Gabby's Blog

We have been talking about doing a trip like this ever since Ella was born. Now, after 10 years of working for an amazing company and doing a great but very busy job, Im ready for a break and some freedom. I cant quite believe were off in less than 2 weeks. Since I gave up work 6 weeks ago time has flown by. The kids are really looking forward to it.

Im a little nervous its going to be an experience spending so much time with the family especially Dave. He and I are so used to spending so much time apart Im sure this aspect of the trip is going to be a challenge 24/7 with a man I have spent less than 2 months with this year!

I cant quite get excited yet but I am really looking forward to getting away from the distractions of tv, the internet and mobile phones and general London busy-ness. Its going to be an amazing experience for all of us especially the girls. They are very excited but already talking about the things they are going to miss at school while we are away. Im sure that will all change when were on the beach in Thailand!

Home Again.........

Date: 13/09/2007 | Author: Gabby

9 months after leaving the UK we finally move back in to our London home. We spent August, the driest month of a lousy British summer, in the West Country and Cornwall. We had a great time and really enjoyed the company of friends.
The big move back in came at the end of August. We had booked professional un-packers to help us. Having lived out of a bag for a very long time, it was great to have our things around us again - but why so much stuff? As my boxes and boxes of shoes were being loaded back in to corners and cupboards, I wondered why I needed sooo many pairs. Why do I have dozens of pairs of jeans, drawers full of clothes and the kids so many toys? It took us over a week to find enough places to put all of our things. We had a big purge before we left, but an even bigger one is coming now we're home. We have to get rid of loads of things before we start getting attached to them again! A car boot is definitely in order. It's a great exercise moving all your possessions out of your house and moving them back in again. Now we're completely settled, I know exactly what I have in the house and where it all is.
So how is it to be home? It's lovely to be sleeping in our lovely, comfortable, big bed every night, to be able to cook, entertain, watch TV.......all those things I really missed while we were away and the things we so often take for granted. The sad thing is it feels almost as if we have never been away. Time heals but it also means great memories fade - our 8 month trip now all seems so long ago. I need to find a job - although I am really not sure exactly what I want to do! In the meantime, I'm enjoying a lovely sunny September in London, cycling with the kids to school, taking them to London's parks, meeting friends. While the girls are at school (which they're loving) I am slowly putting together the first CV I have written for 14 years and preparing to rejoin the workforce, a year after leaving it. Dave's home, but off on tour again in a couple of weeks. He won't be home for 2 months.
With life back to normal, it's obviously time to start thinking about our next trip...........

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Little Lhasa in Northern India

Date: 08/07/2007 | Author: Gabby

We never did get the bus from Manali to Dharamsala - the Himalayan Roads are too windy, the Indian driving too bad....... A car with drier was the only option. We lucked out as the travel agent we had booked our treks through had to drive there so we received a hefty discount. Apart from a terrifying incident at the beginning of the journey where the driver nearly fell asleep (apparently on medication that made him drowsy) and, at the end of our journey, a fallen tree across the road, it was a pretty cruisy trip. No vomiting and very little whinging! We had booked in to the Norling Guest House part of the Tibetan Norbulingka Institute about 18km from McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan Government are based). The Norbulingka promotes the continuation of Tibetan Culture - in the grounds is a great cafe and the lovely guest house itself. We were the only guests in a place full of images of the Dalai Lama at various ages through his life - it was an amazing, peaceful place and somewhere we all learnt a huge amount about Tibetans, their culture and the crisis their country has been going through for the past 50 or so years. With 2 days until the Dalai Lama's birthday celebrations, we discovered there would be a long life puja (prayers, offerings) at 8am next day. As we were 18km away we had a really early start, and arrived at the temple at about 7.30am only to be told we couldn't bring phones or cameras in to the complex. Thankfully, we were booked in to Chonor House from the following day - only 5 minutes up a steep path - so I was able to leave everything there while Dave and the girls went in to the temple to get a good spot. I was so excited at the prospect of getting a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. After a stringent security check, I found Dave and the girls in a prime spot - right next to the area His Holiness would walk. The wait was long and the girls did get a little bored. Fortunately a few nuns distracted them with their keenness to practice their English. A few minutes after an initial flurry where the Karmapa came through surrounded by his entourage, the moment came where the Dalai Lama and his entourage walked through. He was whisked by so quickly, it really was just a fleeting glimpse - the girls, confused by the huge number of red robed monks besieging him hardly managed to see him at all! It was a very special moment for me but one I think the girls will forget very quickly!
The next day we moved into McCloed Ganj itself. Perched on a steep hill above the larger town of Dharamsala, Mcleod is more like being in Tibet than India and is often referred to as the Little Lhasa of Northern India. Chonor House was just beautiful and, with it's views over the Dalai Lama's residence and Buddhist temple complex, oozes a calmness and serenity we had not experienced in any of our other accommodations in India. Our room, the Songtsen suite was lovely. The whole hotel was decorated with Tibetan rugs, thangkas and furniture - it was a great place to escape from the bustling town. Our relaxation was aided by possibly the best massage I have ever received. Two Tibetan Doctors, Dolma and Kalsang, came to our room on at least 3 occasions to give all of us Tibetan massages. McLoed Ganj is also full of great places to do yoga and the classes I did were far better than anything I did in Rishikesh (somewhere I won't be returning to!).
It was a great place to end our month in India but the plight of the Tibetans made us all feel really angry. While China is devastating Tibet, the rest of the world is just looking on. We met so many Tibetan children who escaped to India when they were really young, leaving their parents behind. How desperate must the situation be for parents to send their young children away? I just can't imagine.
We had 5 blissful days there. We did try to book the train to Delhi (from Pathankot - a 4 hour drive from McLeod) but the sleeper had been booked months before. Hearing of another bus that had been driven off the road killing 30 people meant the sleeper bus was NOT an option so, once again, we booked a car and driver.
We stopped enroute in Chandigarh at the Vaseela Resort. We weren't expecting anything special but it was everything Nature Notes wasn't. Sadly, with less than 12 hours there we weren't able to make use of all of it's facilities but the place was lovely and the owners charming.
So, seven and a half months after leaving the UK, we arrived in Delhi for the last night of our incredible trip. The traffic was a nightmare and it took us about 3 hours to cross the city to get to the Radisson hotel at Delhi airport. This was the most expensive accommodation of our whole trip. That's just one of the disparities of India - it's one of the cheapest, yet one of the most expensive places in the world! I was glad to be leaving the country, but I hope I will go back one day soon.......
The girls hardly slept on our last night - they were so excited about getting home. They didn't sleep on the plane either. The flight was practically empty so we all stretched out on 4 seats each. The chief steward, Sam, when she heard we were heading home after such a long time away, plied Dave and I with champagne and gave the girls bags of gifts - it was a great flight home!
An excited Aunty Loo met us at Heathrow & the girls leapt into her arms. We were greeted by a huge 'welcome home' banner when we arrived at Andy and Helen Beales house in London. We are not going home just yet - we're staying there for a couple of weeks before continuing our nomadic lifestyle in the West Country. Why spend the summer in London when the kids aren't at school? It's going to be a slow reintegration in to London life - I think it's the best way to go.........

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Manali and the Spiti Valley

Date: 01/07/2007 | Author: Gabby

After our Beas Kund trek, a dilemma. Of the two villages close to Manali town, Vashisht and Old Manali, where should we base ourselves for the next 4 or 5 days? Old Manali is a bit of a travellers enclave but Vashisht, according to the guide books, is the more atmospheric of the two and with hot springs in the village and a great waterfall an easy walk away, it seemed the better option.
Arriving back from our trek at about 2pm, we ate a delicious fish lunch (I can only take so much Dal) at Johnson's before heading up the very steep hill to Vashisht. As the village is a (largely) traffic free zone we had to drag our bags up the final, steepest part of the hill. We could, of course, have paid some baksheesh to the traffic control policeman, but decided to keep our hands on our rupees.
An hour of looking around filthy rooms, mostly with shared squat toilets - all only 100-200 rupees (about 1.20 - 2.50) we quickly realised this was a place for long term backpackers who had to really watch their rupees and didn't care how disgusting their accommodation was. We hot footed it to Old Manali (on a rickshaw), back down the very steep hill to Manali town and up another very steep hill on the opposite side of the valley. Here we discovered Veer Guest House (pronounced Beer by the locals), an old wooden building with good sized, clean rooms, own bathroom, dressing room, western toilet - we could all squeeze in to one room for just 400 rupees (a fiver). The guest house also had a great garden, a good, comfortable restaurant and was full of social, friendly Irish travellers. It was a great place to hang out and with massage, shops, good restaurants (sadly no wine) and great local walks nearby, it was easy to fill several days. There were great people staying at our guest house - all (just a little bit) younger than us, they were interesting as well as interested in our experiences of travelling with kids. The most frequently asked question: have they been sick? It was probably the most sociable place we have stayed on our entire trip. it would have been easy to stay there and do very little, but after the success of our first trek, we felt compelled to arrange a second one. We were initially going to do this from McLeod Ganj, our next stop, but as the scenery there isn't as high or as stunning, we decided to head to the Spiti Valley. North of the Kullu Valley, Spiti is an area that falls in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, creating a bleak, high altitude desert. We intended to camp at 2 spots, Chhotta Dara at about 3500m (to acclimatise) and Chandra Dal (another sacred lake for the Hindus) at about 4200m, with walks around the latter approaching 5000m.
This trip involved a much longer drive over the Rohtang Pass. This is where Indians converge by their thousands to experience the delights of the year round snow. Driving through the area at the end of June meant the snow was very sparse and very black, but still the Indians were there skiing, riding yaks, tobogganing...... Despite a 7am start we still had to fight our way through traffic on the narrow, winding mountain roads. My vertigo is obviously still very evident as my legs went wobbly every time I looked down the steep precipices to the valley below. With so many cars and busses overtaking on these hair pin bends, I was surprised we didn't see more vehicles career over the side of the mountain. I'm having serious second thoughts about getting the overnight bus to McLeod Ganj..........it's a really windy road.
The drive down the Rohtang Pass in to the Spiti Valley was spectacular, although I spent quite a large part of it with my eyes shut - either through fear or tiredness. After the greenness of the Kullu valley, the Spiti was desert like. Our camp at Chhota Dara was devoid of trees, shrubs - anything green with the exception of some grass surrounding the abundance of streams and brooks. Our campsite was on the edge of the raging Chandra River. The area was incredible but bleak, Rudyard Kipling once said of the Spiti, 'Surely the gods live here; this is no place for men'. Not the most picturesque campsites but stunningly desolate. After a walk up the steep valley sites to an amazing viewpoint, we returned to a delicious dinner. However, with no wood to collect there was no campfire, and beaten by the cold, we were all tucked up in our sleeping bags by about 8.30pm.
I woke up at about 1am with a stinking headache and feeling really nauseous. Dave was semi-awake too and feeling the same. I wasn't sure if we had eaten something bad or were suffering from altitude sickness. I did manage to get back to sleep but felt like shit in the morning. We were supposed to be packing up camp and driving for another 2 hours to Chandra Dal, where we were going to walk for about 3 hours. I really didn't feel like doing any walking and certainly didn't want to go any higher. Dave was feeling a bit ropey but seemed better than me. The girls were their usual exuberant selves and were enjoying their amazing Himalayan playground. Our guide, Baggy, suggested I slept for a bit and we review the situation by midday. By 11.30am, Dave and I both felt we should head back to Manali - neither of us were feeling great and definitely didn't need a thin-aired trek!
6 hours and a hairy drive back to Manali, we were both glad to be back in the confines of the Veer Guest House. Dave and I were both still suffering, painful wind with incredibly smelly burps and farts. I'm glad I'm travelling with my husband of 10 years rather than a new boyfriend! It seemed like Giardia, normally requiring antibiotic treatment, however a few days of the right homeopathic remedies and we both seemed as right as rain. With frequent toilet trips, we were incredibly grateful not to have spent a second night in a tent.
The Irish were still there when we arrived back at Veer - they had intended to do a trek but didn't quite make it!. Plenty of new arrivals too, including 2 women who had been cycling and motorbiking their way around Tibet, China and India. I could have spent hours listening to their stories. After a blissful few more days there, we dragged ourselves away to McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama. With his 72nd birthday imminent it's the hottest place to be in Northern India right now. We bade farewell to our new found Irish friends - they were still in Manali, maybe they'll leave tomorrow.

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Himalayan Trek

Date: 24/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

One of the things we have discussed with the girls since the start of this trip is trekking in the Himalayas with a donkey. We had wanted to trek in Nepal or Tibet, but either the season wasn't right or we haven't had the time. Manali is one of the best places in northern India to base yourself for short treks so it was here we booked one for 2 nights. True to our word we booked a donkey, so if Ella or Florence got tired they could ride rather than walk.
A short drive from Manali to the Solang Valley took us to the start of our Beas Kund trek (the lake that is the source of the Beas river). Our walk was taking us to altitudes close to 4000m - altitude sickness can be a problem at these heights so I was hoping we'd all be OK. We were met by 3 porters as well as our guide, Shalu, his assitant, Arun and a rather ropey looking horse, Sheeru.
Of course the girls wanted to ride Sheeru straight away but we decided he should carry their bags and they should walk, at least for a bit. The valley was amazing with enormous snow clad peaks and hanging glaciers in the distance. We stopped en route at a Nomads camp. The girls shared their packed lunches with the kids there and we were all given up cup of warm buffalo milk, rich with nutrients. Even with a huge dollop of honey it tasted disgusting.
At this point the girls jumped on to Sheeru - no helmets, no safety talk - but this is India. The horse might have looked ropey but he was like a ballerina negotiating the rocky terrain and went so quickly that Dave and I had to speed along behind him to keep up. After about 10 minutes we were knackered & breathless - the thin air taking it's toll on our lungs. The girls were energetic, giggly and thoroughly enjoying their mountain ride.
After about 3 hours of walking, we eventually arrived at our campsite, Baker Thach (place for shepherds), about 10 minutes behind our guides and porters. The tents were already up and a pot of water boiling ready for chai. We enjoy camping a lot at home, but I really really like this sort of camping! It was an amazing place to spend 2 nights with streams, rocks, caves and soaring mountains surrounding us. Once the camp was completely assembled, 2 of the porters and horse, Sheeru, headed back to base camp to leave us in the elements, with Shalu, Arun and one porter, Rajul. While Bracey family explored the area, read, drank hot chocolate or dozed in our tents, Shalu cooked soup and made dinner, Arun did all the washing up and Rajul collected huge bundles of firewood. I really love this sort of camping! Dave and I loved the food - the girls only liked the chapattis and that was pretty much all they ate for 3 days. We were all exhausted by 8.30 and, dragging ourselves away from a roaring fire, all bundled in one tent rather than the 2 we had been given - it was freezing so we wanted all the warmth we could get!
We all had a blissful night's sleep (apart from Dave's dog incident......) and woke up early for the walk to Beas Kund. There were a few other groups walking in the valley - the mountain border patrol amongst them. At times our site felt like a mountain chai stall, but it was great playing host to the other trekkers. We walked over the Beas pass to Beas kund, a sacred lake for hindis, stopping to take in our surroundings and eat our packed lunch. After the exhausting walk back we all dozed, read, drank hot chocolate etc while Shalu etc cooked dinner etc...........great camping!
By 8.30 on our final day, the horseman arrived with a new horse, a not as ropey looking, Neelu. It was a much quicker walk back and. of course, the girls argued for a lot of the way about whose turn it was to go on the horse and who had been riding the longest. They didn't want to share on the way back down because it was far too uncomfortable on the way up.
It was an amazing 3 days - one of the highlights of the past 7 months for me - for all of us I think. I can't quite believe that in 3 weeks time we are going to be at home camping in a field in Norfolk........

