Blogs in March 2007

The Gibbon Experience

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Dave

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

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Clip and Zip

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Ella

The border of Thailand is the Mekong River (it is the 10th longest river in the world) so we had to take a small boat across to Laos. We stayed one night in the border town of Huay Xai in Laos but not for long, soon we were at The Gibbon Experience...........
Gibbons are monkeys and black gibbons live deep in the jungle in northern Laos so we had to walk quite a long way before we could reach their habitat.
The only way to get around the jungle and to the treehouses (where we are sleeping) was by zip lines (zip lines are like flying foxes but with harnesses, not seats). I was the first person to go on the zip line and I was a bit scared because the first treehouse was a long way away but it was easy! After my first zip, they were all great fun! The first day I only went zipping with guides but by the 2nd day I was zipping with dad. I wanted to practice and be able to go by myself but unfortunately we were only staying for 2 nights (that's the limit) so I couldn't.
Zipping around the jungle was sensational and everybody would think it was fun. One of the best things about the Gibbon Experience was sleeping in treehouses - amazing but kind of scary. I'm glad there wasn't a storm while we were there. On the ground, 60 metres below our treehouse, lived a pig who ate all our leftovers and our toilet waste, which was really funny but a great way of getting rid of all of our rubbish!
We had the best time ever and I mean ever. We have done exciting things before but this was amazing!

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Our first days in Laos

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Florence

We drove to the Thai/Laos border. We crossed the border by going on a boat across the Mekong River. When we got to the other side I felt a bit strange because we were showing our passports but weren't at an airport. We were planning on going to a Gibbon Experience which is not a hotel, it is a treehouse experience. Before we went there we stayed one night in the Thaveesinh hotel in Huay Xai. We got the hotel very late so we had dinner and went to bed early so we could go to the Gibbon Experience the next day.
We are now at the Gibbon Experience. We are staying in treehouse number 1 and a few other people are staying with us. We drove a long long way and had to do lots of walking to get here. Ella and I were tired out when we went across our first zip line to get to our treehouse. We drink lots of water here but it is warm! Our first day we sat around the table and played cards and had some food before we started zipping again. The highest zip line is 150m above ground. I was scared when we were getting ready but it is a lot of fun when we are in the air. Ella and I go zipping with the guides and they make us feel very safe. Every day the guides come zipping to our treehouse with our food. They don't say anything, they just leave our food and then go. Our treehouse has a small kitchen and 2 bedrooms sleeping 7 people. There is also a shower and a 50 metre 'long drop' toilet, at the bottom is a pig who eats all the poo and the left overs from our food! Ella and I loved throwing down all the food to the pig. I liked the Gibbon Exerience a lot but I know we are going to have a lot more adventures!

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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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Chiang Mai

Date: 28/03/2007 | Author: Dave

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

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Chiang Mai

Date: 28/03/2007 | Author: Ella

We flew to Chiang Mai and arrived at 2pm. We were staying at a place called Lanna Mantra just outside Chiang Mai. It had a very nice swimming pool overlooking the River Ping so we spent the afternoon keeping cool in the pool and hanging out by the river with our school books. For dinner we went to a nice restaurant near the Ping River called the Riverside. I enjoyed going there and liked the food very much.
While we were staying in Chiang Mai we visited a place called the Elephant Conservation Centre where you could see an elephant show, go elephant riding and there was an elephant hospital. The elephant show was really really cool and the elephants bowed, played instruments and painted pictures. The pictures were really good. I really liked elephant riding even though we have done it before. This time it was really cool because the elephants went through creeks and rivers. At the elephant hospital it was very similar to a human hospital. The sick elephants had either broken legs or infected parts of their body that had to be looked after. One elephant had even stood on a land mine!! Also at the elephant hospital there was a baby elephant who had been born on the 7th of March (20 days ago). He was so cute but had been abandoned by his mother and had a step mother who was looking after him.
The driver that was normally taking us around was a lovely man called Pong and when we had finished our time in Chiang Mai he took us all the way to Chiang Rai. It is a long way so we stopped at a few places. We stopped at a hill tribe villiage which was really nice but I felt a little bit sad for them. because they were being made to be tourist attractions so they couldn't get on with their life. It's like going to a human zoo, which is very sad. We also went to a glistening white and silver temple that was so beautiful. We were allowed to go inside so we took our shoes off and said a prayer to the Buddha then went out because it was getting late. When we arrived in Chiang Rai it was very late so we went to bed as soon as possible. We were staying in a place called Laluna Resort which had a very nice swimming pool but apart from having a swim we didn't do much there and soon we were on our way to the border, to Laos.

