought of our trip to Bamboo Island tomorrow. We see a storm approaching and scamper back to Queen Hill just in time.
The following day, leaving most of our stuff in our bungalow, we tuk tuk back to Coasters and head out to Bamboo Island. We arrive there at 11am. It is perfect and our search for a great Cambodian beach is over. Sadly, we can only spend one night, but luckily, don't have to leave till 4pm the following day. We wish we were spending our whole five days here. We can see it raining back on the mainland and we feel smug. The sea is clean and the girls appreciate not being stung by jellyfish or sealice. In these small smooth waves Ella gets back the confidence she lost having been badly dumped (just once) during our last week in Sydney over a month ago. I love watching them both learning to body surf.
All is good. Thank you Bamboo Island.

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Siem Reap

Date: 24/04/2007 | Author: Dave

We fly at 6am. This is the only flight from Vientiane to Siem Reap. The nearby temples of Angkor are certainly the biggest tourist attraction in S.E. Asia, so consequently the airport road into Siem Reap looks like a hotel construction competition in full swing. In contrast Siem Reap town centre is quaint with a funky feel and a plentiful choice of good restaurants.
The Khmer kings built the temples at Angkor from 875 to 1230AD. All other dwellings here for the 1 million inhabitants of this city were timber and no sign of them remains. Their expansionist neighbours, the Thais, sacked this city in the 14th and the 15th centuries. The Khmer court grabbed their family jewels and moved to Phnom Penh, leaving Angkor to be swallowed by the jungle. It was stumbled upon by the Portuguese in the 16th century. And again in the 17th century by a Japanese pilgrim who drew a detailed plan of Angkor Wat only to later recalled that he had seen it in India. In 1860 a French explorer Henri Mauhot's vivid descriptions and colour sketches brought Angkor to the attention of the world. Some restoration work commenced in 1907 but in this war torn country these projects have been interrupted many times. We saw thousands of stones in a field which had been numbered by a French team in the early 60's. When they could return 25 years later the weather had removed all of their numbering. None of their plans survived the Khmer Rouge years and this is now the worlds biggest jigsaw puzzle. Things however are not as bad as UNESCO feared and in 2003 they removed Angkor form their endangered sites list.
It is recommended to spend between 3 and 7 days visiting these temples, taking a break in the middle of the day to escape the heat. April is known here as the killing month by the local Khmer. It was extremely hot by 8am and by mid afternoon the sandstone and volcanic rock at the temples will toast you evenly on both sides as you walk the gallerys. As it turns out our guide is excellent and at the end of two days with him we have seen enough.
Temple visiting is not at the top of Ella and Flo's 'things we love to do' list. Mr Srun, our tuk tuk driver charges US$10 for the day and Mr Lee (guide) is $25. Without a good guide we would have spent 5 days here and seen less, I am sure of it. Day two we go to Angkor Wat for sunrise along with about 500 others, but as 450 package tourists are heading back to their hotels for breakfast we slip almost alone into the world's largest religious building. Mr Lee knows that the best time to see Angkor Wat is right now. Everyone I have met that has been to this region says "You must see Angkor Wat". All I can add to that is "Get a Khmer guide". Cambodian history is brutal and fascinating. We were moved.

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Vang Vieng and Vientiane

Date: 19/04/2007 | Author: Dave

Before getting to Vang Vieng we had heard that this town was full of restaurants and bars with reclining foreigners watching re-runs of Friends. Unbelievable - almost. After a long winding scenic drive over the mountains we slid into town and it was worse than I had imagined. That night we chose to recline for dinner in an establishment screening The Simpsons very loudly, with the added bonus of being able to simultaneously watch Friends on four TVs right across the road. How did they get it so wrong? For added convenience every restaurant in town has an identical menu. This is a paradise for the unimaginative.
We are staying at Ban Sabai Bungalows, which is on the river, thankfully, 10 minutes walk out of town. Nice location! The views around Vang Vieng are amazing. A range of precipitous mountains run north from here and is riddled with caves.
We have only one day here and we make the most of it. For US$13 each we have an excellent day out. We are taken first, to four very different caves. One of them is large and safely housed 400 people during the early 70's while bombs rained down. Another cave is half full of water with a narrow entrance. We went about 300m into this cave, using rubber tyre tubes, both paddling and pulling on ropes against the current. It was (of course) pitch black and the few head lamps they supplied only worked intermittently. The girls loved this cave. Their bravery never ceases to amaze me!
The highlight of this day was tubing down the Nam Song river back toward town, past giant rope swings and busy bars all selling our favourite thirst quencher, Beerlao. Fun for all the family this tubing. "Just remember to raise your bum a bit in the rapids" is my only advice. BBQ lunch served on banana leaves included - a great day out.
Our trusty mini bus driver (Khone's brother) picks us up from Xoyah Bungalows the next morning and we move on to Vientiane. Despite this road being a lot straighter than the mountain crossing he is now driving maximum 30km/hr and we never work out why. By afternoon end we arrive at the Settha Palace. A grand hotel with high ceilings and hallways that you could could reverse a London Bus through. The pool is reputedly the nicest in town and while the girls immerse, Gabby and I get on with our chores. We need to post about 10kgs home. Our bags are bulging and we are flying to Cambodia tomorrow.

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Laos New Year

Date: 15/04/2007 | Author: Dave

Well this was worth waiting for.
There is a dramatic increase of traffic and people in Luang Prabang leading up to Pi Mai Laos. We have found ourselves here with fortuitous timing. Judging from the crowds flocking in and our recent research, Luang Prabang is known for having the best water festival in the country (and probably the whole of SE Asia).
Khoun is busy doing repairs to the Jeep, not only so that we can experience it with a superior platform from which to distribute our watery good luck blessings but also to make us prime targets for the locals because "every family needs lots of luck in the new year". Khoun and Khone take us to build a stupa down on the far side of the Mekong. We build stupa fast "for good luck" then cover it in white flour..... "lucky colour".
Dear reader, you, like me, have probably already spotted the central theme in Pi Mai Laos. It is certainly a time for cleansing houses, bodies and Buddha statues but most folk are busy mustering enough luck to get them through to 2551. Laos is one of the poorest countries in S.E. Asia and luck plays an important roll here.
We spend two days in the middle of the biggest and best water fight I have ever seen. Actually 'fight' is the wrong word. There is no aggression, only a sea of smily happy Laos and farang. Funnily, you do on occasion see a half dry foreigner who thinks it possible to stay dry by adopting an attitude of 'I am not involved' as they walk this watery gauntlet. Useless. We are soaked all day and my face aches from grinning insanely. I take a lot of photos but believe me this is not easy.
We get hit by a lot of flour and also a black grease made from the soot from the kitchen gas burners. It is like a black creosote.
There is a superb parade to interrupt the deluge for a while and then it resumes unabated till sunset, when without a word spoken all water throwing suddenly stops. We are prepared and have our dry clothes and other dinner essentials like Boggle, pens and paper in a plastic bag.
The next morning, short one white tee shirt (now blackish) but having gained the experience of a lifetime we sadly leave Luang Prabang and our new friends, Khone and Khoun.