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The Kullu Valley and Florence's Birthday

Date: 21/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

Our expectations for Nature Notes were very high. Their website proudly listed the free facilities they offered and I'd had several conversations with Amit, the owner. He'd said that the huts were basic and small which meant we either had to put the girls in a tent outside our hut or get them their own hut. As we planned to spend 5 days there, one of those days being Florence's birthday, we opted for the additional hut. Each hut was 3200 Rps (about 40) - this included breakfast as well as lunch and/or dinner, as well, of course, as the abundant facilities. We are not supposed to be spending this much money on accommodation in India, but as it was Florence's birthday we decided to splash out.
When we pulled up to the 'resort', situated in the Kullu valley about 25km before Manali, I cried! The 7 acre site on the edge of the Beas river is a lovely location - with beautiful views of the snow capped Himalayas in the distance but the place itself wasn't at all as I imagined it. The internet is a great resource for travelling in the 21st Century but the problem is that things often look better online than they really are. This is so true of Nature Notes. I can't really describe exactly what was wrong but nothing was quite right. In my mind I thought we might be going to an Indian version of Centre Parcs, but the facilities just didn't live up to scratch: a trampoline that didn't bounce; badminton facilities but with only 2 racquets and one broken shuttle cock; a kids 'pool' with ice cold water fed from the River Beas; an unsafe looking rope bridge and flying fox there was no way I'd let the kids go on! There were lovely touches, waiters brought your food out to you in the gardens and there was a big campfire lit every night. We met some really interesting Indian familes and while the kids loved it, Dave and I just weren't happy. This just wasn't where I wanted to be. Anywhere other than India - I even suggested to Dave that we just went home. India was not proving to be what I thought it would be!
We did some white water rafting while we were there, which was fun, but with little around to see, by day 2 we decided to go and spend the day in Manali to check it out. We saw some great potential accommodation there - all a lot cheaper than we were paying at Nature Notes. We really liked the town - it had a mix of Indian and Foreign tourists (peak season here) but wasn't as crazy as Rishikesh. We found an available 2 bedroom cottage, with it's own garden and kitchen - adjoining Johnson's Cafe, one of Manali's best restaurants. Dave and I needed no persuasion that we should move from Nature Notes the next day and Ella was right with us. Birthday girl, who had the ultimate say, wasn't sure..........I think she enjoyed knowing it was down to her and she wanted us all to wait as long as possible for her final say. Of course, I tried not to influence her decision in any way, but we had heard that Johnson's made the best chocolate cake in Manali - so we decided to put that to the birthday cake test. It was absolutely delicious and left Florence in no doubt where she should spend her birthday.
We moved out of Nature Notes the next day, 2 days earlier than planned. In fairness to them, they did refund us most of the money we would have lost by moving out early - which made us leave there with a smile.
Manali was great, our cottage was lovely, spacious and had an open fire we burnt every night. The weather was perfect, warm sunny days and cool nights. Florence had a great birthday - despite missing her friends. The chocolate cake was superb - the best I've ever had in India.
With a trek in the Himalayas planned, we are sure the best is yet to come. Things have improved, we've adapted to Indian ways and finally I'm loving it here!

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Welcome to India

Date: 15/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

Our trip so far has been near perfect. A few dodgy accommodations we have stayed in and a few places we didn't like but generally the whole trip has been bloody amazing! The biggest pain in the arse was trying to change the date of our flights from Bangkok to Delhi, but that problem was due to having paper tickets as well as incompetence on the part of the Virgin Airlines. Eventually that was resolved but now we are in India, things have started to really go wrong................our first week went like this:
We arrive at Indira Ghandi Airport in Delhi at 9.30pm and the outside temperature is 44 degrees Celsius. Our guest house in Delhi (recommended by Alastair Sawday) is lovely but unfortunately the air conditioning breaks an hour after we check in to our room. The overhead fan just swirls 40 degree heat around the room - it is so hot, I cannot sleep. We get up at 5.15am to get the 7am Shatabdi Express train to Haridwar. This had been booked by a travel agent but we only had confirmation on email. As a result we nearly miss the train. We arrive in Haridwar 4 hours later, where a car had been booked to meet us and take us to our guest house in Rishikesh. There is no car but there are thousands of people at the train station. On the Ganges, Haridwar is one of India's most important holy towns and it is the middle of pilgrimage season - so it's busy. After about half an hour I manage to find a man who says he could get us an AC car to Rishikesh (another holy town). Twenty minutes later a non AC car with plastic seats arrives - it's midday and about 40 degrees. The car takes us to Rishikesh but to an area the wrong side of the Ganges from our guest house. To get to the right side would involve another 45 minute drive in a sweaty car. We have already been in the car for well over an hour and have had enough, so decide to take our own bags across the pedestrian bridge to the right side of the river. We fight our way through beggars, sadhus, hindis, sikhs, swamis, cows, travellers and motorbikes. Eventually, tired, sweaty, hot and very bothered we get to our pre-booked accommodation to find there is no booking. Fortunately they have a room, a bit dark and dingy but the 4 of us can squeeze in there. At this point I could murder an ice cold beer, but as this is a holy town there is no alcohol allowed so I settle for a ginger, lemon and honey tea. Everything goes OK for the next couple of days. We are staying in High Bank, a traveller enclave on the hill above Rishikesh. I am glad we are away from the madness of the town - Rishikesh is a crazy, busy, dirty town and a head first introduction to Northern India. The times we do venture there the kids get grabbed, pinched, squeezed, photographed, surrounded, hounded - they always manage a smile but they find it a bit annoying. I keep sane by doing yoga every day (I try 2 different teachers, one is a charlatan but the other is great) and having various parts of my body massaged. We like High Bank and meet some lovely people there. A fellow Londoner, Ashlie, recommends the Glasshouse to us - it's on a beach further up the Ganges, where the river is much cleaner (Rishikesh's Ganges is really dirty). Our guest house, Peasants Cottage books us a room for the following day for 2 nights.
The following day, as we are about to pull away, Peasant's Cottage manager tells us that the booking is not 100% confirmed but if the Glasshouse is full there is another great accommodation (probably owned by her company) on the way there. We drive for 45 minutes to find the Glasshouse is fully booked by one big party and has been for some time. We decide to go back to Rishikesh, stay there for one night and start our journey to Manali (our next destination) a day early. Florence throws up on the way back - we have, unnecessarily, spent the best part of the day in a car. I could murder a beer. I missed yoga so am feeling stressed. When we arrive back, we get no apology from anyone at Peasant's Cottage but after me throwing a hissy fit they refund us the money we spent on the taxi.
We have no other accommodation booked so I spend the afternoon online looking for somewhere in Shimla (a 10 hour drive from Rishikesh and half way to Manali) as well as Manali. All Shimla accommodation is expensive or looks pretty shit. Eventually we opt for the Little Inn, which describes itself as 'exotic'. I have emailed loads of places in Manali but no-one has got back to me, apart from Nature Notes, a 'resort' on the River Beas about 25km before Manali. As it is Florence's birthday in a few days I need to make sure we are staying somewhere she will enjoy. On their website, Nature Notes sounds ideal, with great kids facilities and I have some very friendly emails and phone conversations from the director of the company, Amit. He offers to throw a party for Florence when I tell him it's her birthday in a few days. We need to make a decision as I am told they only have 2 rooms available for the 18 and 19 June. The place isn't cheap but I am positive the kids will enjoy it. A quick conflab with Dave and we decide to book it for 5 nights - but we need to pay everything upfront.
Early the next day we leave for Shimla. Our car is good (and air conditioned), the driver lovely. It's a long drive but the kids cope well. Florence manages to sleep for a bit, Ella doesn't (she never does) but no one throws up and we eventually arrive in Shimla at about 6.30pm. We have trouble finding our hotel and when we do we find it's a shit hole. The included dinner is disgusting and they don't sell alcohol! We retreat to the swankier hotel up the road where I have my first drink for a week. The constant headache I have had since we arrived in India goes. Does this mean I am an alcoholic?
We sleep well, get up early the next morning, pass on the included hotel breakfast and leave for Manali (an 8 hour drive) at 7.30am. This drive isn't as successful as Florence is sick about 4 times. After all this, I just hope that the Nature Notes Resort lives up to my expectations............

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Moving on Again........

Date: 10/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I can't quite muster up much enthusiasm for India. It feels like moving on again. The 4 countries we have visited in South east Asia, although unalike, have somehow merged in to each other. India is going to be different, very different.
It's been really hot pretty much the whole time we have been in Asia - at the moment, Delhi's daytime high is about 46 degrees Celsius. - at least 6 degrees hotter than we are used to. Fortunately, we get there late in the evening and leave early the next morning but even the foothills of the Himalayas are still hot.
I've got a stinking cold, my second in a month - I blame constantly sleeping with the air conditioning on - something I never normally do.
I'm just longing to escape from the humid heat. Hanoi was a great city but just too hot. In a way I sort of wish we were heading back to the UK now - although I'd never say that to the kids (and try not to mention it to Dave too much).
But, I love India and I have never been to the Himalayas before. maybe I'll feel a little more enthused once we get there and when I manage to shake off this cold.
Our first stop in India (after Delhi) is Rishikesh, the vegetarian, teetotal, yoga capital of the world. It's not as hot as Delhi, but it's still going to be India hot. I wonder how we'll all fare? Watch this space................

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Hanoi and Goodbye Vietnam

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I loved Hanoi - we spent over a week there in total, with our side trips to Sapa and Halong Bay in between.
For the first part of our stay we booked in to the Hanoi Paradise Hotel, great value - boasted that it was the only 2 star hotel in Hanoi with a swimming pool. Surrounded by windowless concrete, it was the worst indoor pool we have ever seen. Despite the humid Hanoi heat, not even the girls were tempted to have a dip!
The hotel was in the middle of the Old Quarter of Hanoi where the back streets are fascinating and a hive of activity - definitely a great place to be staying to soak up the atmosphere of the city. Most of the activity takes place on the pavements which meant we often found ourselves walking on the road. Keeping a firm grip on the girls' hands and doing our best to make sure they didn't get knocked by the thousands of motorbikes that whizz through the streets was no mean feat.
It was easy to while away several hours wandering through the narrow streets. You can buy almost anything here - Dave managed to get a couple of new pairs of designer framed reading glasses, ready in an hour, for about $19. I bought, well, lots - dresses, bags, silk - it's all dirt cheap (well that's my excuse) and as we were sending another box home, why not?? We even commissioned a local artist to do an amazing pencil drawing of one of our favourite photos of the girls to send to Mum for her 70th birthday (this is a photo of it!). The girls LOVED Hanoi, there was loads to see and do, the restaurants were great and once again they loved the thrill of getting around town on motorbikes.
A lot of Hanoi's activity takes place early in the morning. We haven't really been morning people on this trip, so we discovered this by default. We arrived back in Hanoi at 4.30am after our few days in Sapa. As we couldn't check in to our hotel until 9 we decided to head to Hoan Kiem Lake to watch the early morning Vietnamese exercise rituals (check out the video!). We couldn't believe it, thousands of people - walking or jogging around the lake, groups of people doing T'ai Chi or aerobic type exercises as well as plenty of solitary exercisers. Apparently, Ho Chi Minh told everyone they should get up early and exercise - 40 years after his death, many people are still taking his advice. By 8am we were queuing with 1000s of other people to see the man himself - Uncle Ho, as the Vietnamese often refer to their ex-President. He wanted to be cremated, but in typical communist style, he has been preserved for all to see and pay their respects to. He looked rather waxy - but the cold air conditioned mausoleum was a great place to escape from the morning heat!
For me, the real highlight of Hanoi was our last 2 nights when we stayed with the lovely de Ruty family in their gorgeous house overlooking the West Lake. I'd had an email introduction to Kate, the only female member of the de Ruty household, from a friend in London. This French/Australian family have lived in Vietnam for about 13 years. Kate invited us to her house one evening and then to stay for our last few nights in Hanoi. She is an amazing woman and her husband and 3 boys were lovely and very welcoming. Ella and Florence loved the boys, Martin (11) and Benjamin (13) were particular hits. I was especially proud of Ella's flirting abilities with Thomas (15). Kate was so generous to us while we were there and it was so great to get an insider's view of the city. It was a very special way to end our time in a magical country.

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I had been warned to be disappointed by Halong Bay. Everyone agrees that it is incredibly beautiful, but it's beauty means that it is incredibly busy, which frequently means it's incredibly dirty. We had been told the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin are often littered with tons of rubbish, plastic bags etc. How sad is it that the most beautiful parts of South East Asia often end up like this?
With a huge range of boats to choose from to explore the bay, we opted for the Lagoon Explorer. It is one of the few real sailing junks in operation and only accommodates 7 or 8 people, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the people you are cruising with!
We left the Old Quarter of Hanoi at about 8.30am for the 4 hour drive to the port. The guide on our bus was hysterical, microphone in hand, commenting on many aspects of Vietnamese life from the use of condoms to Hanoi street names. He then handed the mike the 12 or so people on the bus and asked us all to say a word about ourselves. Fortunately, Ella volunteered to be spokeswoman for the Bracey family - it's certainly a way of breaking the ice!
Our fellow junk passengers were 3 Australian women, 2 ex-school teachers in their 60s and one of their daughter-in-laws. They were lovely, but it was Ella who enjoyed their company the most. One of them in particular, Susie, liked to chat as much as Ella did! Needless to say, the girls home schooling was very well catered for on our trip.
Halong Bay was incredibly beautiful as not nearly as dirty as I expected. The water wasn't that clean - hardly surprising the number of boats that cruise the area - but there wasn't a lot of rubbish. The girls enjoyed a couple of swims off the boat - they just didn't spend too much time under the water! The surroundings are gorgeous and the bay certainly deserves to be a World Heritage Site.
Our boat was lovely, the food amazing and the cabins really comfortable - the girls lucked out by getting the only one with an ensuite bathroom.
It was a gorgeous trip, a bit short, as we had less than 24 hours on the water. Probably just as well as we spent most of the time eating (and drinking!) so if we had had longer we would have probably wobbled off the junk!

