New Zealand [week 7]

Plenty of photos this week so I won't hang about.

After an inspection of the hive, it was discovered that the uprising of last week happened not because there were two queens, but because because the hive was completely full of honey. I volunteered to help with the harvest, which involved transporting the hive down the road to another farm which had the equipment needed to extract the honey. Transporting bees hives is much easier said than done and we made the critical mistake of dropping it from a wheelbarrow onto the ground, which deeply upset the inhabitants. Despite this blunder, we managed to walk away with three buckets of delicious honey and just six stings between us to show for it.

Our hosts went away for a couple of days and we were given the tough job of house sitting. This gave us time to catch up on travel journals, plan the next few weeks, and lean on their pets.

Sam's mum is a spectacular cook and gave her daughter a book of her favourite recipes before she left home. One such recipe is for "Mediterranean Chicken Kebabs", which Sam expertly prepared one evening using various ingredients from the farm. They were wonderful.

To return the favour, I made her beans on toast using beans from a metal can. She'd never had beans of toast before (putting things on toast doesn't pass as a meal in America) and she pretended to like it.

As a treat for all our hard work, our slave masters released us from our shackles and took us to the beach for our last night in Hawke's Bay. We all stayed in a rental house in the tiny beach community of Kairakau.

I braved the "tepid" water (classic kiwi understatement) to go bodyboarding, which was good fun.

In the evening we spent time exploring the coastline, hopping between coves until the tide threatened to trap us there.

There were a couple of kids zooming around on a motorbike. They were happy to have an audience and made more and more elaborate arm gestures each time they passed.

We had an awesome time in Hawke's Bay and owe a lot to these generous souls for sharing their home with us.

From Hawke's Bay we ventured inland to Lake Taupo, where we stayed for a single night before shifting south to Turangi. There we met with around 60 people from the Couchsurfing website for a gathering they organise every year to coincide with the long weekend. The main event was hiking the "Tongariro Alpine Crossing", an epic 19.4 kilometre hike over active volcanic terrain.

After an hour or so of steady incline, we reached "The Devil's Staircase". This name definitely misrepresents the difficulty of this long series of not particularly steep steps.

The trail passes between Tongariro and Nguaruhoe volcanoes, both of which have erupted in the last two years. Despite the risk, the trail is one of the most popular day hikes in New Zealand.

The higher we climbed, the more we were rewarded with astonishing scenery. The landscape was so completely arid it felt like being on another planet.

Sam admiring the nothingness.

Standing on the edge of Tongariro's Red Crater with Mount Nguaruhoe in the background. Mount Nguaruhoe doubles up as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films.

We passed over the summit and the beautiful Crater Lakes came into view. Their teal comes from high volumes of dissolved volcanic minerals which also make them highly acidic, enough to slowly dissolve clothing we were told.

Many people choose to eat lunch around the lakes, which is a poor choice because the sulphur dioxide leaking from them makes the whole place stink like rotten eggs.

The latest eruption site from 2012 continues to smoulder behind a sign warning you about it.

Here we are keeping stops to a minimum.

The long slog downhill to the finish was easily the toughest part of the whole day, and by the end my knees were in tatters. A trip to the local hot pools followed by a celebration BBQ and drinks with the couchsurfers rounded off a great day.

New Zealand [week 6]

We spent week six living on a small farm in Hawke's Bay, on the east coast of the North Island. Hawke's Bay will be the most easterly point of the trip and probably my whole life. If we could just be bothered to wake up early enough in the morning, we'd be amongst the first in the world to watch the sun rise. The area has two main towns: Hastings and Napier. We've had a chance to visit both but spent most of our time out in the sticks.

Our wonderful hosts are a kiwi couple in their sixties. They bought the farm as a way of keeping themselves occupied as they approached retirement. They're close to being self sufficient as water comes from a well and much of their food comes from the ground.

Our dwellings, the fanciest so far.

We spend a couple of hours every morning working in the vineyard. It produces a barrel of Merlot every year, around 350 bottles. They aren't licenced to sell it so they just have to drink it all.