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Luang Prabang

Date: 13/04/2007 | Author: Dave

I guess the true highlight of this town is us discovering the Khoun and Khone Bungalows. They have six huts on about two acres of land just ten minutes out of town. Gabby, who is the head of research and bookings for the Bracey family, discovered them on the Travelfish website. Their huts are rustic/perfect for us. Our hosts are charming and have a philosophy of including their guests in their life and after a few days we felt more like family than customers. They are happy to run us to and from town in their mini-bus or (Khoun's pride and joy) the Jeep. There is a lot to do here. The Buddhist temples are beautiful and you are never out of sight of them or the orange clad monks. The French colonial architecture looks like it will be well looked after as well, thanks to the town's World Heritage status. There are plenty of good restaurants that cater to western tastes as well as Laos food. Good shopping too (if you like that sort of thing). Especially the night market, which runs through the centre of town every day from about 5pm till 9pm.
On our third night we stir to an amazing thunder storm. We are in a separate bungalow from the kids at Khoun and Khons. We are about 10m apart but in this torrential rain we would never hear them if they were to wake up. Through my happy sleepy haze I hear the pitter patter of Gabby's feet on the path to Ella and Flo's hut just in case.
Our original intention was to stay in Luang Prabang for about five days but we are approaching Lao New Year 2550. Sounds like a big one to me. Also, we are getting a smoke cleansing storm every night now. The air is clear and we can see for miles. We like it here!
We spend a day kayaking down the Nam Pa. Florence is princess passenger in a guides kayak. We are using inflatable rubber kayaks. They do seem stable in the rapids. Ella is doubled up with the second guide except for down one set of rapids where he has fallen off the back and she is on her own for a bit. We stop for a close look at some gold panning. Here they are working in the faster flowing sections and have a mechanised rock crusher. For a closer look at the shiny stuff we pass their wok containing the precious gold dust over our four bobbing kayaks.
One sunny afternoon Khone and Khoun take us to the nearby Kuang Si waterfall. It is about 80m high over limestone and has a series of enticing milky green swimming holes below it. We do the steep climb up one side, across the very top of the falls and down the other. (pic) It is a hard trek in this heat but a long swim is our reward at the end.
It looks like we will stay here till after Laos New Year. The longest stop on this trip so far and for us the longest we have ever stayed somewhere without a beach!!

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Smoke on the Water

Date: 02/04/2007 | Author: dave

This morning we arrive at the 'dock' at Huay Xai but the boat we are now boarding is not the boat we had booked. It is the end of the dry season and the Mekong is currently 7m below it's peak water level. Our nice boat, the 'Pak Ou' is awaiting us two hours downstream, just below the rapids. This one, anyway, seems comfortable and we are told it only draws 1m "so very good for rapids".
We have been joined by Mark and Erin, the heard but never seen inhabitants of Tree House Two. It is great to have their company for this two day boat journey. We can see very quickly that the remaining passengers are not our kind of people.
For instance: There is the English art teacher who is moaning because the visibility is low and the woman who regularly corrects our Lao guides English pronunciation. She was trying to make him say 'rice' like 'rie-sssss'. The 's' sound as we know it, does not exist in his native tongue. I did see several others cringing at that point.
We are on the overpriced boat service to Luang Prabang (the Luang Say). It stops for one night at their own, very nice, lodge in Pak Beng. We would have preferred the mid-priced boat, 'The Nagi on the Mekong', but it meant waiting three days in Huay Xai to catch it. Most people use the very frequent 'Slow Boat'. Cheap, crowded and uncomfortable. A long-tail speed boat is the fourth option. Most of their brave customers wear a helmet and suffer no leg movement for nine hours. To add a dose of terror to the cramp, it is well known that these fast boats hit rocks. There is a major accident once a week and sometimes fatalities. We see several zoom past and no one raises a hand to wave.
We pass many water buffalo, fishermen and gold panners. Stopping off at villages to purchase the local whisky and gorgeous hand woven cloths is a treat.
I am surprised how fast flowing this mighty river is. There are rapids, whirlpools or turbulence most of the time. Huge towers of basalt rock line the river's banks and also create many islands. This boat, the 'Pak Ou' is about 36m long and draws 2m. I am amazed by the skill of the captain as he guides us between the rocks. The boat takes on a life of it's own as it sways in these rapids. I would love to be here again at the end of the wet season, to see this river 7m higher. The French built concrete stepped pylons on some of the high rock to aid navigation but these are way above us now.
Speaking of wet, we are still waiting for some cleansing rain. The smoke is now at it's worst. For the first time we can see large fires burning on the hills and ash is raining down. Visibility is less than a kilometre.
But let us spare a thought and put it into perspective: We are in the middle of the most bombed country, per head of population, in world history. 12 million tons for 2.5 million farmers and fishermen. Between 1964 and 1973 there were more bombs dropped on Laos than on the whole of Europe during WWII.
What we are experiencing for a few days is not so bad.
A great journey, an enchanting river.