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Sapa

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I had really mixed feelings leaving Sapa - a hill town close to the Chinese border that is the premier tourist destination in North West Vietnam.
It's surroundings are incredibly beautiful - the terraced rice fields carved in the steep mountain side look like a work of art and the views are stunning. We had a lovely time there and did some great walks through the local villages with their friendly and diminutive H'Mong and colourful Dzao people. It was wonderful to escape from the oppressive heat in Hanoi.
The girls made great friends with 2 H'Mong girls, Chu (who said she was 6 and, although she was small, seemed older) and Ha (who at 15 said Chu didn't really know how old she was). Both of them spoke great English (learnt from tourists - Vietnamese is the language they learn at school - if they go). Ella and Florence had a lot of fun playing games with these girls and their other friends in the courtyard in front of our hotel.
The kids all appeared to be happy and were incredibly shrewd. Their ruthless selling prowess was well beyond their years. Still, I couldn't help but judge their lives by my own western standards and found it upsetting that someone as little as Chu (and she certainly wasn't any more than 8 or 9) spent days at a time not at home with her Mum and Dad. Her village was less than 10km from Sapa, but in the whole time we were there, she never went home. Instead she spent the nights sleeping in a room in town with Ha, waking early each morning to try and sell her cloth bracelets and other ethnic trinkets to the tourists. I just wanted to take her to our room and give her a good bath!
The H'Mong, Dzao and other minority tribes in this part of Vietnam definitely supply the colour in Sapa but their constant bawl of 'You buy from me, you buy from me' while amusing at first became a little bit grating after a while. And if we didn't buy from them (and we didn't because they had nothing we wanted to buy) they'd often be furious!
So, as we left the hill town and waved goodbye to Ella's and Florence's new found friends, I couldn't help feel mixed emotions at the effect tourism is having on the locals. I know it's progression and I'm sure the tourist dollar is improving the lives of many of the villagers, I just hope that the kids lives don't suffer in the process.

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Luxury in Hue

Date: 27/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

I was gutted to leave Hoi An, I could easily have spent a few more days there - especially chilling out on Cua Dai Beach or Cham Island.
However, using my feminine wiles, I'd persuaded Dave that we should treat ourselves and stay in the lovely Saigon Morin Hotel in our next stop, Hue, so I was looking forward to a bit of luxury.
We took one of Vietnam's top train journeys from Danang to Hue - for a change during the day. Stunning coastal views for the first half - unfortunately, I fell asleep for the second half, but Dave and Ella assured me I had seen the best.
The Saigon Morin was lovely. The biggest room we'd had for ages, but, more importantly, a fantastically comfortable king size bed with Egyptian cotton sheets - it was almost as good as being at home! There was a great pool and the buffet breakfasts were superb so the kids couldn't have been happier.
What to say about Hue? It was bloody hot. At one point, while the girls were travelling in their favourite mode of transport, the cyclo, Dave and I were jogging alongside. Big mistake, before I knew it, I was covered in sweat. My new, bespoke cotton summer dress not looking at all like it did when I had my final fitting at Yaly. It was unattractively clinging to my increasingly flabby midriff - even the cyclo drivers looked at me in horror!
Hue itself was bombed heavily during the war. Not much remains of the Citadel, but it is worth a visit as renovations are taking place with gusto. With a little imagination it is easy to picture how the city looked centuries ago.
My lasting recollection of the city will be the lovely beds at the Saigon Morin. Feeling very relaxed I was ready to assault Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi.......

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Tailor Shops and Beaches

Date: 24/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

Everyone we spoke to who had spent time in Vietnam had said that Hoi An was a place we should try to linger in for 4 or 5 days. It is a Unesco World heritage town and is one of the few places in Vietnam that wasn't bombed to smithereens during the American war.
Taking another overnight train from Nha Trang, we arrived in to Danang, the nearest railway station 30km to the north, at 5am in the morning. This is definitely the way to travel when you have kids who hate road journeys. Mind you, it wasn't pleasant being woken by a Vietnamese woman shouting 'Da-nang, Da-Nang, get up, get up' at 4.30 in the morning!
We had fortuitously booked a car through our hotel to come and pick us up. Watching a load of bleary eyed travellers being pounced on by the the legions of cab drivers who descend on the station didn't look much fun. We arrived at our fabulous hotel, Thanh Xuan (Long Life), shortly after 6am. As our room wasn't ready and we are rarely up at that time in the morning, we decided to have a stroll around the ancient town and go in search of breakfast.
Hoi An really is a beautiful town - it is the first place in Vietnam we have visited where we could get a sense of the country's history. On the banks of the Thu Bon river, it was at the heart of the Champa Kingdom before the Vietnamese took over and then became an important trading port for centuries.
Since the late 19th Century, Danang eclipsed Hoi An as a port and now the town thrives on tourism and has developed in to a 'City of Tailors'. There are well over 500 tailor shops in the town - they are everywhere! They will copy anything - your own favourite clothes, designs from the current Next catalogue (most shops carry one) or the latest celebrity trends. Of course, with all of our clothes looking well worn and shabby we knew we were going to get some things made. I quite wanted to get Madonna's outfit from her Blonde Ambition Tour, you know the one with the pointy bra. Sadly, Dave didn't think it suited me and didn't think I would wear it on our travels through India - ever the pragmatist! So, while Dave had a couple of stush suits made, the girls and I settled for some cool cotton, summer dresses. The things we did have made were created with much attention to detail at Yaly, a tailor shop that is a little more expensive than many of the shops in town, but the quality is guaranteed. Everything was perfect and we spent far less than we would have for just one suit in London!
Hoi An is not just about the Ancient town and the tailors shops. One of the most amazing beaches I have visited in Asia is about 4km east of the town. Cua Dai is part of a 30km stretch of golden sand that extends to Danang in the north. It was really hot while we were in Hoi An, but the sea was really cool - lovely and refreshing.
There are also some religious ruins, My Son, dating back to the Champa Empire. These are smaller but considered to be on a par with the temples of Angkor and other Indian influenced ancient civilisations in SE Asia. Unfortunately, these ruins, described by the Lonely Planet Guide as 'stunning' had been pillaged by the Chinese, Khmers and Vietnamese over time and what was left was extensively bombed by the Americans during the war, so for us they were a disappointment.
Our final trip from Hoi An was an overnight stay on Cham Island - 21km from Hoi An in the South China Sea. We had heard the island was very beautiful and had great snorkelling. Although close to 30,000 people live on the island, as yet, there are no guest houses or bungalows to stay in, so our only option was camping on the sand on Chong Beach. Unfortunately, our island tranquility was somewhat marred by the presence of 20 Vietnamese travel agents on their company away day - full sound system and karaoke on the beach. Luckily, they all retired by 10pm and once the generators were turned off we really felt on our own. Cham Island was lovely, the resorts are already in the planning stages so we felt lucky to have been there when there was nothing.
People are right, Hoi An does deserve more than a couple of days. Go there, but make sure you leave the confines of the town and tailors shops and explore the other sights the region has to offer!

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Relaxing Times

Date: 17/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

We spent the most idyllic 5 days at Whale Island Resort - it's not on Whale island at all, rather on a much smaller island called Hon Ong, which lies in a calm bay between the mainland and Whale island itself, about 60km north of Nha Trang.
It's a French run resort and has been open for 10 years. During peak season it can cater for up to 70 guests in about 30 bungalows. During our stay there must have had between 10 and 20 guests. Apart from the resort and the owner's house in another bay, there is nothing else on the island.
There is very little to do here that doesn't involve getting in or on the sea. The resort has windsurfs, canoes and Hobie Cats you can rent, as well as laying on snorkelling and diving trips, but if you don't like swimming in the sea, this isn't the place for you.
We all loved it there. Twice Dave rented out a Hobie Cat to take the girls sailing around the island, something they both really enjoyed and Ella has a definite bug for.
The snorkelling was great. The resort has developed a marine reserve in the bay it occupies. They have created a few artificial reefs by sinking ceramic pots in the shallower depths which encourages the growth of coral as well as attracting an abundance of tropical fish. Ella and Florence can name most of them, sadly not because of our excellent home schooling, but because they have seen 'Finding Nemo' about a dozen times.
The girls have become great little snorkellers. We did a few boat trips to deeper waters and they managed to dive down to take a closer look at the fish and coral. There were, of course, the usual sea hazards - jellyfish, sea urchins and sea lice. Fortunately, not too many sea lice and Ella and Florence are now well aware of the dangers of sea urchins. The jellyfish were a different matter, some mornings the bay was full of them - some enormous! They weren't there all the time though, and with their increasing agility in the sea the girls managed to swim around any lurking behind!
A final plus for Ella was that she managed to do a kids Scuba dive while we were there - Florence was miffed because, once again, she was too young. Ella loved being able to stay deep (well 2 and a half metres) with the fish and coral, the only down side was her ears hurt because she couldn't equalise. I don't think she has any burning desire to become a female Jacques Cousteau!
Whale Island Resort was great, a lovely place to relax and escape from the hustle and bustle of Vietnamese life. After 5 days of laid back living and fabulous French/Vietnamese food, I left a little heavier and a lot more relaxed!

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Saigon

Date: 12/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

I was really relieved to be going to Saigon. Florence had fallen ill during the night on our last night in Phu Quoc - a raging temperature as well as sickness & diarrhoea, bless her, she didn't know whether to sit on the toilet or lean over it, it was all happening at the same time. Thanks to our Luxe Guide to Ho Chi Minh, I had the name and address of a reputable, English speaking, medical practice, so that was our first port of call when we arrived. Thankfully, there was nothing sinister going on and after a consultation and a course of antibiotics we were on our way.
The girls friendship with Saralinh, the French girl they met in Phu Quoc, meant we ended up being invited by Christine, Sarahlinh's mum, to stay with them in Saigon. They have a lovely house not too far from the centre of town and it was great for Ella and Florence to have a friend (and all her toys!!) to play with. It's a different experience spending time in a city living with a family rather than staying in an anonymous hotel. Christine is a single mum and has a really high powered job as MD of a Saigon based cartoon production company. As a result she doesn't spend a great deal of time at home, so Saralinh spends a large part of her time out of school with 2 Vietnamese maids. The plus side of this is that she speaks fluent Vietnamese (as well as French and English), the down side is that she gets her own way more often than her mum would like her to! One of the maids, Madame Ha, has been working for the family for over 13 years and is an amazing cook - we didn't eat out once during our 3 night stay in Saigon, instead experiencing the delights of home-cooked Vietnamese cuisine, delicious!
We didn't really do much touristy in Saigon, we were enjoying being in a house too much! We did manage to get to the Cu Chi tunnels about 30km from the city. This amazing labyrinth of tunnels was used by the North Vietnamese Guerillas (VC) during the American war and remained undetected by the Americans for a large part of the war. The Vietnamese used a number of wiley means to go undetected, as well as constructing some great booby traps to capture the enemy. A really interesting day out, the only disappointment for Dave being that he wanted to have a go at the shooting range, where you can fire a number of guns, including an AK47. Unfortunately the ear protection was far from satisfactory and as his ears are the most important part of his job, we had to give it a miss.
Saigon is a great city for shopping, beauty treatments and other popular female pastimes. As we are having to keep our loads light, shopping is unfortunately not on the agenda at the moment. Of course, beauty treatments are - one has to maintain certain standards, even if we are backpacking! As our next stop was going to be the beaches north of Nha Trang, I felt in need of a bikini wax. Well, my therapist carried out the task with the same precision that I imagine the Vietnamese built the Cu Chi tunnels. I thought I was going to emerge sporting a Vietnamese Star! Of course you are going to have to take my word for it as I am not about to upload of photo of my new found neatness, but I will be wearing my briefest bikini when we hit the beach!

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Lovely Phu Quoc

Date: 08/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

Phu Quoc is a huge island, probably about the same size as Thailand's Phuket. We read it had some of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam and despite the fact we were approaching the island's rainy season we felt it was worth a 3 day trip. The island's potential for tourism is still largely unrealised, another reason to visit it now - the Vietnamese have huge plans for development over the next few years.
We arrived on the island with no pre-booked accommodation so we headed straight to Mai House - a French run guest house on Coco Beach at the northern end of Long Beach. Long Beach is one long stretch of golden sand, it's lovely but is not the most beautiful beach on Phu Quoc. However, as it is west facing, we were hoping to enjoy evening cocktails in front of the sinking sun.
Fortunately Mai House wasn't full, the bungalows and gardens were gorgeous and when we arrived the sun was shining. The sea on Long Beach at this time of year is quite rough (during the peak season of January and February it's turquoise and calm) but also very cool so we didn't need to worry about sea lice or jelly fish. A huge added bonus for the girls was another guest, a 7 year old French girl, who lives in Saigon, for them to play with. After a great swim, Dave and I enjoyed a sunset cocktail with Morris and Veronica, a retired Australian couple who have been on the island for 5 months and plan on staying for at least another 5. It was a blissful end to the day and a great start to our short time on the island.
The rains did come but fortunately mostly at night. The food at Mai House was great so we didn't feel the need to move very far although we did spend a couple of happy hours at the swanky La Veranda Resort close by, so the girls could use their lovely swimming pool while we sipped on delicious cocktails. We, as has become the norm on this trip, extended our stay by one day.
Our last day on the island was spent at the beautiful white sanded Bai Sao beach. There is only one bungalow operation and a few restaurants here, but the potential for many more. We spent the day floating in the turquoise waters, we had an amazing fresh seafood lunch - it was absolutely idyllic.
I know Phu Quoc will change - the development so far has been relatively slow so I hope we manage to go back there before it changes too much and becomes like so many other beaches in South east Asia. It is a place definitely worth going back, but how many times have I said that?