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Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai

Date: 28/03/2007 | Author: Florence

We are staying in a lovely place called Lanna Mantra. We are staying in a little house and just around the corner is a pool with water trickling down a step to a very cold pool (we swim in it a lot).
On the first day we just stayed near the pool, did school work and played in the pool. The next day we went to see an elephant show. Pong took us there, he is our taxi driver. There wasn't just an elephant show, there was an elephant hospital and you could go elephant riding. There was also a tincy wincy elephant, he was born on 7th March. He was abandoned by his mother and he had a step mother beside him.
I was feeling a bit poorly in Chiang Mai because I had a really bad cough - I was coughing all night and didn't get much sleep. It was soooooooo bad Mummy took me to the hospital. The doctor looked inside my throat, ears and listened to my chest. They gave me some medicine and we left - I feel much better now!
The next day Pong took us to a lovely white temple [here is a picture].
We stayed one night in Chang Rai, our last night in Thailand before we head to Laos.

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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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Bangkok, waiting for the smoke to clear

Date: 24/03/2007 | Author: Dave

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

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3 Nights in Bangkok

Date: 24/03/2007 | Author: Ella

When we arrived in Thailand it was the middle of the night but it was boiling.
We woke up at Centre Point Silom a big hotel near the Chao Phraya river. We got up really early to beat the heat to the main things we were doing that morning.
Seeing as we were near the river we did lots of river activities like taking the express boat to loads of exciting places on the river. We went to Bangkok's biggest temple, Wat Pho. There were lots of pictures and statues of the Buddha. A lot of people in Thailand (and other countries we are going to in Asia) are Buddhist. After the temple we found an air conditioned massage centre to cool us down. We all had our massages in the same room - it was great to get out of the heat and relax.
After our massage we took a tuk tuk through the busy roads of Bangkok to the Grand Palace (a tuk tuk is a half motor bike/half quad bike taxi). The Grand Palace is where the King of Thailand lives. By the time we arrived it was really hot so we decided to go swimming instead.
The next morning we went to a big market called Jatujak. We got to the market in these fabulous trains called Skytrains. They are called Skytrains because their tracks are high in the air. The carriages are air conditioned so it is a pleasant ride and you can see the whole of Bangkok from up there. In the middle of the market was a pet area and all you could hear was tweet, squeak, ruf, miaow over and over again. It was a mean way to sell pets because they were all crammed in small boxes and cages and they must get very hot. One of the most cruel things about the pet market was that the smaller animals like rabbits had clothes on! If I was a billionaire I would have bought them all!
Also that day we went to a very old house then had another swim.
I loved Bangkok, it is a huge city but I'm not sure that I would like to live there!

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Our time in Bangkok

Date: 24/03/2007 | Author: Florence

When we landed in Bangkok it was the middle of the night but it was really hot! We had to get the taxi to our hotel. Our hotel room was quite big, it had two balconies over looking the river. The river is called the Chao Phraya.
On our first day we visited Wat Pho. It is a temple which is like a Thai church for Buddhists. It had lots of pagodas and Buddhas. Inside was a golden Buddha, he was lying down. They built the Buddha before they built the temple around him because they might have built the temple too small. After that we had a wonderful Thai massage. I love having massages. We had our massage on a hot day but it was in a cool air conditioned room. We had it as a family. Ella's masseur had an extra thumb on each hand. After that we got a tuk tuk to the King's Palace but we didn't go inside because it was too hot!! Instead we went for a nice cool swim.
The next morning we went to a big market. We walked in to a bag shop. It had lots of different bags, Daddy bought himself a man bag (that's what he called it). It was really hot so we got a nice cold smoothie - it was really cold!! After that we went to see some cute animals - they were for sale! We didn't think it was a kind way to sell animals because they were in crowded cages and it was too hot in the market. We didn't buy any because we can't travel with them. If Ella was a millionaire she said she would buy them all!
I liked Bangkok but it was really hot!