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The Gibbon Experience

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Dave

A short boat ride across the Mekong and we are now in Laos. Getting visas and clearing immigration is a hot and humorous affair. Having two blonde children is like having an extra passport. Border guards need more than the normal number of photos of them. Huay Xai is our departure point for the The Gibbon Experience tomorrow morning so Gabby runs the length of town to find a nice clean room for the night. The locals seem friendly. We are excited as we go to bed tonight but there is a little tension in the camp as we try to imagine all that we need for our kids in the jungle and stuff it into a backpack each.
Our early morning journey from Huay Xai to the hill tribe village was a dusty two and a half hours in an old 4WD. We suddenly discover that we have changed to driving on the right now in this ex-French colony. But of course, most road rules in Asia seem to be merely a suggestion.
We were in the village for 20 minutes under the gaze of those that were leaving the experience. Someone asked the question, "how was it" - "OK" said a rather dour chap. I am expecting this maybe to be the highlight of our whole holiday. "OK"?
Much fuss is being made over our little blonde ones again when suddenly our guides, with little fuss, start to move out of the village. We notice this subtle departure but I don't think the guides know the numbers so a few people have some catch up to do. We hike across flat corn fields, across a few streams, then up into the hills. It was hot and hard work for us. Florence was her usual stoic self. Mostly uphill and an hour and a half later, soaked in sweat we arrive at the guides hut/kitchen. A small black bear takes the kid's minds off everything else.
Time to harness up and move on, further uphill. By the time we start to bunch up at the launch platform Ella is already hooked to the zip wire with the first guide. Giving us that 'wide eyed' look of hers. "I am first Mummy......" and they are off through the green to Tree House One.
Tree House One is at least 50m from the ground, can sleep eight, but the living area has enough space for thirteen of us and several guides so we gather there for a cup of tea and a brief safety chat. Green tape is OK, Yellow for safety, and Red tape, no go. That sounds familiar. Oh, and no zipping at night. Very dangerous.
The guides suddenly disappear, leaving us to drink more tea and wonder what happens next. Liv from Copenhagen and Matt and Andy from Ontario are to live in One with us. All of the treehouses have a gas burner ring, candle lamps, running water, a shower and long drop toilet. Very long drop. We have not seen him yet but 50m below on the forest floor is a large black pig to keep things tidy.
We are all itching to go out onto the zip lines. We can hear the guides back at their hut and know that they must have a timetable of some kind, but we have no clues. They receive a prompting from a soon to be resident of tree house three and things get moving. Our next zip line does a tantalising loop out of sight through the canopy and most of us are itching to get on it. Our kids go with a guide first and last. We do the round trip along seven zip lines to Tree House Two and back again. It is as good as it sounds. A quiet English couple disappear into Tree House Two and are not seen again. Off down the track to Tree House Three go a lovely German couple, a wisecracking Brit and one tall handsome Dutchman.
There is also Tree House Four (broken) and the far away Tree House Five.
Five is the destination for the Waterfall Experience. This trip leaves on alternate days to ours, the Classic Experience. Consequently a troupe of novice zippers pass through our house early afternoon, second day. It is hot now and our thoughts turn to ice cold beer. No alcohol allowed here, understandably. I am confident enough now, day two, to take Ella and then Florence on the zip wires. Ella explains to me the best method of dual attachment. It is great fun with the girls in tow as well. Some of the zip lines are a kilometre in length and some are 150m above the forest floor. The views are spectacular and the rides addictive. Heights have rarely bothered me but I am proud of Gabby and the girls as they fly through the canopy.
This is a unique and very satisfying experience. Good for the hill tribes that service it, good for the preservation of the jungle and good for your soul.
I awake at 5am on the last day as planned and took off with the two Canadians, Matt and Andy at the slightest hint of dawn. I fly through the jungle with a healthy dose of nerves (Rule No 1- No zipping in the dark) and make it to Tree House Three just as the gibbons start singing. An amazing sound. I am so glad we made the early effort. Two guides are only ten minutes behind us and take us down the trail that returns from Tree House Five. (Three zip lines there and a long walk back.) We all get glimpses close up of these rare black gibbons but we are clumsy and noisy compared to our guides and the gibbons tiring of our intrusion swing off to parts only they can reach.
We head back to Huay Xai all very happy campers.

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Chiang Mai

Date: 28/03/2007 | Author: Dave

We spent 3 nights in Chiang Mai. Really just killing time till our crossing into Laos for The Gibbon Experience. We are staying at a lovely mini resort by the Ping River called Lanna Mantra. It seems to have only about 10% of it's rooms let at the moment. Has the smoke scared the tourists away? 10 days ago there was a state of emergency declared here but we are following the air quality graph and it is hovering down by the acceptable threshold. I say acceptable, until Florence starts to develop a cough, that is.
We are using a driver here called Pong. A lovely man with a very comfortable Isuzu station wagon. It is loaded with boy racer accessories. The two 'Sard-shift-technical-works' vision obstructing extra unnecessary meters on the dash are attracting my attention. Can't work out what they do. He takes us to an excellent elephant sanctuary and hospital. The elephants look very healthy and show us an amazing display of their skills. Very accurate kicking and pushing of logs. I know it sounds tacky but two elephants painted two quite respectable pieces of art. Better than some things I have seen in the Tate but not as good as Rolf Harris if you know what I mean. There are some very poorly 70 year olds in the hospital, a land mine casualty and a very cute 20 day old baby with it's step mother. Asia's first successful artificial insemination. A ray of hope for the Asian Elephant. The girls are now getting hot and bothered so Pong takes us home.
Florence is feeling unwell, coughing getting worse and with a slight temp so Gabby takes her to the Hospital. Our parental instincts are making us feel guilty for coming here but the hospital is excellent and puts our minds at ease. Gabby has quite a bad time with her that night and we are wondering if she will be too weak to walk into the jungle in just two days time. It is becoming clear however that we need to streamline our progress through this area. Pong takes us to Chang Rai and we reach the Laos border the following day with Florence's health improving but the smoke obviously thickening. This smoke is worrying me and I am constantly trying to equate it to situations I am more familiar with. Like sitting round campfires in Cornwall or the portaloos burning at Reading Festival. We cross into Laos and the smoke is if anything, worse.... but the locals seem to pay it no heed.

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Bangkok, waiting for the smoke to clear

Date: 24/03/2007 | Author: Dave

We are still concerned about the smoke situation up north and are still holding off booking flights to Chiang Mai, when to our rescue, along comes the New Zealand Embassy web site with a link to the Thai pollution control dept with daily readings and nice graphs. At last we can make an informed decision. Kiwis to the rescue again.
There is a good time to be had in Bangkok. We are staying in a hotel by the river with a massive room. We go to Wat Pho temple by river bus on the first day. Educational. Followed by a great family massage. A short tuk tuk ride to the Grand Palace next but we are immediately defeated by the heat and the queue to borrow respectable shoes and clothing to gain admission.
On day two we go by the nice air conditioned sky train to Jatujak weekend market. It is the size of a football stadium and truly amazing. I purchased a Japanese second hand leather man-bag. If I wasn't so obsessed with the amount of stuff we have with us I could have purchased loads. Gabby has just introduced me to a little pocket guide called Luxe. A fantastically gay insight to all that is good about Bangkok. You can get them for all of the main South East Asian cities. We followed their route through the market religiously. I am a fan of the Luxe already. This market is disorienting and I fear that lose sight of the kids and that could be the last time we ever see them. Well, just when we are becoming overwhelmed by the whole experience Luxe deposits us in a very cool jazz bar.
It then guides us to the Jim Thompson House next for (an excellent) lunch. On our way back to the hotel a tuk tuk driver gives us a discount in exchange for dropping us to browse at a jewellery store. The store gives him free petrol and we almost buy a ring, so the system does work.
Climatically adjusted now and ready to move on now, but Bangkok shows plenty more to do so I will not mind a few days here on our way back through Thailand.