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Journey to Vietnam

Date: 05/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

Our journey on the Mekong Delta to Vietnam didn't get off to a very good start. It's not a great distance from Phnom Penh to Saigon, we could have taken a bus for about $10 but we decided we wanted to travel by boat and to complicate things we wanted to spend a few days on the island of Phu Quoc before heading to Saigon. To do this independently would have been a pain in the arse so we booked, what we thought was a good mid range option, through a tour company. 3 days and 2 nights on comfortable boats and in good accommodation and the personal services of a guide....well that was what our itinerary said!
We realised quite quickly that things were not going to be as they should. We were picked up from our hotel at 7.30am After about 4 additional hotel pick ups we found ourselves squeezed on to a minibus with about 10 other people and a load of bags, We arrived at our boat departure point on the Mekong to be greeted by a small, uncomfortable 'slow boat' when we were expecting a large, comfortable, fast boat! There were hard plastic chairs to sit on & where our itinerary had said a 3 hour trip, we were told we would reach our destination, Chau Doc about 7 hours later! Armed with only water & no snacks I was dreading it! My fury was fuelled following a conversation with a Swedish girl who was taking a 2 day trip direct to Saigon and had only paid $40 compared to our $200! The arduous boat trip involved a lengthy exit from Cambodia as well as a lengthy entry in to Vietnam where we had to lug all our bags on and off the boat both times. Once again the immigration officers insisted that photos of Ella and Florence were part of the process.
Fortunately, things got better and over the course of the next couple of days we were more than adequately compensated for the dreadful boat journey and suddenly found we also had flights to Saigon and train tickets on to Nha Trang included in the overall price of our tour.
The Mekong Delta was an amazing part of Vietnam to travel through, so diverse and so rich. The land is incredibly fertile - often called the 'rice basket' of Vietnam, this region alone produces enough rice to feed the entire nation with a generous surplus. We managed to cram an awful lot in to the 3 days we had exploring the region, visiting a stork sanctuary, fish farms, an incense making shop, floating markets - the list goes on. We loved it, the kids found parts of it interesting - especially the opportunity to make some incense sticks. The girls and I loved the Vietnamese womens attire of traditional conical hats and flowery, nylon (it dries so much faster in this humidity) pyjamas - nearly all the women wear them and in this sweaty heat manage to look cool and glamorous. I think we may have to follow suit - I most definitely don't look glamorous in this heat!
The days were slightly marred by the fact that Ella developed gastroenteritis - not much fun when you have to travel a long distance. She managed to sleep for a large part of the journey but we were all relieved when we finally boarded the ferry at Rach Gia for the 2 and a half hour 'express boat' ride to Phu Quoc.

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Phnom Penh

Date: 01/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city and a place I have only learnt to spell correctly now I have been there. We first spent time there en route to Sihanoukville. We had stopped briefly for lunch at the fantastic, Irish owned Green Vespa where Alan, the owner, had recommended a few hotels to us, including the Scandinavian Hotel. This was where we stayed, it's not on the popular river side location but not too far from it. Reasonably priced and well furnished, it had a small but good pool and we were given the poolside room, which meant the girls could dive in for a cooling dip first thing in the morning or last thing at night - perfect!
We had planned a 2 night stay there. We wanted to visit the Killing Fields (which we had been told wouldn't be too full on for the girls) as well as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (which we had been told would be too much for them). We learnt a lot of the history of the country by taking in both of these harrowing 'sights' and ended up staying for 4 nights. Phnom Penh is an amazing city and a great place to just be. It's small enough to get around easily, traditionally on a tuk tuk or motorbike. We saw lots of Cambodian families travelling 4 or 5 up on a motorbike, which the girls were desperate to do. After visiting Phnom Wat we took 2 motorbikes back to our hotel, a driver, Dave and Ella on one with Florence and I on another motorbike - this is now the only way they want to travel. It's not the safest way to get around as there seem to be no traffic rules, it's simply the smaller vehicles give way to the larger ones (and there are plenty of 4 wheel drives in the city!)
I can't really put my finger on what is so special about Phnom Penh. It has a charm that seems to have largely survived the violence of it's recent history. When the Khmer Rouge took the city in 1975, the entire population was forced to the countryside - they did not return until after the Vietnamese arrived and liberated the city in 1979. In the years since then the city has come an awfully long way. There is so much to see and it is the best place to learn about the Khmer people, their culture and history. If you visit Cambodia, don't make the mistake many people do and bypass Phnom Penh for Siem Reap!

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Cambodian Beaches

Date: 28/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

We didn't intend to visit the beaches in Cambodia. We had been told they were a bit rough and with (we hope) a lot of beach time in Vietnam, we felt we didn't need to. However, after 4 days in Siem Reap in soaring heat the last thing we wanted to do was head straight to Phnom Penh.
After a 6 hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and a 3 hour car journey from there, we arrived at Sihanoukville's Serendipity beach in time for a quick swim before the sun set. A gorgeous crescent shaped, white sanded beach dotted with bungalows, beach bars and restaurants. We checked in to 2 adjoining (and expensive) rooms right on the beach front at House of Malibu, just for 2 nights to give us the chance to look for something else.
We had a quick dip in the sea and within minutes Florence complaied that she had been stung by something - we got straight out and headed back to our room. She wasn't screaming with pain but by the time we got back I saw that she had a huge welt across her tummy - a nasty jelly fish sting and not a great start to our first Asian beach!
The next morning, Dave and I went for a dip before the girls woke up. The gorgeous beach was littered with rubbish - plastic bags, disposable nappies, plastic bottles - loads of stuff. I don't think the rubbish is there all the time, it's a tidal thing, but we saw very few bungalow owners cleaning the area in front of their patch. It's a real shame, tourists have only been coming to this area in the past few years, I hope the Khmers (and ex-pat) business owners address it before the tourists decide not to come back.
We had been recommended a place on the next beach down, Otres Beach, so moved there the next day. We checked in to our hillside bungalow at the Queen Hill Resort and again jumped straight in to the (much cleaner) sea. Within seconds the girls were screaming that they had been bitten. Sea lice! They are little mosquito like creatures and thei bites itch for ages. So we all ran out again. I was really upset 'cos I thought we'd really stuffed up by moving. The girls were fine after a while and far more concerned about me being upset than they were about their bites. I just longed to be in cold temperate oceans rather than warm, tropical ones!! We spent the afternoon on a small boat snorkelling off one of the outlying islands. No sea lice, no jelly fish, just lovely and the girls have become great little snorkellers.
Just off the coast of Sihanoukville is Bamboo Island, one of the few Cambodian Islands with overnight accommodation. We kept our (cheap) bungalows at Otres beach and armed with day bags took the 1 hour boat ride out to the island for an overnight stay. What can I say - it was gorgeous and in itself was worth the trip to the Cambodian beaches. Very reminiscent of Thai beaches 20 years ago - no electricity (power supplied by generators), palm trees, golden sands, turquoise seas - perfect!
We were in one of 10 bungalows at Bamboo Island Resort, owned by the same people who run Coasters, one of the better accommodations on Serendipity Beach. The food was great, the staff lovely, the bungalows basic but clean with balconies and hammocks - we felt we had arrived in paradise and were all gutted we could only stay there one night.
Bamboo island is the destination for lots of day trippers, but once they had left, we pretty much had the island to ourselves (only 2 other couples were there). There are 3 different bungalow operations on the island, I am sure within a few years there will be more. I just hope, by then, the Khmers have learnt to really look after this bit of paradise.

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The Temples and Children of Cambodia

Date: 24/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

The beauty of the temples at Angkor is well documented. They certainly live up to their hype and deserve to be considered as one of the global seven wonders of the world. We bought a 3 day pass for $40 (interestingly enough the profits go to a Vietnamese owned hotel chain) and did what most tourists do: got up early to see the temples, took a long break for lunch to have a (not so) cooling dip in our (warm) hotel swimming pool, returning to the temples for the lovely late afternoon and sunset light. This is April, the hottest month of the year in Cambodia - it's hot, really hot and really humid!
We did the sensible, essential thing and hired a guide. I think had it not been for Mr Lee, we would have not covered so much in just a couple of days and we certainly would not have learned as much of the turbulent history in this incredible, up and coming country.
The girls were great at exploring the temples, and, credit to them, barely moaned. They were pretty amazed when they learnt that Angkor was home to over a million people in the 11th and 12th Centuries, when London was just a small town on the Thames. We even dragged them out of bed at 4.30 in the morning to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat, and although they were a bit grumpy at first and sunrise wasn't the best ever, they still managed to make the most of the experience.
Fortunately, there were many things to sidetrack them. First, the Buddhist shrines. The girls have seemingly become devout Buddhists since we arrived in SE Asia. There are many shrines at every temple, and in Angkor, often just the remnants of what was a Buddha effigy, covered in orange fabric and incense sticks burning becomes a modest shrine. The girls lit incense at every one, always befriending the nuns or monks who looked after them.
They were constantly amused by the coach loads of Asian tourists, many over-dressed, often in nylon - hardly suitable tropical weather attire! These tourists tried to take our girls photo at every opportunity, Ella tried to get a dollar every time they snapped but ended up with nothing.
The best thing was the kids - the legions of kids who try to sell you their wares are outside every temple, at every street corner and lurking near every cafe and restaurant. Once you get beyond the sales pitch, you quickly realise that these kids are funny and smart. With their ubiquitous smiles and cheery disposition you can't help but spend a dollar or more with them. Their English is generally so much better than their parents (who are always noticeably absent), generally because of their interaction with the tourists. Ella and Florence loved the banter with them. Seeing how little the Cambodian children live with really makes them appreciate what they have themselves (at least I hope it does.......that's the point of this isn't it?).
A great time exploring the temples and Siem Reap is a vibey town, but after spending 4 days in 40 degree heat, we were ready for some beach action and hopefully some cooling sea breezes........

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Last Few Days in Laos

Date: 19/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

We ended up staying at Khone and Khune's in Luang Prabang for nearly 2 weeks. We were all very sad to leave our new friends. As we had stayed there for so long we felt we had to speed through our final 2 destinations in the country, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. The south of Loas will have to wait for another trip
After a 6 hour drive along windy roads, mountain passes and stunning scenery we arrived in Vang Vieng just as the sun was setting. We had booked accommodation in Ban Sabai Riverside Bungalows overlooking the Nam Song river, as we had been told that the town itself was pretty noisy.
Vang Vieng has become a bit of a mecca for backpackers. The town itself is pretty awful, it's full of bars and restaurants with blaring TVs showing repeat episodes of Friends, The Simpsons and the like. The mountain scenery surrounding the town is amazing, huge limestone escarpments, great rivers and an abundance of incredible caves. We only had one day there and made the most of it - an organised day out with about 8 other backpackers. We explored 4 caves, one with a river running through it which we navigated on inner tubes - pitch black and the girls loved it. After a great picnic lunch we spent the afternoon on the same inner tubes and floated or paddled (depending on how strong the current was) down the Nam Song back towards Vang Vieng. The river has bars and giant swings dotted along it's length, allowing farangs and locals to take a cooling dip in the river. It was the day after the official last day of Laos New Year and it was still in party mode. Many farangs get stuck in Vang Vieng for weeks and spend large parts of their day sitting at the bars drinking, getting stoned, taking the odd dip in the river. It really is the closest to a beach vibe in this country - I completely understand why people are drawn here. It's just a shame the town has become what it has.
Ella and Florence really enjoyed our day out, not just caves and the rapids (which weren't too ferocious as we were approaching the end of the dry season), but the opportunity to interact with other travellers. Ella is becoming particularly independent and spent most of the day hanging out with 3 Swedish girls. Dave's (frequent) offers of help (I think he wanted to hang out with the Swedish girls) on the steeper rapids were refused, she was out to prove she could cope on her own.
We didn't really do much in Vientiane, Laos' capital, on the banks of the Mekong and a 4 hour drive from Vang Vieng. It's possibly about the quietest capital city I have ever encountered. With a lot of wiley manipulation, I persuaded Dave that we should stay in Vientiane's loveliest hotel The Settha Palace. To be honest, it wasn't that expensive and with the South East Asian currencies tied to the US $, these usually inexpensive countries are a bargain at the moment! It's a gorgeous old colonial building, beautiful wooden floors, 4 poster beds, a fantastic swimming pool in beautiful frangipani filled gardens - a great way to end our time in lovely Laos.
This is a country I definitely want to come back to - it is really beautiful, the people are lovely and there is so much more to explore!

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Pi Mai Lao 2550

Date: 15/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

Laos New Year is celebrated particularly enthusiastically in Luang Prabang. Wanting to be there to witness the festivities was our main reason for staying in the region for so long. I don't think any of us realised quite how fervently the Lao and farangs (foreigners) would embrace the 3 day festival. It is traditionally called a 'water festival' as getting wet brings good luck, but not only plain water is thrown, there's coloured water, flour, grease, paint. It's not a time or place to decide to wear your best clothes....
Our guest house owner, Khune, spent the week prior to New Year tinkering with his open-topped US Jeep in order to get it working so we could drive to and around town in it every day. Of course, this guaranteed that we would be soaked by the time we arrived in town. A bit of a blessing really because once we were wet through we didn't mind the additional dousings.
We, of course, participated in the more spiritual elements of New Year with Khone and Khune: for good luck we built a sand stupa on the banks of the Mekong (normally sandy but a bit muddy this year due to the thunderous rain that had fallen during the preceding nights), we watched the procession, where everyone, including monks, nuns and local dignitaries are doused in water to wash away past sins.
By far the best fun was plotting up at a bar on Luang Prabang's main road and witnessing and participating in the madness and mayhem that ensued. Of course, the girls gave as good as they got, I entered in to the sprit of things with my usual enthusiasm and Dave took plenty of photos. It was a lot of fun, no one lost their temper or got mad and once the sun went down, without a word, everything stopped enabling us to put on some dry clothes and walk through the streets safely.