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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

Date: 21/03/2007 | Author: Dave

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

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A Week in Sydney

Date: 21/03/2007 | Author: Ella

We are now in Sydney again but this time we're here things didn't go quite so well.......
............we first arrived in Sydney quite excited, looking forward to the Beach House at Collaroy which was our next spot to stay. But after one night Mum started to complain but I didn't blame her. Our room was small, dirty, dark and was smelly so we moved. This time the room was bigger and had a fridge but it still wasn't great. To make matters worse the fire alarm went off at about 5.30 in the morning, so we had to rush out of bed and assemble with the other people outside the Beach House. Luckily, it was only a mosquito coil but it made us so grumpy as we went back to bed. But that was the final straw for Mum so as soon as we woke up properly we packed our bags and were on our way to Manly Lodge right next to the beach in an area called Manly. It was much more interesting there. We went to the beach every morning before breakfast. We went to play in fountains whenever we got really hot, but the most exciting thing about Manly was our big sister Jess visited us with her best friend, Beck, and her boyfriend, Matt. They stayed with us in Manly Lodge for one night and it was sad to see them go because I don't regularly see her.
While we were in Manly the Harbour Bridge had it's 75th anniversary so there were lots of activities around the harbour. One of the activities was the working boat race and Florence, Mum, Dad and I were in it! It was just a race around the harbour but it was lots of fun.
Our week in Sydney quickly came to an end but before we left, Mum and Dad took us for a special treat to Luna Park. Luna Park is the best theme park in Australia. We had loads of fun there but soon had to leave and go to the airport to take the aeroplane to Thailand!

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Back to Sydney

Date: 21/03/2007 | Author: Florence

We are now in Sydney again and staying in a youth hostel. Things didn't go too well. For a start we were in a tiny room and there wasn't much to do around there. To make things worse the fire alarm went off at about 5.30am. Ella got a little bit scared when I told her the dangerous things that could happen if there was a fire. She put the back of her hand against the door to make sure there wasn't a fire outside our room. We decided the youth hostel wasn't the place for us.
At last we are staying in a better place called Manly Lodge. It is near a very nice beach and I am learning to body surf. Unfortunately Ella and Mummy got stung by a bluebottle but that didn't stop me from swimming in the sea. The waves looked really big, they were really big but they were really gentle!!
While we were in Sydney we went on race on the exact day that the Harbour Bridge was turning 75. Fact: the
Harbour Bridge is 75, our street in London is 100. So our street is older than the Harbour Bridge.
We had fun in Sydney and I really liked Manly - it was the best sea I have ever swum in. It was also great because our big sister, Jess, came to stay with us there.

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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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Cape Reinga

Date: 10/03/2007 | Author: Dave

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

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90 Mile Beach and Sand Dunes

Date: 10/03/2007 | Author: Ella

90 Mile Beach is a beach that is actually closer to 90km but that is still very long for a beach! It is a very special beach because you can drive all the way along it but only in a four wheel drive car like ours. Our car has a sun roof so as many times as I could, I would stick my head out of it and feel the breeze! The sea was the wildest sea I have ever seen, you wouldn't be able to launch boats in to it at all. There were 5 gigantic waves in each set and looking at it even made you shiver.
At the end of 90 mile beach we turned around and started heading back. We were looking for Te Paki stream which is where you can drive off the beach. As we were driving down the stream we had to close the sun roof as lots of water splashed into the car. As we approached the end of Te Paki stream we could see gigantic sand dunes getting closer and closer. We hired boogie boards so we could toboggan down the dunes. The highest sand dunes were as the tall as the Eiffel Tower but that meant that we had to climb right to the top before we could get our reward of sliding back down. It was really hard climbing up such steep slopes but it was worth the walk when we started zooming back down. Unfortunately, my boogie board went over some rough sand which made the board fly in the air and me get a face full of sand!! After spending ages cleaning the sand out of my face and ears I managed to slide the rest of the way down. The smallest slopes were still quite big and great fun. We had races down them and I won the most!

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Sand Dunes

Date: 10/03/2007 | Author: Florence

We drove up 90 mile beach. As we were going up we saw some beautiful sand dunes on the way. So we went to a shop to hire boogie boards. I had a yellow one. When we got back to the sand dunes we climbed half way up one and we slid down. Then we climbed back up it again and we climbed to the top of the dunes. It was hard work and I thought I was nearly going to faint at the top. Then we slid all the way down on our boogie boards. About a quarter of the way down I was going too fast so mummy was trying to slow me down but she accidentally tipped me over and I had a face full of sand. Sand doesn't taste very nice - it's all crunchy and yukky! But I did have a fantastic go tobogganing with Mummy down the rest of the big sand dune. Daddy climbed back up to get my boogie board and slid down really really fast. I washed my face at an oasis and then slid down the smaller sand dunes. It was a lot of fun (see the video!).