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Sydney

Date: 21/03/2007 | Author: Dave

We had an idea to save a little cash. Stay in a Youth Hostel. Sydney Beach House in Collaroy has had some great reviews and perhaps in the world of backpackers accom is still well rated. I think we may have to reconcile our desire to go down budget on occasion with our (justifiable) high expectations. Looking at their map I also thought that Colloroy was just one beach north of Manly. Unfortunately my 10 years living in Sydney was not enough to educate me fully. It was physically and culturally miles away. Both Colloroy and the YHA were depressing. We left the YHA to the sound of an early morning fire alarm and are now happily ensconced in the Manly Lodge, a well located and funky guest house. I, traditionally a fan of the Eastern suburbs am very much liking the Manly vibe. 14kms from Sydney, a 1000 miles from care.
We have achieved all of the tasks we set for Sydney. Indian visas applications are know by many as the ultimate bureaucratic frustration but I did not realise that Indian consulates in different cities have curiously different requirements for visa applications. In Sydney they need to see the children's birth certificates. How many people travel with those? Not possible for us to access ours at short notice. This dilemma was best tackled en masse. Family Bracey in full 'we are family' mode. These are not kids we are trying to sneak out of the country against their will. After some confusion a little head shaking, photo copying and some more confusion we were on our way. Success.
I loved our time in Manly. Swimming before breakfast every morning. Everything on our doorstep. Taking the ferry into the city. Pretty pleasant place to live, I figure. Jessica came over to visit for one night. Great to see my lovely eldest.
While there, Gabby is fine tuning our route through Asia when we have our second smoke related issue of the week. The bloody farmers in Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos are getting a bit carried away with the slash and burn. Visibility is down to 800m and they are recommending that folk stay indoors and wear a mask. Not a place to drag the kids to till the rains come and sort the fires out. Sorry if I have started writing with an Australian accent but I am on the plane now watching Kenny. A great Australian comedy. Infectious.
An interesting footnote to the week. Gabby suggesting we all think about moving to Manly to live. mmm... interesting.

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Cape Reinga

Date: 10/03/2007 | Author: Dave

We took one night out from the Barclays at Tepaka to drive to the far north of New Zealand. We positioned ourselves for the night at a farm backpackers, perfectly poised for an early morning drive up 90 Mile Beach. Fantastic scenery and a breathtaking experience for us and for the girls who had their heads out of the sun-roof for as long as we would allow them. Managed to fly straight past the last exit point from the beach. I knew that Te Paki Stream was the most northern creek so it did not take us long backtracking to find it. This stream has a reputation for swallowing the occasional car in patches of quicksand. It may be a little undeserved though. 35 seater coaches (full of tourists) use it to access this beach every day!
After visiting Cape Reinga, the point where spiritually all Maori leave the island, we headed back to Te Paki Stream for a spot of sand tobogganing down the extraordinarily high dunes. Armed with 4 boogie boards we climbed far up into the dunes. I am guessing they are around 400 feet high. We are always coated in sunblock and carrying water but today in this mini Sahara of course we forget both.
I got every orifice filled with sand twice before realising that seated is a much better way to descend these hills than face first. All good fun and very fast on the long rides. (see Ella and then me at the start of our video).
We have more to do here in NZ. Friends to see, South East Asian visas and anti-malarials to pick up in Auckland. Some of the nicest people I know live here and we do need to see them one more time before we move on. Looking again at the Te Paki sand dunes video for me, sums up our time in New Zealand beautifully.
If you're fond of sand dunes.........

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Bay of Islands

Date: 05/03/2007 | Author: Dave

We have spent the last seven days up in Russell. (Tepaka Point to be exact)
Once the original capital of New Zealand, Russell is now a sleepy seaside village. A friend/work colleague has a bach up here and he has provided us with the perfect base from which to explore the Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga. It is only about 50m from a lovely, safe for the kids, swimming beach with a floating dive platform. We had a great first day here, out on a tall ship, the R Tucker Thompson. On the way out, under motor, several of us climbed up to the crows nest, as you do. More like two short white sticks but then I guess crows don't complain. You were required to wear a simple harness and I certainly felt the need to clip on. We dropped anchor in a sheltered bay and they gave us plenty of time to swim ashore through the crystal blue water or just hang out on the boat and swing from the yard arm into the crystal blue water. Either way it was very enticing.
Under sail on our mostly downwind return Ella got to further her maritime experience by helming this square rigger for most of the journey back to Russell. She looked very sweet at the wheel of this boat and not at all nervous about what was required of her. Captain Sam, a very relaxed Australian, was very tolerant of her interpretation of the set course and even wandered off below on occasion leaving Ella in complete charge of our destiny, so it seemed.

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North for a bit.

Date: 02/03/2007 | Author: Dave

Rocky point is perhaps the most peaceful place I have ever been. A true feeling of privacy envelops you here. Greg and Mary-Anne have met us at their property about 1.5 hours drive north of Auckland. They have a hilly, 50 acre coastal block here with 60% native bush and 1.6km of foreshore. I can understand why Greg fell in love with it. They can live here in a couple of nicely converted 40' Japanese truck bodies. Kayaks, several sailing dinghy and dirt bikes are all stored in other truck pans. We kayaked when it was calm and, when a stiff easterly blew the following day, Ella and I had great fun sailing. I had to use the trailer to get the boat back up to the field as the tide had gone a fair way out. At one point my Pajero left a surprisingly deep rut in the shelly beach. Having carved a fine clay canyon for about 20 feet along Greg's lovely beach, I felt it necessary to find a square mouth shovel and do about 20 minutes work there. This was not the right way to leave a friends beach. Nature would have fixed it eventually but she needed a hand believe me.

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Thermal Wonderlands

Date: 25/02/2007 | Author: Dave

We stayed two nights in Taupo and two nights in Rotorua. in between these towns is a grab bag of tourist spots where one can witness the earths inner heat letting off steam and boiling a some mud. We were lucky with the order that we visited our choice of attractions. The awe and wonder ramped up steeply over these thermal themed days.
Craters of the Moon impressed us, but was actually the new kid on the block. The following day Orakei Korako did truly amaze us. Especially the cave. On a negative note. Toward the end of our walk I saw a chap from Europe with a dyed red mullet sticking his finger through a one inch thick colourful skin just below the Diamond Geyser and pulling at it. How long did nature take to form this? He was over 40 and behaving like a 4 year old. These badly dressed vandals are getting on my goat.
Back tracking the next day from Rotorua, to visit Wai-O-Tapu, turned out to be a real treat. Greg had mentioned it as the best thermal activity in the area. Stunning stuff indeed. You could not make it up. Phenomenal.
We were tipped off that there was a good creek for a swim just half an hour from here. We found Kerosine Creek just to the North. It has a nice pool below a waterfall. With a water temperature of about 40 degrees celsius, it was more of a bath then a swim but an appropriate full stop to a day that was literally not of this world.