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Lovely Luang Prabang

Date: 13/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

By the time we arrived in Luang Prabang, Florence's cold had developed into a really nasty cold sore and, I suspected, impetigo. Poor little thing, she was so self conscious about the huge sores on her face she couldn't bear to look up at Khone, our Luang prabang Guest House owner, who met us from the boat.
We had booked in to Khone and Khune's Guest House, in a small village about 4km out of Luang Prabang on the recommendation of Travelfish - a great online resource if you're travelling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Khone and Khune's is a family run guest house and when I read they had kids I thought it would be great for the girls to have some local kids to play with as they have been really missing their friends from home. Unfortunately, their 2 daughters were away in Vientiane at school but there was Fly, their 8 year old son. There were also 4 cats and 4 dogs (3 of them puppies), all very healthy and well looked after, so, in contrast to our usual rule of not touching any animals in Asia, the girls were delighted when I said they could play with these. Ella and Florence were in their element and I knew they'd be happy here.
It was clear very quickly that Khone and Khune were good hosts, they only have 6 bungalows - we occupied 2 of them and were the only guests. They went out of their way to help us, run us in to town, recommend places for us to go as well as sort out a good Doctor so I could get Florence some antibiotics.
By our first night in Luang, I loved the place. It has a laid back air of sophistication I haven't experienced in anywhere else in Asia. It is now a Unesco world heritage site and is a perfectly preserved area of local and colonial teak houses, French provincial architecture and gorgeous temples encircled by mountains at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. There's a huge range of accommodation to stay in, great cafes and restaurants as well as decent wine and coffee! There are over 60 temples in the city, with monks and novices living in many of them, so the orange robes are very much part of the Luang Prabang scenery.
By day 2 we had decided to extend our 4 or 5 day stay and stay until Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) nearly 2 weeks away. With Florence recovering and Ella feeling that she'd arrived in heaven, we didn't think it was a bad place to stop for a while.
It was an amazing, relaxing time until the New Year mayhem started. We kayaked down one of the many surrounding rivers, we swam in the turquoise swimming pools at the Kuang Xi waterfalls, we ate really well, and just generally soaked up the atmosphere in this lovely city.
Khone and Khune became like friends. It was a lovely way to experience Laos. Sometimes you get more out of staying in one place for a while rather than haring around a country trying to grasp a little of this, a little of that. I never imagined we would spend so long in one place in this landlocked country - Luang Prabang didn't let us down.

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The Mighty Mekong

Date: 02/04/2007 | Author: gabby

The 2 day Mekong River trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang had been recommended to us by a few people as a 'must do' while we were in Laos. While researching the different options available we discovered there were 4:

1 Really cheap option on a slow boat, hard bench seats, often overcrowded, 2 x 9 hour days with an overnight stop in the small town of Pak Beng (own cost in one of the few, basic, guest houses there). $20US pp.
2 Luxury Slow boat option - comfortable boat, maximum 40 passengers, 2 x 8 hour days. All meals & soft drinks included as well as one night's accommodation in the luxury Luang Say Lodge. Cost $340US Adults $170US Kids!
3 Speed Boat option - only 1 day, but have to wear helmets, no leg space and there are frequent fatalities due to the hidden rocks in the Mekong - especially at the end of the dry season. Cost negotiable. For us - not an option!
4 Fast boat option, Nagi on the Mekong, one day only, reasonably comfortable boat but departures from Huay Xai only twice a week, Cost $80US pp.

We really wanted to go for the fast boat but we would have had to stay in Huay Xai for an extra 3 days. There wasn't really that much to do there so that wasn't an option. The only other alternative was the luxury slow boat option, we knew it would be good, but at what cost?! The timing was perfect as the Luang Say boat left the morning after we arrived back from the Gibbon experience and to be honest, I felt so tired and grubby after our weekend of living in trees, I was really glad we were going to experience some luxury for a couple of days!
A couple from London who we met on the Gibbon Experience decided to do the same trip as us. I was so relieved, because when we stepped on the boat, it was full of elderly, middle class tourists travelling with tour groups! Thankfully, there were only about 20 other passengers so the boat was comfortably empty.
The boat was lovely, the overnight accommodation at the Luang Say Lodge was perfect and the food was amazing. I think we were given special treatment as the cook took a shine to Ella and Florence. It was easy to while away the 2 days by reading, playing games and soaking up the passing scenery. A lovely, relaxed way to travel.
The views on the Mekong weren't great. The slash and burn farming has created a haze across 3 countries - it does every year during March and April. At times visibility was down to less than 1km and ash would rain down on us. The river was about 7 metres lower than it's highest level (November is the best time to travel to experience the Mekong at it's mightiest!) revealing huge rocks and sandbanks. But, there is so much more to see on the Mekong. It's such a life force and is still the main artery of travel for the Lao people in this land locked country. Passing along it gives you a great insight into it's importance.

It's very concerning when you consider that the Chinese plan to build about 20 dams further up the Mekong, and along it's tributaries, in order to provide power for their burgeoning middle classes. 2 dams have already been built and the volume of water passing through the lower Mekong countries is already decreasing. As the only country of the 6 bordering the Mekong not to sign the 1995 Chiang Rai Accord (set up to settle disputes regarding development of the river), the future of the Mekong is very much in the hands of the Chinese......................

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Laos and Living in Tree Houses

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

I have to admit, I wasn't really relishing the idea of The Gibbon Experience. I loved the 'back to nature' sound of it but had heard that the cables (your access around the jungle) were 150m above the ground and up to 1km long! With vertigo still being an issue for me (despite my skydive) I wasn't sure how I would cope.
I wasn't sure how the kids would fare either. Not just from the height perspective (they don't have any problem with heights), but from the biting insects, Laos food, heat, safety perspective. Before arriving in Laos, I must have sent about 10 emails to the Gibbon Experience office in Huay Xai, all answered promptly and trying to allay my fears: is there malaria in the region - no but there is a current outbreak of chicken pox; will the guides take the children on the cables - our policy is children under 8 always go tandem; is it safe for children - safety is very important to us etc etc etc.
Crossing the border from Thailand to Laos (Chiang Khong to Huay Xai) was an adventure in itself. A small boat crossing the mighty Mekong (well not so mighty really as it's the dry season so the river levels are very low). After a 10 minute formality on the Thai side, we had a longer experience on the Laos side - forms to fill in and photos to provide - but also due to the immigration officer's requests to take photos of Ella and Florence.
Huay Xai, our first Laos stop. Also the first time on our trip that we arrived somewhere with no pre-booked accommodation. It reminded me of my backpacking days in the 80's and 90's - I left Dave and the kids in a cafe while I ran up and down the main street looking at the available rooms. How the internet has changed the travel experience - even the most basic accommodation now has email or sometimes a website. I opted for the only room with a double bed and single bed, which happened to be the most expensive I looked at (of course!!). It was about 8. It was clean and air conditioned but the beds were rock hard and the pillows enormous (once again back packing memories came flooding back!).
Florence was still feeling a little under the weather although a lot better than she had been. Her cough had subsided but the air quality was as bad here as it was in Northern Thailand! She and Ella weren't eating much, they'd even gone off rice, which was also a bit of a worry............
An early start and a 2 hour drive along half constructed road, took us to the village of Baan Toup, which marked the start of the one and a half hour trek to the zip lines. There was a local festival taking place, the whole village was out and it was interesting watching the young girls checking out Ella and Florence - not many young blonde children pass through the village. It was here that we realised just what an amazing project the Gibbon Experience is. It provides employment for many of the villagers without exploiting them or their lifestyle. It's non-profit making, with all income being ploughed back in to the local area. It also encourages the locals to protect their habitat and prevent the logging and poaching which has been so endemic in this part of the world for such a long time.
After the walk (easy for the girls) we were kitted out with our caribinas and harnesses. Ella (of course) was the first to take to the zip line with one of the guides - my stomach in my throat as I watch her zip along 70 metres above the ground to the first tree house! No fear - she loved it. Florence was the same - a huge grin across her face as she landed in tree house 1 just after I did. This was where we were sleeping, 60 metres above the forest ground. Our house mates were 2 adventurous Canadians guys and a lovely Danish girl with a fear of heights far worse than my own. It was good staying with young(er) back packers - the girls learnt new card games and tricks during our time there and enjoyed the grown up company. The tree house was fully equipped with a kitchen with drinking water (from a 'safe' spring), 7 beds in 3 sleeping areas as well as a shower and a 'long drop' toilet - 60 metres to the ground where a large pig lived who consumed all the 'organic' material deposited there!
I loved the zipping - it was a great way to cover so much ground and to see so much of the forest - I even managed to take in the views, which were spectacular. Although we didn't encounter any mosquitos living in the tree tops there were plenty of other biting bugs. Not that they bothered the girls too much - they even coped with the legions of wasps who made the toilet their home, finding the best way to dispel them was to pee on them. In the end, we didn't encounter any Gibbons but their morning singing was the most pleasant way to wake up.
It was an amazing way to spend our first days in Laos. We felt tired and dirty by the time we arrived back in Huay Xai. Dave and I were gagging for a cold beer (strictly no alcohol or drugs in the tree houses - you're high enough!!). The girls were hungry, having lived on a diet of rice and fruit for our time there. But we all loved it! Definitely recommended - but, for me, 3 days and 2 nights was enough!

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The Smoky North

Date: 28/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

Chiang Mai was really really hot, not as humid as Bangkok but a few degrees warmer.
We were staying in a hotel just outside the city called Lanna Mantra. On the banks of the Ping river. Thankfully, it has a pool. The kids happily cope with the heat if they are within 5 metres of it!
We were spending a few days there as we're booked on the The Gibbon Experience on 30 March (the earliest day we could book in) and it seemed like a good place to while away a few days. We spent time doing school work (in between cooling dips in the pool) and went to an amazing Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, about an hour's drive from our hotel.
It was lovely to be back in Chiang Mai again. I spent quite a lot of time there when I studied Thai massage in 1993 as well as when I was travelling with Helen Beales in 1989. The town has grown a lot but I did manage to find an old favourite, The Riverside restaurant, where the food is great and they sell pretty palatable wine (NB our alcohol consumption since arriving in Asia has plummeted). Going there brought back a few memories from my other visits to Chiang Mai.
The air was dramatically better than it had been but it still wasn't great. The Thai, Laos and Burmese farmers all employ the slash and burn methods of farming during March and April every year. The effects are worse this year because of the long, hot dry season this region is experiencing (yet another part of the world where water is becoming an increasingly precious commodity). Florence developed a really nasty cough while we were there. The guilt I felt for bringing her here was insurmountable and for the first time on our trip I didn't want to be where I was. I think my feelings were exacerbated by the lack of sleep I had experienced for the 2 nights Florence was ill. I took her to the Lanna Hospital for a check up - less than 30 minutes and 10 later we were on our way, armed with medication and masks, in case the air quality became any worse.
Fortunately, by the time we were ready to head to Chiang Rai, en route for the Thai/Laos border, Florence was feeling a little better and the cough had subsided (as had my guilt). I just hope she's well enough for the one and a half hour hike to get to the treehouses at the Gibbon Experience and hope that the air doesn't get any worse.............

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A few days in Bangkok

Date: 24/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

We arrived in Bangkok for a couple of days with no subsequent plans. We had planned a route which involved travelling to Chiang Mai in N Thailand for a few days and then over the border at Chiang Khong and in to Laos for The Gibbon Experience (the only thing we had already booked) followed by a trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.
However, when we were in Manly I spoke to Helen Beales who said that she had read reports in the UK press about the pollution in Chiang Mai due to the slash and burn farming methods used in the region. Of course, I was straight on the internet and the situation seemed dire. Everyone advised to wear masks and children advised not to go outdoors altogether! Fortunately we had not booked any flights at the time and Dave and I decided we needed to monitor the situation once we reached Bangkok.
Arriving in the intense heat at about midnight, we checked in to our accommodation Centre Point Silom. A great place with huge roomy apartments (I have never experienced that before in Bangkok), a little shabby but just about to undergo a major refurb so should be really swanky in about a year. It's in a great location too - close to the Chao Phraya river and seconds from one of the stops for the relatively new sky trains - these futuristic looking air conditioned trains are the best and coolest way to get around the city!
On day 1, we took a guided tour of Wat Pho, a huge temple complex just south of the Grand Palace followed by a family Thai massage before we were defeated by the heat and retreated to our hotel swimming pool.
By day 2 we were all feeling a little more acclimatised and ventured to the huge Jatujak weekend market. I have never been there before in all of my trips to Bangkok because it was always such a nightmare to get to. The skytrains and (even newer) underground have changed that! It was a great market, sure it had an element of the usual tourist tat for sale but there were some great little stalls which we found courtesy of the The Luxe Guide to Bangkok. We were also directed to the fabulous Viva bar where we were greeted with a moist towelette before being offered the drinks menu!
We even managed a trip to Jim Thompson's House. Before this visit to Thailand I had heard of him but didn't have a clue who he was - now I know and I also know that he had built a very lovely house in Bangkok prior to his disappearance in 1967.
Our final evening in Bangkok and the official news was that the smoke and smog was clearing so flights to Chiang Mai were booked - ridiculously cheap with Air Asia. Let's hope the conditions don't change............

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Sydney North Shore Beaches

Date: 21/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

So we stayed at a couple of backpackers in New Zealand and they weren't that bad. Looking for accommodation in Sydney we read about an 'award winning' Youth Hostel on Collaroy Beach on the north shores of Sydney. It sounded great, pool, free internet, family rooms with ensuite bathrooms and great communal facilities. All that for only $84 per night if we stayed there for the week! Dave wasn't that familiar with the area but thought it was just north of Manly Beach with it's easy access to the city. Ideal, or so we thought.........
Arriving in Sydney during rush hour meant we had to fight our way through nightmare traffic, over the Harbour Bridge and through the sprawling northern suburbs. By this time we realised that Collaroy was at least 6km north of Manly, so too far for a casual stroll for dinner. Never mind, we were sure Collaroy itself would have a lot going for it. Well, the beach was nice, but the local restaurants consisted of a local RSL (exact translation: Returned Services League - NSW is full of them!) a take-away chicken shop and a BYO Thai restaurant!
Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse. The shared facilities in the hostel may have been great but when we were shown our room I was really disappointed. It was on the ground floor and the window was tiny so the bright neon light had to be on constantly, it just about squeezed in a double and pair of bunk beds (no room to swing a cat) and it had that vague smell of unwashed bodies! Even Ella said it was like a prison cell - not that she has ever been in one. I wasn't very happy about it so the next day asked to move rooms. We moved to the 2nd floor to a slightly brighter room, moderately bigger but still smelly. I still wasn't happy and managed to take it out on the rest of the family! I didn't think I could do anything about it - we'd paid a week upfront!
After a gorgeous day enjoying the delights of Whale Beach, a black cloud passed over me as we headed back to Collaroy - I just didn't want to be there. After the 6th row with Dave within about 3 days (cos I was miserable!) I decided to bite the bullet and look for somewhere else to stay. I was told that we'd lose a night's cost if we moved out the next day as they had a 48 hour cancellation policy - $84 - what a bargain! Armed with just a small Sydney guide I managed to find a room at the funky but slightly shabby Manly Lodge right in Manly, 2 minutes from the beach and 2 minutes from the wharf where the ferries take you across Sydney Harbour in to the city. A family suite for $195 per night - we all thought it was worth it! I guess I'm not cut out for youth hostelling - apart from a school trip to Italy when I was 15 I have never stayed in one before. I'm not sure I'll be staying in one again.
A final farewell present from Collaroy Beach House - the fire alarm went off at about 5.30am on our last night there. All of us had to get out of bed and gather outside while the fire brigade went in to give the all clear, all because some silly sod had decided to light a mosquito coil in his room with the window closed - I have never been so glad to check out of a place!
4 days in Manly and we all absolutely loved it! I ran along the beach every morning and we all managed a swim before breakfast. It's full of cafes, bars and restaurants - we didn't have to get in a car once. Jess came over for a night with her boyfriend and flatmate. I caught up with an old friend from Bristol. We even managed to sort out all the chores we needed to do as well as take part in a working boat race on the harbour to celebrate the 75th birthday of the Harbour Bridge.
Manly's a great place, it feels like an island yet is so close to the city. The people who live there undoubtedly have a great quality of life and if you work in the city, what better way to get there than across Sydney's beautiful harbour?
I love Sydney, find me a lovely property close to the beach in Manly, a great job and I'd be very tempted to move there!