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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: Dave

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

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Bay of Islands

Date: 05/03/2007 | Author: Ella

We stayed in Rocky Point for three nights. Then we headed north to the Bay of Islands. We were staying in a house close to the beach at Tapeka Point just outside a town called Russell. The beach was not a very big one but if it was in England it would be absolutely crowded. Of course, this is New Zealand so the beach was rarely busy! It had bright golden sand and a lawn at the back of the beach. The best thing was the pontoon that floated rather deep in the water. It was great for jumping and diving off, lying on and swimming to! We had a lot of fun there.
We had a great day sailing while we were at Tapeka Point. We sailed on a large boat called the R Tucker Thompson which has sailed right around the world. You could climb up the crow's nest but I decided not to. Instead, I decided to climb on the bowsprit, which is the nose of the boat. It had a net around it to climb on and to stop us falling in to the sea! We stopped for lunch at a beach. Mummy and I swam from the beach back to the boat. We had fun jumping off the boat. There was a rope to swing from into the sea but I was a little bit scared of that so just jumped off the side. On our way back to Russell I got a chance to steer . Our skipper was called Sam and when we finally left the boat he thanked me for giving him the afternoon off.

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North of the North Island

Date: 05/03/2007 | Author: Florence

Daddy drove us to a town called Russell. We are staying at a house where we can walk to the beach on our own. It is only out of the house down the hill across the grass and to the beach. We went sailing on a boat that looked very old. It has sailed all around the world. We climbed on the bowsprit. You could sleep on the boat but we liked our house toooooo much. It was a big boat and Daddy got to help sail and Ella steered the boat. We went back to our house then we went to a posh restaurant and played a lovely game (Boggle) while we were waiting for our dinner (yum yum).

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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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North for a bit.

Date: 02/03/2007 | Author: Dave

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

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Rocky Point

Date: 02/03/2007 | Author: Ella

After Rotorua we went to Auckland to celebrate my mum's birthday but apart from that we didn't do too much there. So, soon we were heading north to Rocky Point. Rocky Point is so quiet and isolated and the only people we saw were the farmer, his dogs, his sheep and Greg, Mary-Ann and Truman. Greg and Mary-Ann are Daddy's friends and Truman is their 2 year old little boy. They invited us to come and stay with them at Rocky Point. Their holiday home is lovely. Well, it's not completely a holiday home, it's actually truck bodies made in to mobile homes! At Rocky Point there were lots of things to do like, driving a little car around (which I did), going kayaking (I did that as well), making camp fires (I also did that) and sailing a dingy (aren't I lucky!). When I went sailing with Daddy we had a great time. I even got to steer the boat and work on the sails. I did it twice because I liked it so much.
I really liked Rocky Point and it was great to have Truman to play with.

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Rocky Point

Date: 02/03/2007 | Author: Florence

We are staying at a wonderful place called Rocky Point. There are lots of things to do. It is Greg's and Mary-Ann's holiday home. They have a little boy called Truman. The first day we went for a walk around the beach. We played in a little hut and pretended it was a cafe. I like getting people things that is why I like making a cafe. We picked our mums first (they do say "ladies first"). We worked in the cafe until dark. Then we made a fire and went to bed.
The next morning we watched 'Babe Pig in the City', mum said we could watch Rocky Point Morning Movies - it's a bit of a mouthful. It was a lovely movie and Babe the pig became a hero. Then we went kayaking and I didn't have to paddle (haha). Ella went on her own and I went with Dad then Mum. After kayaking we learnt to drive a car. It was built so people could learn to drive, it was very simple. We also went on a motorbike but we didn't drive, Greg did. At last Daddy said 'kids activities over'.........aaaaahhhhhh!
Sadly, little Truman and his family had to go but the good news is WE CAN STAY LONGER! The next morning we went sailing with Daddy. The boat was tiny. One side got soaked and the other side stayed as dry as a peanut. I didn't enjoy it much, water went over the side of the boat.
We haven't seen anyone here apart from the farmer and some sheep.

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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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