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The Mighty Waikato

Date: 24/02/2007 | Author: Dave

Nice to stay at the flying fox for two more nights. Still my favourite accommodation on our journey so far.
Taupo next stop for a spot of skydiving. (see 'Gabby' for details) A lovely view and an exciting way to spend 60 seconds. Don't need to do it again. One of those, must do in life things. Box ticked. My lovely wife may have followed it up with a bungy jump. In fact we drove straight there but with several people hanging around that that were decidedly bungy-negative it ended up a no thanks. One good thing about our visit to the bungy platform was spotting some youth swimming, by an island, a short distance upstream, in the clear green Waikato River. The river here is fast flowing and up to 100m across. The Waikato flows out of Lake Taupo a little way upstream from here. Taupo is the largest lake in the country and was formed as a result of the worlds largest recorded volcanic eruption nearly 2000 years ago. That was pre the Maori but it was heard as far away as China. Ella and I spend some time jumping into the river from a tree. This is a great swimming spot. There is a rope to grab, hanging into the water from a branch. Just beyond this rope the current is too strong to swim in but Ella is a confident swimmer and her aim for the rope is true. Florence snorkels in a back eddy. Several kilometres down stream from here is the Huka Falls, where the Waikato funnels through a 15m wide gorge. It is spectacular here and on this hot, sunny, Sunday afternoon we are only sharing this spot with about ten other people. The phrase 'if this was in the UK...' pops up for the umpteenth time since we arrived in New Zealand.

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Leaving the South Island

Date: 21/02/2007 | Author: Dave

Sitting on the ferry back to the North Island is a good time to recap. We have been on the South Island for one amazing month and I couldn't imagine doing it in less time. As it was we did not go to the far south. I wanted to eat oysters in Bluff and explore the Catlins but somewhere had to give when trying to do justice to the places we were visiting. As we leave the South Island I have only one small regret. When in Queenstown I wanted to do two drives. One along the Skippers Canyon, a road carved out of the cliff-side by Chinese gold prospectors and the second was the road up to Mace Town. This is an old gold-mining town and the track to it crosses the creek 22 times on the way up. Apparently all you need to do is keep looking for the correct spot to leave the creek each time you enter it. i.e. keep to the well beaten path so as to avoid driving into a pond and filling the car with water. Unfortunately just the thought of Skippers Canyon road ruffled Gabby's sense of vertigo and she never really explained properly why she would not go to Mace Town. I could, however, go if I could find the time and some alternate company for the drive. I can recall her using the word 'macho' in the sentence but the rest escapes me. I may have mentioned damp carpet at one stage. Don't understand the 'macho' bit, I am definitely the only person on this ferry wearing a lilac Ben Sherman polo shirt. I think that sometimes just the journey there is enough reason to go. Don't get me wrong we are getting on amazingly.

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Wine

Date: 20/02/2007 | Author: dave

Well, there is only one way to get to the ferry at Picton from here and that is through the very dangerous Marlborough Valley. Running the gauntlet of some of the worlds top wineries. We have a map with 46 marked but given only half an afternoon and the handicap of riding bicycles (Florence on a tag-along) we manage to visit only one. Highfield Estate. We are staying in Blenheim for the night at another Top 10. It is our fourth night in a row in a basic cabin. Can't actually fit all of our luggage into one of these. The load in the back of the Pajero seems to have increased a little in volume and seems to clink more than it did at the start of the South Island. Central Otago, the home of the Wooing Tree winery, is only a few days behind us and we have a few bottles of our new favourite Pinot Noir in store from there.
The following morning we pack up quickly and with a more sensible mode of transport manage to reach two more wineries. Seresin and Te Whare Ra. At Seresin the girls tasted the olive oils while Gabby and I concentrated on the wines. At Te Whare Ra we received a real education from the affable wine maker, Jason, and left there with a new found appreciation (and two bottles) of Reisling. Our short stay in Blenheim not only confirmed that there is more to the Marlborough Valley than Sauvignon Blanc but also that Ella can ride a bike 10km in the heat.
Bodes well for the school run this summer in the UK.

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Up the East Coast.

Date: 17/02/2007 | Author: dave

Our last six days on the South Island slip by. The drive north-east from Twizel was fantastic thanks to Shaun's advice to detour along the shores of the two local lakes. Pukaki and Tekapo. They are so turquoise that the cloud above them this morning is infused with their colour. A short side road takes us up to the cafe at Mount John Observatory. Well worth the detour for some photos of the lakes. Beautiful. See photo page. The main difference between Australia and New Zealand scenically is that where Australia stays the same for hundreds of miles at a time, New Zealand seems to change routinely.
We wind our way down to Christchurch which was like a trip back to the 70's. We had two nights here for an internet connection in our room and a visit to the homeopath for the girls. Had to be done. I know neither of these things are 70's but the rest of Christchurch was. Maybe we didn't see the best bits.
Kaikoura, our next stop up the coast, was always a must do on our South Island list. Dolphin Encounter here runs a boat with limited spaces for swimming with dolphins. The local dusky dolphins love the deep canyons here, where their favourite foods come close to the surface every night. Ella and Gabby are still wait-listed as we drive into town. The limit on swimmers and boats for this trip is kept in check for the welfare of the dolphins. After arriving at the Kaikoura Top10 the phone rings and they are suddenly confirmed for the following morning. A big relief. Florence and I will be spectators. Jez had mentioned that it was amazing but I was not really expecting what we sailed into that morning. A pod of perhaps 300 dolphins of which you could at times see 100 or more at the surface. Ella had on two wet suits, a hood, mask, snorkel and fins. A bit for her to adjust to. Luckily, it was a lovely day with a low ocean swell over the 1600m deep canyon. Ella was a top snorkeller and they both had a time of their lives.

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Twizel Farm

Date: 14/02/2007 | Author: Dave

We stayed on a farm just north of Twizel for two nights. Backpacker accommodation with an amazing view of Mount Cook in the distance. We went for a swim in a stream on the modest 10,000 acre sheep farm. I did not realise that Shaun, the backpacker manager, would recommend the same spot to everyone and I managed to surprise an elderly English couple with my lack of swimming attire as they came teetering over the embankment. However, I made a quick recovery and they were happy to continue with their swim.
Another (ultimately pleasant) surprise at he farm were the two 'shepherds' in the room next to us. Mike and Dean were sitting on our communal deck, with blood splattered legs, as we arrived back from our swim. Nice enough looking gentlemen but too much blood on a chap does tends to colour your initial impression. The following night they took the girls to see their mustering dogs. Nice guys.
I woke up before dawn and took a few photos. The day continued to stay clear so we drove the 60km to the town of Mount Cook and set off on the Hooker Valley Walk. A stunning cloudless day to the end.
Keep running into people from our Doubtful sound trip. Complimentary about the kids, one and all. Nice.

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Doubtful Sound

Date: 11/02/2007 | Author: Dave

My local contact described the Doubtful Sound cruise as the "The best one-day trip in the country". A massive boast in a country of such beauty. We decided to book on the overnight trip on a largish boat called the Fiordland Navigator. It sleeps about 70 but has a very personal touch, thanks mainly to the very knowledgable and enthusiastic crew. Lovely boat as well. Only about 6 years old. I think aside from the constant amazing scenery the highlight for all of us was probably the twice that the local bottle-nose dolphins appeared. They were with us just to amuse themselves in our boat's ample bow wave. These dolphin, this far south, grow typically up to 10 feet long and were definitely the most impressive I have ever seen. Great jumping. Doubtful Sound will usually have between 2m and 6m of tannin stained fresh water sitting on top of the sea water. Nice for a swim for us non-dolphins as well, from the stationary stern of the Navigator. A brilliant 24hours.