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Moving On

Date: 13/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

We leave New Zealand in less than a week. I feel a certain sense of closure as we are almost back where we started (Auckland) and have managed to cover a huge amount of this beautiful country. The summer here is drawing to a close and despite the fact that the weather is still gorgeous there is that end of summer feeling in the air.
We have booked our route back to the UK. We will be in Sydney for a week from 15 March. On 22 March we head to Bangkok, where we will need to book our local flights through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We plan to arrive in India on 22 May and home on 10 July, although of course, all could change if we want to stay somewhere longer.........
Thinking back on our time in NZ, we really have had the most amazing time. This country has all the features of a huge continent but they have been squeezed in to a small archipelago of islands in the South Pacific. It's a truly stunning place and never boring. I can honestly say there has not been one place I haven't liked. The girls are frequently asked where their favourite place has been and they always struggle with their answer. I think it is because we have been to so many amazing places and experienced so many incredible things in a relatively short space of time: swimming with dolphins, climbing glaciers, exploring thermal areas, scrambling up volcanoes, swimming in rivers, lakes and the sea, kayaking, canoeing and sailing. It's been so much fun and SO easy. Very much home from home except a lot less people, a lot cheaper and better weather. It really is one of the most staggering places I have ever visited.
Asia is going to be a different story. In New Zealand we've had a car that has been our constant 'home'. I know I can feed the girls anything they crave. They can drink water from the tap. If they get bitten by a mosquito they're not going to contract anything nasty......the list goes on.
The Asian countries we're visiting will present more of a challenge. The girls sort of know what to expect and they are really looking forward to it. Kerala is still in their memories from last Christmas and of course we were in Thailand for a week on the way to Australia, but I know the travel will be different and harder in many ways.
It will be fantastic and they will learn so much about different cultures, faiths and histories. I'm sure with their white blonde hair they will attract a lot of attention. It will be a great experience to travel through these countries as a family - children are a huge asset when you travel through lands where the family is so respected. But, of course, I am slightly apprehensive. We have already addressed the vaccination issues and we have to get some anti-malarial tablets as we intend to go to a few areas where there are current malaria outbreaks. Malaria is not a legacy of our adventure I'd like any of us to be left with.
Ultimately, I am really looking forward to witnessing and watching the girls witness so many new and different things. I am sure they are going to gain so much from the Asian experience - I just hope they enjoy it as much as the New Zealand one!

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The Far North

Date: 10/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

With such lovely homely accommodation in the Bay of Islands, it would have been very easy to stay put but we were so close to the far north point of Cape Reinga and the famous 90 mile beach we took an overnight side trip. We stayed in a farm backpackers in the small town of Pukenui and woke up early in the morning so we were driving up 90 mile beach by 8am. The girls found this particular drive a lot of fun - poking their heads through the sun roof to catch the lovely breezes. They didn't have as much fun as their dad though - he loved every minute of it. Needless to say I was NOT given the opportunity to take the wheel!
A quick walk to the lighthouse at the northern tip of NZ where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean was followed by a stop at the giant Ta Paki sand dunes. Equipped with a boogie board each we didn't bother with the nursery slopes and instead headed straight for the highest, steepest dunes. We were ill prepared and had forgotten to bring water, hats or sunblock from the car. It's really hard (and thirsty) work walking up steep dunes but the view from the top of the highest peaks over the wild Tasman Sea was worth it. The toboggan rides down received a mixed reception. Dave went first and in typical bloke style, went head first - he didn't manage to pick up much speed down the slopes but did manage to pick up a face full of sand! Ella went next, and after initial trepidation, finally let go and hurtled down the slope at break neck speed - again ending up with a face full of sand (see the video clip)! Florence and I went together but on separate boards. Florence, being so little and so light, was like a cork on the board and flew down the steep long dune and in the attempt to stop herself ended up with a face full and pants full of sand and in tears! When we finally reached the bottom of the dunes, thirsty but in one piece, we had a lot of fun tobogganing on the nursery slopes - perhaps this is where we should have started!

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Bay of Islands

Date: 05/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

Robbie and Sally Barclay's bach at Tapeka Point, near Russell, was perfect. Family friendly and very comfortable with amazing views. The location was stunning - just 50 metres from a really lovely, kid friendly beach with a swimming pontoon! Being here made me feel a bit homesick for the first time - it's the sort of place we would have had a great time with friends. I really wanted to whisk some over for the week. The girls, possibly picking up my feelings also confessed to missing their friends and wanting to see them - a first on this trip. Considering we have been away for three and a half months, I don't think that's bad!
We had a great sailing trip on the R Tucker Thompson on our first day. Ella even managed to take the helm for quite a while. A great day, where we swam to a great beach, climbed up to the crows nest and out on to the bowsprit as well as swinging from the yard arm and jumping in to the sea.

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Rocky Point

Date: 02/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

We are so lucky to have some friends in NZ. A little insider knowledge goes an awfully long way. Greg Peacocke, who I only met for the first time on my birthday at the end of February, has been like our Kiwi guardian angel - helping us in so many ways: instigating the purchase of our car, introducing us to great people in Queenstown, helping us with accommodation as well as giving us great advice on places to go or not to go. The list is endless and it was great to finally spend some real time with him and his lovely wife, Mary-Ann, at their little bit of paradise about 1.5 hours drive north of Auckland. Rocky Point is a 50 acre plot of land they bought a couple of years ago - it's lovely, with hills, bush as well as 1.6km of coastline and is completely isolated. They have kitted out some semi-trailer truck bodies until they decide the exact style and location of the house they plan to build.
Greg has all the toys there, motor bikes for getting around (although my attempts at riding were pretty poor!), kayaks (great fun with the kids - Ella's kayaking is particularly good, Florence prefers to be a passenger!), a dingy with outboard as well as a single sailed dingy. Dave had a great time on the sailing dingy with the kids and it was great to see him sharing and passing on his skills. In fact, for me, one of the highlights of this trip so far is to see Dave bonding with the girls so much. He spends so much time away when we are at home, they are getting so much from having his undivided attention!
After one lovely boozy night by the campfire with Greg, Mary-Ann (who share my penchant for French champagne!) and their little boy Truman we had another couple of nights there on our own. Other than the neighbouring farmer, we didn't see anyone else for our whole time there - it was the sort of seclusion that you just don't experience in the UK.
Next stop Bay of Islands and just as I was about to book us some accommodation, Greg sorts us out once again. A friend of his, Robbie Barclay, who knows Dave vaguely, has offered us his family bach (NZ term for holiday home) for a couple of days or longer if we need it. We have been so lucky and people have been so generous for the past couple of weeks our accommodation budget is beginning to look really good! Bring on the Pinot Noir............

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Jumping out of Planes

Date: 25/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

I never used to have a problem with heights. Like wrinkles, vertigo is one of those things that seems to develop with age. When we were in Queenstown, I rather flippantly said to Dave that I'd like to do a skydive. I have always maintained you'd never get me on the end of a bungy cord. The thought of chucking myself off a platform at great height has never appealed, but I didn't feel too daunted at the prospect of strapping myself to a man and being thrown off the plane with him. We didn't manage it in Queenstown but we knew Taupo, on the north island, was another popular place for skydiving, with views that surpassed anywhere else in New Zealand. On the way there, I made a few calls to the many skydiving operators and was advised to book at least a day ahead. Our first morning and we woke to cloud and wind - 2 things that hamper the chances of a jump. I called Taupo Tandem Skydiving and was informed there were no jumps today but we could be fitted at 1pm the following day, weather permitting. I booked the slot for Dave and myself. We couldn't go on the same flight as one of us had to be with the kids but we could go one after the other.
We woke to perfect skydiving conditions - I didn't seem to have the appetite for breakfast. We arrived at Taupo airport and I insisted that I wanted to jump from the lower altitude option of 12000ft. Dave, of course, wanted to jump from right at the top - 15000ft - and thought I should do the same. An extra 15 seconds of freefalling at an additional cost of $75NZ, I just didn't see the point! A lovely Irish girl, Catherine, checked us in and spotting gullible written all over me, not only persuaded me to jump from 15000ft but book the all singing, all dancing camera crew (well one extra guy) to record the experience. Of course I wanted the event recorded, what's the point in just doing it. I needed the proof so I could show off to my mates!
Looking at the information and photos of all of the tandem pilots, I was hoping to get the biggest man possible (like that's going to save me if the 'chute fails!) who'd done the largest number of jumps (most had done at least 5000, some as many as 15000). In the end I was given Mike. He wasn't tall, but quickly scrutinising his certificate I saw that he had completed over 8000 jumps and was FA1 World Record Holder (I never asked him what that meant). He was, obviously, very competent but was really lacking in the humour department which didn't help my nerves. I was with about 8 other people and their pilots on the plane. As we were approaching 12000 feet it was clear that everyone else on the plane had decided to jump from that altitude. I was tempted to tell Mike we should get off there. Being the only jumper on the plane for the final 3000 feet ascent was pretty scary. We were so high up I could see both east and west coast coasts of the north island: we were above the clouds and I could see the curvature of the earth - bloody hell, no going back now! At 15000ft, the straps between Mike and myself had been tripled checked and tightened as far as they could go with my arse pushed firmly in to Mike's crotch - all completely necessary of course! We shimmied our way to the plane door where I had to dangle my legs out of the plane and smile to the camera for the exit photo. The only thought on my mind at this stage was DON'T LOOK DOWN! Before I knew it Mike told me to look upwards, gave me a shove and we were out - a quick spin and then looking downwards, hurtling towards the earth at 200km/h. It's a strange feeling - although we were travelling at such speed we didn't getting any closer to the ground - I think's that's because we were so high up! After the initial few seconds of freefalling I spread my arms and really start to enjoy the feeling and the experience. It was an incredible view - huge lake Taupo as well as the 3 volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngaurahoe and Ruapehu thousands of feet below. About a minute later, I was almost disappointed when the parachute was opened, forcing us to decelerate rapidly. Of course there was relief too! The parachute ride down was almost as enjoyable as the freefalling and certainly a lot more relaxing. It was lovely to see the girls waving up at me as I approached the landing area - Dave was already in the sky, about to experience the same. Huge relief as I hit the ground, my ears were blocked and my eyes were watering but it had been amazing.
All things said, I still can't bring myself to bungy jump!

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Thermal Activity

Date: 24/02/2007 | Author: gabby

We are all learning loads about volcanoes and plate tectonics in New Zealand. The country is at the point where the IndoAustralian and Pacific plates meet, hence the mountains, glaciers, fiords, earthquakes and thermal activity. Heading for the Taupo and Rotarua region we were looking forward to bathing in a few thermal pools and experiencing other elements of this fascinating country.
During our time there we went to 3 thermal areas, each more interesting than the last. The 2 biggest, Orakei Korako and Wai-o-tapu were absolutely fascinating. Huge areas covered with collapsed craters, geysers, cold and boiling pools of mud, water and steaming fumaroles. The rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulphide everywhere (for some bizarre reason Ella quite liked the pong!). I had never seen anything like this in my life. The pools of water full of so many different mineral elements they were all different colours and very beautiful in very unnatural ways.
Obviously, being new Zealand, plenty of spa like premises have been developed to take advantage of the healing qualities of the mineral rich and naturally heated waters. There was one next door to our campsite in Taupo, complete with a kids play area and giant slide, which the girls loved.
By far the best 'spa' for me was Kerosene Creek - about 15km south of Rotarua. It's probably one of the few thermal pools in the area where you can bathe for free and is completely natural. The drive down an unsealed road off the main highway takes you to a small river. Walking for a few hundred metres you arrive at a small waterfall with lovely pool for swimming. The only difference to the other waterfalls is that the water is a gorgeous temperature - maybe 40 degrees C - slightly too hot for your average bath but lovely once you get used to it. The girls weren't quite as keen - it really was too hot for them and they wanted a pool to cool down in rather than heat up in. I loved it and could have spent all day there. Once again, as is so common in New Zealand, there were just a handful of people enjoying this amazing, natural delight. It was just lovely.............

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Special People and Places

Date: 22/02/2007 | Author: gabby

I felt very sad leaving the South Island. It's an amazing, beautiful part of the world with jaw dropping sights as well as a feeling of remoteness that makes you feel like you're at the end of the world.
However, we were looking forward to going back to the North island. We'd loved it when we first arrived in NZ so we were sure that wasn't going to change. One of our favourite places in the whole of New Zealand was the the flying fox on the Whanganui River Road so we booked a couple of nights there as our first stop back on the North Island. It was as lovely as we remembered. The remoteness of the place ensures you relax and do nothing. We spent our time there reading, listening to old vinyl records and helping the kids with their scrapbooks and school work. Waking up to the sound of birds was magical and the starry night sky encouraged a blissful night's sleep. It's all music for the soul. We were very sad to leave there. We hear the largely unsealed Whanganui River Road is going to be tarmaced for it's entire 100km or so length which will definitely change the character of the area.
Another reason to head back to the Whanganui River Road was to go to the Pipiriki Coffee Bar and reacquaint ourselves with Bobby Grey, the lovely 70 year old Maori man we met on our last visit there over a month before. He had created a lasting impression on all of us. The girls know him as Koro (Maori for Grandfather) and over the previous month had often spoken of him.
As we walked in to the coffee shop I warned the girls that he might not remember us, but I need not have worried because he did and despite the fact that he was busy he still made some special time for all of us.
I don't know what it was about him that made him so special. Sometimes in life, you have fleeting meetings with people but they leave permanent footprints in your heart. Koro is one of these people. Perhaps it was his wisdom, he certainly shared a lot of his wise thoughts with us, maybe it was because he found the time to talk and listen to all of us, I'm really not sure. I was incredibly sad to leave him and hope that if I ever return to this beautiful country I will still find him making capuccinos at the Pipiriki Coffee Bar......

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Blenheim and the Wine Country

Date: 21/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

Talk about cramming a lot in.......
We left Kaikoura fairly late in the morning - it was difficult dragging the girls away from their new found friends. On the road between Kaikoura and Blenheim there are fur seal colonies to look at as well as a fabulous eatery with amazing views over the Pacific Ocean called the Store at Kekerengu - we had to stop there for a spot of lunch!
Anyway - we were an hour from Blenheim, a town in the heart of the Marlborough Valley - New Zealand's most prolific wine growing region. We'd only briefly stopped in a couple of wineries so far on our travels through NZ (Wooing Tree in central Otago for it's Pinot Noir being a favourite) so I felt I had to make an effort in this region. If we'd been travelling without kids, I'm sure I would have scheduled a good 3 or 4 days in this area. As it was, we had the afternoon, with maybe a couple of hours the following morning, before we had to get the ferry back to the North Island. By the time we reached Blenheim I had booked some bikes for all of us (Florence on a tag-along) and earmarked about 6 vineyards I wanted us to visit. I know one of my short comings is to try and cram too much in to a short space of time but this was the Marlborough Valley and I wanted to discover if there was more to this region that Sauvignon Blanc. I was being a tad optimistic but thought we might manage 4 if we were lucky........
I hadn't banked on several factors:
1.The bike hire location was about 5km from the nearest winery and along quite a busy road.
2. Ella hadn't ridden a bike for nearly 3 months and has never ridden more than 1 or 2km at any one time and that would have been at Center Parcs (ie no cars)
3. Florence's experience on a tag-along is very limited.
4. It was bloody hot - about 30 degrees!
In the end we managed to get to one winery. I wasn't disappointed though. We didn't stop at the one with the finest wines, Highfield Estate, but the building itself was lovely and the views outstanding - even the girls had a great time there. We could have possibly squeezed one more in that afternoon but didn't want to push it!
It was great to cycle through this lovely region and it's a fabulous way to get around because the area is so flat. Ella did brilliantly on her bike and Florence really helped me on the journey back with her great pedalling.
We did squeeze in 2 wineries the next morning: Seresin, where I discovered the delights of Pinot Gris, a grape I have previously turned my nose up at. Also, a delicious Reisling at Te Whare Ra.
The only thing that slightly marred the morning was Dave being booked by failing to stop at a stop sign. A friendly caution and $150 fine later we were finally on our away to Picton to get the ferry.
I was very sad to leave the South Island, a month there has whizzed by..............

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Kaikoura and Dolphins

Date: 17/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

It's been my life's dream to swim with wild dolphins. I have often looked at the opportunities from the UK but they are very expensive and/or involve a lot of travel. When I read about the possibility of swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura, I immediately put it on my list of 'must do' things to do while we were here. There's only one operator running Dolphin Encounter trips from Kaikoura and they are strictly limited by the Department of Conservation as to the number of trips they can do and the number of swimmers allowed in to the sea at any one time. As a consequence, when we tried to book the swimming trip, nearly 2 weeks beforehand, we were told we would have to go on the waitlist. Basically, if spaces come free you are called but if your answerphone comes on no message is left, the next person is called so I was told the list can be worked through pretty quickly. Not a problem, I thought. After Twizel, we spent a few days in Christchurch just to do chores so not worth writing about. By the time we were heading to Kaikoura we still hadn't received a call so I was beginning to get a little agitated. After all, we were only going to Kaikoura for the dolphins and although there there were plenty of other things to do I needed to swim with the dolphins! I needn't have worried because an hour after we reached the small coastal town we were called to say there was space for Ella and I to swim and Dave and Florence to watch (Florence was too young and Dave had done the heli hike in the glacial region after all!) at 8.30am the next morning...........
It was an amazing experience! I had been told there were literally hundreds of dolphins in the waters around Kaikoura. Of course the operators can't guarantee seeing any dolphins but as the earlier trip that day had seen some they were fairly optimistic that our trip would have a similar success. We'd only been out to sea for about 10 minutes when we witnessed the first dusky dolphins somersaulting out of the water behind us, there were maybe 4 or 5 we would see. About 5 minutes later, as I stood next to the skipper he pointed out a dark patch in the sea and said it looked like a pretty large pod. Once we were upon them we could see hundreds of them. You've never seen so many people get ready to get in to the ocean so quickly. The conditions were great, it was a lovely sunny day and there wasn't too much swell. Ella was a little nervous at first and felt very claustrophobic in her 2 wetsuits but as soon as we got in the water the discomfort was the last thing on her mind. She was a top snorkeller! As we held hands swimming through the massive pod of dusky dolphins we found ourselves surrounded - they were so close we could have touched them!
A lifetime's dream for me. Ella thought it was great but was very keen to get back to her friends at our holiday camp as soon as we got off the boat.............kids can be so fickle sometimes!

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Aoraki/Mount Cook

Date: 16/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

A strange town, Twizel. it only came into existence in 1968, when it was built to service construction of the nearby hydroelectric power station. We decided to stay there because of it's location close to Mount Cook as well as the fact that a rural homestead on a working farm, Omahau Downs, about 2km north of the town, had been recommended. When we phoned to book, the only accommodation available was a room for 4 in the backpackers house........
It's not all bad news staying in a backpackers, you can meet an eclectic bunch of people and Omahau Downs was no exception: 2 eccentric elderly British women (we'd met them at the stream when Dave and I decided to go skinny dipping!), a couple of English girls taking a year out, 2 young medical students on their elective, a 50ish year old Chilean woman who had to flee Chile during the Pinochet regime, a group of German women who kept themselves to themselves as well as 2 shepherds who were working on the farm mustering the thousands of sheep kept there. We were the only residents drinking Pinot Noir.......
A gorgeous sunny day greeted us on our first morning, I hadn't slept that well because the walls were paper thin and one of the shepherd's in the room next to us was one of the loudest snorers I had ever heard! However, waking to the sight of Aoraki/Mount Cook not covered in it's usual shroud of cloud propelled us out of bed and in to the car to drive the 50km to the start of the Hooker Valley Track. It was a boiling hot day, yet snow capped mountains accompanied us the whole way. We crossed 2 swingbridges along the relatively flat path until we arrived at the Hooker Glacier terminal lake, a grey lake with huge clumps of ice floating around in it. We sat at the lake's edge for hours just gazing at the enormity of this country's tallest peak. Another great New Zealand tramp!

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Fiordland

Date: 12/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

We booked our overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound over a week before we planned to go, as we knew this was a popular trip. This was another activity that was costing us rather more than we planned but it had been recommended by so many people and this is the trip of a lifetime. If a few nights without Pinot Noir is what it takes to experience the best of what this country has to offer so be it!
We left Queenstown early in the morning for the 3 hour drive to Pearl Harbour. Here a small boat took us across Lake Manapouri, then a short bus drive over Wilmott Pass before we reached our 70 berth boat the Fiordland Navigator. The scenery was stunning from the outset and as soon as we stepped on board the crew went out of their way to entertain the kids - they were the only little ones on board and initially they were a bit disappointed that there were no other kids to play with but quickly realised the 10 or so crew were going to make a special fuss of them. I cannot describe how amazing this trip was. We quickly felt at home on board our lovely boat as we cruised down the hidden waterways. A great hour kayaking was followed by a fantastic swim in the cool fiordland waters. Once again the weather was sublime, pretty rare for this area. The piece de resistance for everyone on board was the arrival of a pod of Bottlenose dolphins who came for a ride on the bow of the boat just after dinner (check out the video). You have never seen a restaurant full of people empty so quickly. The dolphins leapt so high and seemed to follow our boat for ages. They turned up again early the following morning, a great way to wake up. Another magical moment that morning came when everything on the boat, from the engine to the ovens, was turned off as we sat in Hall Arm. Lowering the noise floor immediately revealed the natural sounds of the fiord. We were all asked to sit still and silent for just 5 minutes. Ella particularly struggled with this but once the sound of kiwis, bellbirds and moreporks reached her ears she was able to resist the temptation of moving around the boat and just listen to the sounds of silence around her - it was a truly amazing experience. The crew on the boat - all of them - were brilliant. I love New Zealand!!

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Queenstown adventures

Date: 10/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

A week in Queenstown, in an amazing house with a stunning view - it would have been easy to completely relax, kick back and do nothing except read and soak up the rays. However, we're in the adventure capital of the world and that would have seemed like a cop out. The girls did their tandem hang glide - I'm not sure who was the bravest, them, or me for letting them go! When had to sign the liability disclaimer I scrutinised it so carefully I almost didn't let them partake of this 'dangerous' activity. But they had an amazing flight and it was a great experience. Florence was particularly relaxed, but she did have rather a dishy pilot to cling on to and make her feel safe. She's definitely her mother's daughter ;0)!
Dave did his 134m bungy jump with great style and aplomb. We all insisted that we went along to watch, something I was quite regretting as we were being harnessed up just for the flying fox ride to the cage that was suspended nearly 200 metres above the gorge. I have never been good with heights and as I get older my vertigo seems to get even worse. I soon forgot my own fears as I watched the 20 or so people swallow dive off the small lofty ledge - you could smell their fear in the confined space of that cage! I was quite envious of the women jumping off (they were all a lot younger than me!), if only one of my feisty girlfriends had been with me to egg me on, I might have been tempted!
The other must do in Queenstown is the Shotover Jet Boat ride. Our house at Canyon Ridge looks over the Shotover river so we had to give this a go as we'd witnessed at least 30 boats a day careering past the house on the river below us. It was a great but terrifying experience. These incredibly fast boats fly over phenomenally shallow water (they only draw about 10cm), through narrow gorges and hurtle towards granite rock faces, missing them by a hair's breadth. I just kept wondering how many accidents there had been on this trip as a the margin for error seems minuscule (there aren't many at all apparently)! Dave and I had the girls sandwiched between us, with Florence next to me. She was white knuckled and screaming so loudly through it all, I wasn't sure if she was loving or hating it. Of course, when we jumped off the boat at the end of the 20 minute ride both the girls wanted to do it again but once was enough for me!
Needless to say there are more gentle activities to participate in when in Queenstown and we did a few of these too. The highlight for me was a trip to Lake Moke about 20 minutes out of town, the small campsite, lovely crystal clear water and the gorgeous sunny day made me wish we had had our tent with us - a wonderful, quiet spot not far from the madness and mayhem of this busy town.

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Blowing the budget

Date: 08/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

I have developed seriously discerning taste for New Zealand Pinot Noir. Find a good one and it's absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, the good ones generally cost at least $40NZ (about 15) and that, coupled with the fact that we are often spending more on accommodation than we should be (after our Havelock experience), means we are blowing the budget in a big way. At the moment we are spending a week in Queenstown in the most amazing house canyonridge - check out the view in the photo - so something has to give. Unfortunately, while we are staying in such opulent surroundings, it has to be the wine. Of course Dave and I have no intention of not drinking at all, so we have to find a cheaper alternative. Having said that, it is really difficult to go back to the farm once you have tasted Paris. Fortunately, NZ's neighbours (Australia) produce some great (cheaper) wines so we have found some reasonable alternatives. However, we have made an agreement that if we spend less than $100 (35) a night on accommodation we can once again treat ourselves to some delicious NZ Pinot Noir.
Naturally, I have booked a few backpackers and homestays for the rest of our stay on the South Island..........

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Wanaka

Date: 03/02/2007 | Author: Gabby

We weren't going to stop in Wanaka but several people we had met here (as well as a few people from home) had said Wanaka was one of their favourite places in NZ so we felt we had to check it out. The town was lovely but the stop was really worth it for the stunning walk on the Rob Roy track. The best walk yet! After crossing the Matukituki river on a great swing bridge the track climbs through a small gorge and finally takes you in to an area of dramatic alpine scenery: glaciers, sheer rock cliffs and countless waterfalls. Even the girls, who had struggled for the steep first half, found the final vista breathtaking and thought the effort was well worth it. There were plenty of playful and inquisitive Keas (NZ Alpine birds) at the top who kept us amused as they tried to take off with our rucksacks and food. Dave's hat went missing on that walk so if you are in the vicinity and spot a Kea in a Dickies baseball cap please let us know. We spent a good hour at the top of the track just staring at the huge (but rapidly retreating) Rob Roy glacier. We even saw a huge slab of ice break off and tumble down the cliff face - the sound of cracking ice thundering down the cliff will live with me for a long time.

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Glacier Country

Date: 31/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

Another short drive and another dramatic change in scenery. We didn't seem to climb very high from the beach and were suddenly confronted with the enormous icy fracture that is the Franz Josef glacier - one of 3 huge temperate glaciers found in this part of NZ. We arrived in the small town in gorgeous sunshine early in the afternoon and wanted to investigate the glacial opportunities still possible with such young people in tow. Unfortunately, little Florence, being only 6 and of small stature, wasn't able to take part in any of the more adventurous hikes. Ella was just above the minimum age, height and weight required to do the Heli-hike (a helicopter ride and 2 hour walk at the top of the glacier), which Dave and I were both keen to do. All Florence could do was the scenic flight which would only give a brief landing on the glacier - still an amazing experience - so with great current weather and torrential rain forecast for the next few days we struck while the iron was hot and parted with a huge amount of cash to take the girls (and ourselves) on the experience of a lifetime. It didn't disappoint - the girls loved it, I had a great snowball fight with Florence at the top of the glacier with 400m of snow and ice under our feet while Ella hacked her way through ice caves and over crevasses with her dad (of course!).
The torrential rain the following day meant any walking or glacier action was out of the question so we spent the day in our really lovely apartment (thank God we weren't in a cabin) glenfern doing the more structured learning we are endeavouring to do with the girls, playing games and watching DVDs. It's great sometimes to have a day where you do nothing. We've been away for over 2 months now and all this constant activity can be a bit exhausting!

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Yoga and the West Coast

Date: 29/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

Having left the beach and peace of Awaroa lodge, we headed to Nelson, sometimes described as one of NZ's 'most liveable cities'. We stayed in a weather board cottage in one of nelson's oldest streets, with an interior that looked like it belonged in the 1970s. The girls loved it and, despite it's twee decor, it was very comfortable and had everything we needed for our 2 day stop there. Nelson was great, there was a fantastic Saturday market and I even managed to go to a yoga class for the first time since I left the UK. It was 'hot yoga' and I did enjoy the workout but I'm not sure it's for me - it was a packed mixed class but the men were practising their asanas in just shorts. Everyone was sweating profusely and there was no time for relaxation postures! I felt great afterwards but spending an hour and a half with half naked, balding, sweating men is not my ideal way to spend a Sunday morning (it's a good job Dave has hair)!