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Queenstown Fun

Date: 09/02/2007 | Author: Dave

Morning
Was not too nervous. Deliberately booked on the 8a.m departure from town so that I would not dwell on it all day. Thoroughly enjoyed the jump to be honest. Time to think and look on the way down. Very smooth acceleration and very fast. The longer the bungy the smoother the ride apparently and at 134m drop they don't come any longer in NZ than the Nevis. The distance down to the river is 154m so it looks quite near as you turn at the bottom. Well, quite near, compared to the view from the jump pod.
The girls all had great fun out for a close look at my elegant dive. The only 'scary' part is the penguin like hobble out to the end of the dive plank. see video!
Afternoon
The Shotover Jet Boat ride is spectacular. Lots of 360 degree spins at full speed and passing rocks and cliffs with only a few inches to spare. This is said to be the most exciting jet boat ride in NZ and being on one of these beasts is much wilder than just watching them from our house, 100m above the river. Met some lovely folk in Queenstown and both Gabby and I could imagine living there for a while. It would improve my skiing.
From swimming in the warmer lakes to the luge to the steamboat trip across Lake Wakatipu we all had a great time in Queenstown.

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Extreme Adventure Capital of NZ

Date: 08/02/2007 | Author: Dave

A short drive across the Crown Ranges and we zig-zag down into Queenstown. We are staying a bit over budget on this one A week at a house called Canyon Ridge overlooking the Shotover River Canyon. This is Gabby's dream house and the web-site does not do either the house or the location justice.
To say there's a lot to do in this town is an understatement. I wasn't expecting the girls to want to hang glide but low and behold, day one, off they go on tandem flights from the top of the local ski-field, Coronet Peak.
I personally would like to do 'The Nevis' bungy. At 134m it is the highest bungy jump in the world, courtesy of AJ Hackett the originator of this bizarre act. To be honest, the girls are all insisting that I do it. My lovely family are paying to come out over the canyon as passengers. They want to experience the fear from as close as possible.

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The Rob Roy

Date: 03/02/2007 | Author: Dave

A few more good walks and a circuit of the lovely Lake Matheson under our belt, we headed through the spectacular Hasst Pass eastward away from the certain promise of more torrential rain. Don't get me wrong, I think the weather has been kind to us.
Oh yes, and I dragged the girls into an old mining sluice tunnel before we left Franz Josef. Picture a dark tunnel, hand hewn from solid rock, maybe 100m long with icy water running along it's floor. We all stopped mid tunnel for a chat and I went ahead alone to see if it was worth while the others pushing on through the pitch black. As I was forging ahead, my family, sadly, turned around and waded back out. Mainly on Florence's advice... "in case Dad had been eaten by a monster" and they would be next. Ella, on the other hand was insisting Gabby go back in with a fresh torch to rescue me.
It's amazing.... the sky has recently changed colour to the deepest cobalt blue. It always looks big down in this part of the world but I am not sure I have ever seen it this deep a blue. All the hills and mountains are standing in stark relief in the foreground (like a movie blue screen). Driving around Lake Wanaka the view is impossibly beautiful. Queenstown, only an hours drive away, will look very similar in a few days time. I understand where the local rivalry comes from. Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu is 399.3m deep. The bottom is 90m below sea level.
I digress, we are in Wanaka to do the Rob Roy Walk. It turns out to be our favourite walk so far. A steep, 11.5km return track. The end of the walk was classic. It required sitting for an hour to soak it all in. Huge waterfalls, kea birds and ice breaking off the end of the Rob Roy glacier and falling down the valley toward us.
Not sure where my hat went.

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Franz Josef Glacier

Date: 30/01/2007 | Author: Dave

Somehow the rain avoids us as we survey the driftwood sculptures on Hokitika Beach. This is a wild, pebble and black sand beach strewn with thousands of pieces of driftwood. A fossicker's dream.
We arrive at Franz Josef the next day to a clearing sky. We are here for three days but are having problems booking on a heli-hike because Florence is too little to walk on the glacier.
Being lucky has always been a feature of my life, and thus the non-arrrival of a couple for the last heli-hike today made a slot for Ella and I.
The helicopter flight up was a roller coaster ride over rainforest ridges and valleys. The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers both have their terminal face in the temperate rainforest. All this outrageous weather we drive through feeds both the ice and the greenery. We landed half way up the glacier on a small pad that our guide 'Goose' had chopped out of a pinnacle this morning. Goose was great with Ella while she got the feel of walking with crampons and an ice pick. Through blue ice caves, over ice arches and staring up the glacier at blocks of ice 4 stories high moving at about 4 metres per day. At the bottom Franz Josef is advancing at about 400mm/day. Most glaciers in the world are retreating.
I don't know if I enjoyed the chopper flight or the hike the most but needless to say, both Ella and I felt very lucky to have this experience, and in perfect conditions as well!
The following day it was torrential again. No hiking of any kind today. In fact it is 6pm and we still haven't stepped outside. Stuck like this, a good day's schoolwork was done by the girls but I would hazard a guess that Ella learnt more up on the ice yesterday.

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West Coast

Date: 29/01/2007 | Author: Dave

After a couple of nights at a very homely cottage in Nelson we drove to the much lauded west coast. It may be a fact that the west coast of New Zealand's South Island has the highest rainfall in the world. If not, it must be damn close. It buckets down and roadside waterfalls add to the spectacular vista as you travel.
Punakaiki is first stop at he very tasteful Hydrangea Cottage. On the phone their selling point was "the accommodation has polished concrete floors". However the days end and the cessation of rain revealed one of the best sunsets I have ever seen. Forget the polished concrete underfoot... it was the view to the west that will stick in my mind. (see photo page)
We walked early at high tide to see the famous pancake rocks. The rocks were stunning but despite the big-ish swell the blowholes were not working.
A beautiful piece of coast.
By breakfast the rain starts to fall again. Time to drive south.

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Abel Tasman

Date: 26/01/2007 | Author: Dave

This is all starting to feel a bit indulgent. I am sure the NZ wine sales will show an unusual upward blip for the start of this year. Gabby says "we need not be concerned on a personal level (i.e. alcoholism) because the Vietnamese wine will not tempt us to these levels of consumption".
We spent the next five nights up in the Abel Tasman National Park enjoying more walking and sea-kayaking. Great fun to be had here. The huge tidal swings in this area create massive currents running in and out of the estuaries. We had a lot of fun swimming in these. These sandbars appear and disappear faster than I have ever seen.
Awaroa Lodge for two nights was a bit of real luxury. Great food and an excellent wine list. Leaving there, by water taxi, should have felt a bit sad but in NZ, it now seems, we are always headed to somewhere very nice.