After Nelson we drove on to the West Coast in horizontal rain. This is the wettest and least populated part of New Zealand. We had an overnight stop at Punakaiki, where the sun shone through briefly for a mind blowing sunset.
The drive to Hokitika, further south, took us past and to the wildest beaches I have ever come across. Pounding grey ocean, black sand, green rocks and pebbles and driftwood of all shapes and sizes fill this long stretch of coastline. It's a huge contrast to the golden sands of the Abel Tasman national park, yet is a relatively short distance away. Hokitika is NZ's jade craft centre and there is a beach sculpture competition held every year using just materials found on the beach. The competition had finished the day before we arrived so we were able to spend hours looking at the amazing and bizarre structures - it's the most interesting exhibition I have ever been to and the girls loved it.

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Abel Tasman National Park

Date: 24/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

First stop at the gateway to the Park, Old MacDonald's farm in Marahau - a fantastic 100 acre campsite with great camping grounds, loads of animals, a river with deep swimming holes as well as a few cabins and a studio. It's for sale and for about 10 minutes Dave and I entertained the idea of selling up everything in the UK to come and run this place but I think I'd be very bored come the first winter. We had 3 nights there, more sea kayaking, a lovely horse ride on the huge beach and finally some great beach action because the weather is (finally) gorgeous!

Next, on to our luxury lodge at Awaroa. There are only 3 ways to get here - on foot, by air (helicopter or plane) or by sea (water taxi or kayak). Now it's too hard with the kids to get here by sea kayak (it's a 3 day trip). Even I wouldn't suggest blowing the budget on choppering in. On foot is out of the question - you have to walk for 3 days and carry all supplies on your back (not really my style - I'd collapse under the weight of NZ wine I'd want to bring!) so of course we opted for the sea taxi. A great way to arrive - a comfortable, if bumpy, speed boat ride with great views of the passing beaches and islands.

Awaroa Lodge doesn't disappoint - our room is great, the food is stunning, the sea is warm and the beach is golden. This feels like a real holiday! We manage a few great walks - for me the best yet - along beautiful coastal paths with dips along the way in the turquoise sea. Absolute paradise - I wish it was closer to home because I definitely want to come back....

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Day 1 on the South Island......

Date: 22/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

We arrived in Picton after the very pleasant ferry ride to the South Island. We were meeting up with our friend, Jez Webb, in the nearby, rather non-descript town of Havelock for our first night. There wasn't much to do there so we whiled away a Saturday afternoon at the local pub drinking the fabulous local wine (we're in Marlborough province after all!) while the girls entertained themselves and the bar staff. We were staying in a cabin in the local campsite - our worst accommodation yet - a place the size of a garden shed, equipped with 2 bunk beds (much to Dave's complete horror) with such soft mattresses it was like sleeping in a hammock. Thank goodness we were able to share in the luxury of Jez's campervan.
There's always an upside to staying in such a dismal dwelling - I had no problem in suggesting to Dave that we book in to the Awaroa Lodge awaroalodge in the heart of the Abel Tasman National Park which is our next port of call............

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Sad news in Wellington

Date: 21/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

We spent a couple of days in Wellington catching up on boring chores like washing etc. It was here we were told of some really sad news from home. Our lovely cat, Duchess, who is being looked after in Bristol by some good friends, Suze and James, had an accident and has had to have one of her back legs amputated. Suze finally managed to get hold us (after days of trying) on our first night in NZ's capital city just as we were about to go for dinner. This wasn't the right time to break the news to the kids but we found some time the next morning. It's a hard task giving little ones such heartbreaking news when you're such a long way from home. Of course there were tears, lots of them and from all of us. I think it's good for children to see their parents cry and it was very cathartic for us all to have a good sob together. The kids still are (understandably) very upset and sometimes shed a small tear but they do comfort each other. Of course, we all feel guilty that we are not there to comfort our little cat. Suze and James are regularly emailing us with updates on Duchess's progress - I think they are finding it more distressing than us. But she is convalescing well and it's really reassuring for to know that she is with such a loving family.

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Mountains and rivers........

Date: 20/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

Oh my God! What a mind blowing, jaw droppingly beautiful country New Zealand is! Every corner reveals another amazing vista and you can go to so many places in such a short space of time. We left the beaches at Raglan and headed to the volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park for more walks on snow capped, lava strewn mountains.
Next on to the gorgeous Whanganui River where we stayed in our loveliest accommodation yet, the Flying Fox on the Whanganui River Road www.theflyingfox.co.nz. The 2 cottages (and one gypsy caravan) to rent are only accessible by jet boat from the river or by flying fox 30m above the river. The setting and grounds are stunning and the cottages themselves are equipped with great books, lovely furniture, really comfortable beds and sumptuous bedding. One of the best features was a turntable in the living area with loads of old albums we hadn't listened to in years. We'd booked a couple of days ahead for just one night's stay but I could have easily stayed there for a week.
While we were there we engaged in yet more active pursuits - jet boating up roughly 13km of gorgeous river and canoeing back down. This was where one of the increasingly infrequent rows between Dave and myself took place & all to do with paddling technique! We got a little stuck in a rapid and our canoe started spinning - while Dave insisted on shouting instructions at me I preferred to paddle intuitively! After a minor slanging match (the kids were present after all!) and, once we were on dry land, a well deserved glass of local Pinot Noir, we were friends again. If that's all we argue about we're not doing badly!

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Home schooling the kids

Date: 16/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

I never thought it would be so hard to get the girls to focus on the very small amount of school work we try to get them to do. We are really not asking much because they are learning so much from the travel anyway. Just a weekly blog update, a scrap book to run & a little spelling and maths - it amounts to a few hours a week! Florence isn't bad - she really focuses when we ask her to. But Ella, my lovely distracted Ella - she'll find the smallest thing and get sidetracked by it! I don't know how her school teachers get her to concentrate but Miss Stacey, if you're reading this, please email me a few pointers - I really need them! The idea of putting the girls in to a Kiwi school for a month is starting to really appeal!

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Raglan Wedding

Date: 14/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

After a few wet but lovely days on the Coromandel peninsula we headed over to the surfy community of Raglan for a wedding. Victoria, a UK friend was getting hitched to Marcus, a lovely, laid back Kiwi guy I met for the first time at a muddy Glastonbury festival a few years ago. Loo was maid of honour & the girls were flower girls which they were incredibly excited about! We were very lucky to be accommodated by some locals, lovely Neil & Linda. It's so great to stay with people rather in a bach/hotel or motel - I little local knowledge can go a long way. Neil & Linda's house was lovely & had the most stunning views over Whale Bay & the great surf. The wedding was gorgeous, beautiful words, a fabulous setting (next door to Neil & Linda's!) and a very happy couple. We met some great people there - Raglan is definitely a place I could imagine staying for a while! If we get tired of the constant travel we could always stay there for a month or so & send the girls to the local school!

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The Black Sands of Karekare

Date: 08/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

Karekare, such a gorgeous place, so wild and so empty! It's the location of Jane Campion's 1993 film, 'The Piano' - you should rent the DVD because not only is it an amazing tale of erotic longing, but it also conveys the beauty of this stunning area far more than I can in words. We stayed at Sarne, Flo's and Celeste's lovely beach house and they took us on some amazing walks to beautiful places. Once again Ella and Florence made me proud with their stamina (as did Celeste (nearly 5) who was the strongest of the lot!) - they all managed a 7 hour walk, including an hour picnic lunch stop, no problem!
On our final day Sarne took us to the Opal plunge pool, a 3 metre deep pool of clear, cold water which is best accessed by jumping from a 4 metre high ledge. I'm not great with heights or freezing cold water but when Ella did it without hesitation I felt I had to overcome my fears. I did, but I hesitated! I am so proud of Ella, I don't think she would have done this a few months ago so hopefully this trip is making her more brave!

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Farewell Granny Pad Hello Aunty Loo

Date: 02/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

Jan 2nd - Mum's last day before she heads back to the UK tomorrow. It's been great having her around - a bit of a journey in terms of our relationship. There are things I have learnt about her that I don't particularly like - probably because I see them in myself! Mum you are sooooo opinionated but it has been fantastic having you around - you're an ace Mum & a top Granny - we're going to miss you!

2nd Jan is also the day Aunty Loo arrives and it's her birthday!
We decided to celebrate in style at the Sky Tower orbit restaurant - stunning views and lovely food.

Happy birthday Loo & have a safe trip home Granny Pad!

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Happy New Year from NZ

Date: 01/01/2007 | Author: Gabby

I hate 4WDs - they hog the roads in the city and in London are generally driven by small blonde women chatting on mobile phones (that includes you Helen!!!) - they pollute the environment and are completely unnecessary..........unless of course you are holidaying in new Zealand! With 90 mile beaches to drive down and glaciers to drive up, I have been told a 4WD is an absolute necessity. Forget our carbon footprint (that's been blown with the number of flights we have taken over the last 5 weeks), forget all things environmental.
We haven't rented one (you can't drive down beaches or up glaciers in a hire car) we have bought one for our stay here. We're not sure how long yet, maybe 2 months, not a lot less. We have only been in Auckland so far - a beautiful city but not much call for a 4WD to drive up Queen Street. We had a great NYE with lovely friends in Karekare, an amazing beach about 45 minutes drive W of Auckland - a lovely drive but something our lovely London Saab would easily have coped with.
I am sure Rosie, as the girls have named the 4 wheeled beast, will prove her worth over the next couple of months. Watch this space. I might yet be converted to the merits of a 4WD although I don't think I will be exporting one back to London. How much is the congestion charge for 4WDs there?
I do think I'm going to like it here in NZ..............

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Cradle Walks

Date: 28/12/2006 | Author: Gabby

Definitely my favourite type of holiday - active, healthy days with lots of walking in primeaval forests with the most stunning scenery while the evenings are spent drinking lovely (Tasmanian) red wine and eating good food in front of roaring open fires. The hills & weather (cold - almost snowing - it did on Christmas day!) made it feel more like holidaying in Scotland than Australia.
The kids amazed me with their stamina on these walks (read their blogs!). We must have walked over 20km over the 3 days we were there (just a little less by Florence & Granny Pad - due to little legs & bad blisters respectively!).
We leave Tassie in a few days and mum heads home on the 3rd Jan. I am really looking forward to spending time with just the 4 of us - that will mark the real start of our incredible journey!

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A merry chilly Tassie Christmas

Date: 25/12/2006 | Author: Gabby

Finally, we arrive in Tasmania so no more touring or separations which is great. Dave & I are getting on really well - it's good for both of us being on his turf!
The weather was great when we arrived here but most of the island was ablaze with bush fires. We managed to bring the cold wind & rain with us, much to everyone's relief but my dreams of spending Christmas day in a bikini were dashed. We still managed a barbecue at Wendy and Andrew's (Dave's sister & husband) lovely Tassie ranch. There was plenty of outdoor activity as well as the consumption of copious amounts of bubbly & gorgeous Australian red wine. The kids had a ball & I had to do nothing so a very merry Christmas was had by all...........

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Melbourne

Date: 20/12/2006 | Author: Gabby

After staying in cheap motels & cabins on our 4 day road trip we arrived in Melbourne to stay in the luxury of the Langham hotel where Robbie & all the band & crew were staying. I really don't hotels like that (even though the beds & bedding are the ultimate in luxury) - you can't open the windows so have no idea of how warm or cold it is outside, ordering a glass of wine by the pool is a chore. Anyway - the girls loved it. We went to see Kylie's last show in Melbourne - I felt quite choked as she came on the stage after all she has been through. A great theatrical show that the kids thought was great! I went to Rob's last show (without kids - Florence always falls asleep anyway!) on our last night there. We went to the end of tour party which was fun - it was good to see people let their hair down & catch up with the band & crew for the very last last time. Now the tour is over the trip really begins - we'll all have Dave's undivided attention.......or will we?

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Sydney and beyond.........

Date: 18/12/2006 | Author: Gabby

So much for my great idea of setting up a blog - it takes all my effort to get the girls to do theirs & I have had no access to Dave's computer that I am well behind - anyway time for catch up. So what have we been up to??

Sydney was great for a week. Our Coogee apartment at coogeecastaway was lovely. It was great to be with Dave again - we almost had a row over something really petty within an hour of seeing each other but managed to swerve it - it wouldn't have been a great way to start our trip together. Tiredness can take it's toll! Our apartment was based very close to the Eastern coastal path - a perfect place for good walks & runs. A few trips on the harbour & near perfect weather made it very easy for me to fall in love with Sydney - Ella has said she would quite like to move there!

Dave had to head back on the road for the final few RW dates while we took the road & drove to Melbourne via the coastal road, the Princes Highway. It was a great drive down and certainly makes you aware of the vastness and emptiness of this huge country. The only slight blip on the trip was me getting a speeding ticket just 100km out of Melbourne. I was doing 126kmph in a 100kmph speed limit - I thought I might get away with a caution 'cos I was ever so nice to the officer but the bugger gave me a $215 fine........happy bloody Christmas to you too! If you're thinking of driving, it's definitely cheaper to fly but we have gained points on our carbon footprint - we need to after the flying we have done so far on this trip!

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Krabi

Date: 29/11/2006 | Author: Gabby

God it's good to be here! Dave calls this part of our trip - me, the girls & mum in Thailand - our pre trip holiday - I call it a very necessary week of relaxation in the heat! I have been so stressed the last couple of weeks in London. I'm sure the energy flying from me could have powered a small city! What with packing the house, organising Ella's birthday & party combined with making sure we had taken into account everything we had to do & pack for the next 8 months - I was physically & mentally drained by the time we left.
We are finally plotted up on Railei Beach, Krabi, staying at 'Deborah's House' at the Railei Beach Club - a gorgeous house right on the beach, lovely sunsets & a huge deck for sittting and doing very little - just what I needed. The girls are having a ball, snorkelling around the beach and, with me, getting acquainted with the delights of Traditional Thai Massage - it's just bliss. I highly recommend the Railei Beach Club - it's pretty expensive (I am good at spending money) but still substantially less than some of the sterile resorts you can stay in in Thailand. It was definitely a great idea to break the journey to Australia - for so many reasons! At least Dave won't have to cope with our major jetlag by the time we get to Sydney........................

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