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86.3km/hr Flying Fox

Date: 21/01/2007 | Author: Dave

Our first day on the South Island was an appropriately boozy affair with Jez Webb. Great to see one of our dear friends this far off piste. This is his third trip around NZ in a campervan. We sat outside the only pub in Havelock. The kids played and strayed nearby all afternoon. We occasionally lost track of them but found Florence one time propped up at the bar with a juice, chatting to the very affable barman and Ella on another occasion writing the specials board. Very flexible children.
We stayed in a dog kennel called Cabin 5.
Driving to Able Tasman Park the next day we stopped unplanned at a 'flying fox' adventure place. We quad-biked up the hill and then soared seated over the bush for 1.6km reaching over 80km/hr then backwards to the start point. (It takes four rugby players and a tail wind to get it over the ton). Saw the oldest Matai tree in NZ. A stately 2000 years old. The quad-biking was great and we had a most splendid three hours. Dusty, muddy and happy.
This is going rather well.

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A Busy Day

Date: 18/01/2007 | Author: Dave

Ok, check this out.
Wake up early and drive to the end of 'The Bruce'. On to chairlifts and up toward the snowline on mount Ruapehu. A bit of scrambling amongst moonscape beauty and waterfalls below the snowline but above the clouds. Then we hit the road south to a chance meeting with a Maori elder in Pipiriki who lectures us on Maori language mainly, and then makes us tea. Learnt a lot. Next we jet-boated 13km up the Wanganui River and paddled a canoe back down through grade one rapids. Got spun right around in one of them. Didn't know grade one rapids could do that. Though, I did discover an extension to Gabby's L/R confusion, 'backpaddle'. Anyway, beautiful scenery. One hours drive further down the river was our accom for this night. Accessible, for us, only by flying fox high over the Whanganui. theflyingfox
After cooking dinner we lit a fire under the bath (under the stars) and had a family soak. Imagine a bath that gets hotter the longer you stay in it. I am sorry if this sounds like too much in one day but what can I say.... "we are keeping busy, relaxed and happy at the same time"

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Hahai, Raglan, Waitomo, Tongariro

Date: 14/01/2007 | Author: Dave

I thought I was up to date on my blogs but too much is happening. Anyway, while they sleep I will try to catch up.
Next stop is Hahai (pic of cathedral cove), we sea kayak and love it. A new experience. Couple of rainy days so we speed watch the best of NZ movies. 'Once Were Warriors' particularly potent and 'The Piano' very relevant and very current for all the shots of Karekare.
Then to Raglan for the wedding. I have to be honest and say I fell in love with the place. We drove up a 65 acre block of land (for sale) with ocean views like I have never seen before. My first serious off-roading in the Pajero. Should have read the instruction manual before attempting this one, but hey, I know where I went wrong. Have read it now, so next time....
Next stop Tongariro National Park via black water rafting in the Waitomo caves. Adventure in rubber tubes lit only by glow worms for the most part. In the dark 65m undergound jumping backwards off the top of a waterfall with your bum in a rubber car tyre tube.
Yes we do seem busy. I am liking Gabby's idea of spending a month in Raglan.

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Karekare

Date: 07/01/2007 | Author: Dave

Today we walked the track from Sarnes and Flo's house, south over Zion Hill. A lot of up and downhill. After the first 2 hours of mainly uphill climb we reach the distance sign. We have gone 20 mins. It is very steep terrain but we are not that slow. Our reward for monumental effort is stopping for a much needed picnic in a beautiful valley, about another 2 hours ahead yet. Then back along the beach to Karekare via the old railway tunnel once used to transport Kauri to the timber mill. Only a pretty swamp exists where the mill once stood. The valleys we have just walked through were once full of these grand slow growing trees. We four adults with Celeste, Ella and Florence took 7 hours to complete the circuit. Of course little tired legs are forgotten when we reach the sea and they run like we have just got out of the car. It was a spectacular days walk. We are all a bit mashed this evening. More beautiful than Cradle Mountain and it is literally walking from their back yard. More on that later. Too tired. Must sleep.
Before we leave Karekare we are treated to a plunge in Opal pool (only 10 mins walk from the house). I am not great with jumping from heights. Ella seems to have no problem. We are all very impressed. (see video)

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New Years Eve 2007

Date: 01/01/2007 | Author: Dave

A great night with great friends.

Anyway, enough of that.
Loo's birthday on the second of Jan. I'm rushing now to the good bit.
Gabby spotted on the internet... 'Crew On Americas Cup Match Race' between NZL40 and NZL41 on Auckland harbour. To me this is a dream come true. Have never actually dreamt about it, but that is splitting hairs right now. So excited. On the 3rd of January with a clear blue sky and a 20 knot breeze, out we go. Gabby, Loo, Bart and I. Bart and I are winch grinding early on. Our boat wins the start and then win the race convincingly. Yes, you guessed it, good winch grinding at the start is fundamental to the end result. The wind picked up to over 30 knots while we were racing. Americas Cup yachts don't go out in over 30 knots so I think we felt the top end. Top day for all of us. Need to post a bit of video of this..... quick Pete!

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New Zealand

Date: 31/12/2006 | Author: Dave

I knew that waxing lyrical over the beauty of Cradle Mountain would sooner or later lead me down a difficult path. Well I rode that path sooner than I expected.
Landed in Auckland at 12:30 am and drove away from airport 15 minutes later. Nice start I must say. We have purchased a Mitsubishi Pajero (2004 exceed 3.8 v6 NZ$30,000 if you are interested) with the aim of going places only a 4WD can go. Like 90 mile beach. The camper-van route has some advantages (like tea on demand) but I am confident this purchase will see me proud before too long. A manoeuvre like this needs local help. Greg you are one of life's classic gentleman!
It is now the 31st and a lovely English lady is speaking from Greg's Sat-Nav and guiding us to (our great friends) Sarne and Flo's house at Karekare for New Years Eve celebrations with some of my best friends/work buddies. After leaving Auckland suburbs the short drive to the coast through the Waitakere Ranges is beautiful. Karekare beach (of black sand) is beautiful. The vista from Sarne's back yard is beautiful. Auckland is beautiful and I know that this is just the start of something very special.
Must throw a huge bucket of greenlip mussels on the barbie. Nice one Sarne.

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Cradle Mountain

Date: 30/12/2006 | Author: Dave

I have never been to Cradle Mountain before. I only lived in Tas till I was 20 years old so that's my excuse. It is without a doubt the most beautiful place I have ever been. We stayed two nights at the 'Cradle Mountain Lodge', the original and closest accommodation to the National Park. Huge open fires and a great restaurant. We walked long and hard all three days. I was very proud of Ella and Florence. On our second day we hiked 9kms in one hit. I carried Florence for about 300m of this and at the end (Dove Lake) she crashed.
That evening I enjoyed our guided spotlight tour. Saw a lot of nocturnal natives. Wombats a clear favourite for me. Saw a quoll. Very rare.
Our intrepid Ella was determined to do a hard grade walk so on our last day we chose a circular 4.5 km walk for experienced walkers only. Gabby, myself, Ella (9), Ron and Nora (70+) set off on a glorious day around the Dove Valley Track. Walking the edge of sheer drops and scaling a few near vertical rock climbs..... easy? Mildly concerned that I may have to carry someone a lot heavier than Florence out of this one. Mum and Dad have walked a lot but this was the most serious 'walk' they had ever been on.
As for Cradle Mountain.... no photos can ever convey the scale, variety, smell, sound and changing colours of this most wonderful place. Go there.

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Home in Tas

Date: 29/12/2006 | Author: Dave

Always love getting off the plane in Launceston. Walking across the tarmac into the arms of my Mum (and others). Must not get too gushy, but it was emotional. Tasmania is as dry as a bone at the moment so no complaints when the BBQ at my sisters was washed out. Great day was had despite the weather. Consuming more than our fair share of very lovely Tasmanian wines..... every day, but the 'piece de resistance' comes in a bottle of 1991 Grange on Christmas day. Thank you Chuggy. Our kids are having a great time with their cousins.

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End and Start

Date: 19/12/2006 | Author: Dave

That's it. Tour finished. Just short of 10 years with Rob. Fantastic last show. I do wish the band could play with that much enthusiasm all the time. I really enjoyed myself finally. A few folk showed their true colours at the end. I told you they were self-destructuing, didn't I. Anyway Claire, I stand by what I said. "I wouldn't swap you for all......" I alone listened to the multi-tracks, nearly every day. I know what was going on! And there is nearly 3000GB of it archived. Can't argue with that can they. We all seem to need an end of tour rant. Why is that? That's it. Tour finished.
Melbourne lived up to it's reputation as a great city. Bart and I spent a great night out with the lovely boys and gorgeous Connie from Sneaky Sound System. Bart and I rated the soon to close Honkey Tonks as possibly the nicest club we have been to. It gives me a very warm glow when Australia treats us this well.
Anyway, work, that is all behind me now. Family Family Family. My lovely girls get all my attention from this point forward. Off to Tasmania today. A lot of excitement as Ella and Florence head toward their cousins.

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Sydney

Date: 10/12/2006 | Author: Dave

Always good to get to Sydney. One of the worlds great cities. Not staying at the work hotel here, but have a hire-car instead. Straight to my number one daughter, Jessica's new house in Kellyville for the first night. Fantastic to see her.
Early rise and back to the airport to meet Gabby and the kids arriving from Thailand. I nearly cried with joy when I saw them.
We had not been apart for nearly as long as we are used to, but perhaps my feelings there had to do with this being the start of something quite monumental in our family history.
Off to Coogee to check into our apartment, where Gab and I had a fight straight away, over nothing. Perhaps, the 'start of something monumental' had a part in that as well. Very deflating. Anyway that passed and we settled into our first day. The four girls had a morning sleep having not slept for long on the flight while I went to Wylies bathes (a sea pool). A regular swimming spot from my days living in Sydney in the 80's. South Coogee means a lot to me. I remember sitting on the cliff top near Wylies overlooking Wedding Cake Island in 1994 when Gabby and I were in the first six months of our relationship.
That afternoon we all swam at Bondi (gorgeous) and then managed to walk into Ottos at Wooloomooloo for dinner that evening. They were fully booked when I called earlier. Superb restaurant. Great service.
The next day was a work day, with our first Sydney show the day after. A shocking band performance. I think they are self-destructing before our very eyes and ears. Only 5 shows to go. I'm sure though, we will make it to the end 'reasonably' intact. I am neglecting my normal work duties a little at the moment. It annoys me doing this but I have trouble juggling the added pressures of Sydney with my work. Worse than doing London shows for me! Need Sherif to work with me next year. More about that later. Picture is from South Coogee looking past Wylies to Coogee Beach.

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The Ashes

Date: 03/12/2006 | Author: Dave

Managed to get into the 2nd Ashes test in Adelaide today. Went with Gareth, and caught up with my Tasmanian cousin Leanne and her husband Mark for the first time in 15 years. Very nice. They are coming to the show on Tuesday and we can continue the chat. Also attending, I think, will be the English Cricket Team. That should be fun! I have had members of the Australian Cricket team at FOH once back in the early 90's in Durban/South Africa. They consumed all of the lager that we had in for them and lost their one day game, the very next day. .......Not my fault.

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We move to Adelaide

Date: 02/12/2006 | Author: Dave

Well, as two consecutive hotels go.... nice beach views from room. Had text from Gabby tonight. She needed a judgement on a Scrabble disagreement with her mother. Sorted that and then straight back to sleep. My one luxury item on our trip is a classic Scrabble set. Complete with rules. Can't wait to see my girls. Not long now.

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At Work

Date: 30/11/2006 | Author: Dave

Just another day at the office. Very jealous of the girls in Thailand. Sun is setting over Subiaco Oval at the moment. This is my view. Much the same view as I have had for this European Summer. Wish I was sitting on the deck in Krabi with the girls sipping on a V and T. watching their tropical sunset. Bit chilly here to be honest.

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Arrive in Perth

Date: 26/11/2006 | Author: Dave

Have stayed at this hotel several times before. Did not know where we were headed from the airport so a nice surprise as we drove into Scarborough. Great beach, lovely temperature. This is the view from the room and this is why I never complain about my job.

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Flying to Perth

Date: 25/11/2006 | Author: Dave

May I recommend Singapore Airlines. Free wireless internet on this flight to Singapore. Imagine my surprise. Wireless means whole plane I guess. Good chance to learn our new web-site inside out. Thanks Pete.
Flew on Iberia recently and the staff were very blunt (I am being polite). In contrast these Singapore girls go out of thier way to please. My lovely hostess (see example to left) asked the pilot if he would change his meal choice so that I could have the last sea bass for my dinner. True story... not made up! I can only imagine what First Class is like!

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Leaving London

Date: 25/11/2006 | Author: Dave

Well that was a weird feeling. I walked out of Helen and Andy's this morning. A slight hang-over from good-bye drinks last night but a also a strange haze of 'is this real, what have I forgotten to do, am I really not going to see London/friends/home for 9 months. Nice night out.... thanks chaps. Mike Bone will have a 6 month old by the time I next see him. A very stressful last week, need I say. They tell me there is no such thing as a friction-less relationship. How do you judge when you have got that friction down to an acceptable level for both sides. Gabby has an new A4 sheet of nice life quotes..... I am sure one of them will cover this. Anyway, have you noticed that if you put a hyphen in a word suddenly it is spelt correctly. I will be in Perth before Ella's Party at the Pavillion on Sunday. It will be nice to touch base on that day. I love my family and missing days like that are harder than people think. Anyway the sparkling water is doing the trick and I am sure that I will be in the reclined position for a lot of this flight. De-stress time. A little pic of our home to remind me where I was yesterday.

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