Our job was to thin the vines, which meant cutting off weak bunches so their healthier brothers and sisters could breathe and prosper. We were mother nature's cruel servants.

They also keep bees, the source of hundreds of kilograms of honey every year. They aren't licenced to sell it so they just have to drink it all.

One time, a giant cloud of bees evacuated their hive in unison and began swarming noisily. This probably meant there were two queens, we were taught. When this happens, one queen leaves the hive and accompanies half the bees elsewhere to form a new colony. Being the documentophile I am, I risked ambush to record the uprising on my GoPro.

Our hosts drove us to "Te Mata Peak" one morning, which sounds a bit like "tomato peak". The view was incredible.

We were told a few grisly stories about people falling to their deaths from this terrifying sky pier.

Stray cats are a problem in rural New Zealand, especially around Christmas when unwanted pet dumpings are common. They kill native birds and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Our host spotted one in the driveway after work one day and immediately leapt to grab her rifle. The cat got away but it was very dramatic.

We love Hawke's Bay and despite having to work the most we've worked so far, it's been one of the most rewarding weeks yet.

New Zealand [week 5]

After spending exactly a month exploring the South Island, we made the leap northwards during week five. We will spend the next two or so months here before returning south for our final month. Here is the first batch of photos from this new land.

We spent two final days scooping ice cream in Picton before venturing north. Picton is nestled deep within the Marlborough Sounds, a complex maze of hills through which all boats must navigate to get from island to island.

Our ferry was packed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was peak travel season as families began to redisperse after the Christmas break. Secondly, and far more hilariously, one of the other interisland ferries was out of service after an incident in November where its $200,000 propeller fell off and sank to the bottom of the ocean.

After three hours at sea, we arrived in Wellington!

Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand and markets itself as "The Coolest Little Capital in the World". I would vouch for this title as Wellington is both undeniably little (its population of 400,000 is less than a twentieth of the size of London) and undeniably cool (this is harder to quantify, though Wellington has more coffee shops than Mogadishu - the capital of Somalia - for example).

Wellington is home to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand. We spent nearly two full days inside this gigantic labyrinth of knowledge, learning all about volcanoes and pesticides and refugees and biodiversity and contemporary Maori art.

There was also a wall you could put silly photos on.

The water in the harbour is surprisingly clean and there are a variety of ways you can launch yourself into it. Some are just simple planks...

...others elaborate diving platforms.

I grew to love Wellington and couldn't help drawing constant bitter comparisons with Christchurch. For cities of approximately the same size, they have many big differences, including the fact Christchurch is completely flat and Wellington very hilly, which I prefer. Also, most of the buildings in Christchurch are broken for some reason.

Through typical Byford Luck, we were in town at the same time as a series of free concerts in the botanical gardens. It was a great location for a gig, the hillside doubling up nicely as an amphitheatre.

We went to see "Bohemian Thought and The Magnificents", a local reggae/jazz outfit. My ex-housemate's sister's boyfriend was the saxophonist so she arrived hours beforehand and saved us a good spot, which was handy. We had a great time.

New Zealand [week 4]

We crossed the boundary between 2013 and 2014 at a homestay in Blenheim, a small town close to the northern tip of the South Island. It was our most static and least expensive week yet, as accommodation and food was provided by our hosts in exchange for a few hours of hard labour every morning. By hard labour I mean things like...

...jumping on a trampoline with a child, and...

...baking chocolate chip cookies.

The household had numerous animals including a dog, four chickens, and a huge rabbit named Alfie. Alfie was pedigree rabbit (something I wasn't aware existed) which had previously been entered into rabbit shows.

The family also had two cockatiels. Only one is pictured because I released the second into the wild by mistake, a blunder which cost me a few brownie points with our hosts. I still feel like a massive idiot about this.

At the end of the garden, between some bushes, is a river. Every garden in the neighbourhood backs onto this river and every household has some vessel to explore it. I can't get over how cool this is.

Our hosts own several businesses, including an ice cream cart which they set up daily in nearby Picton. The cart was expected to draw big crowds on new year's eve, since Picton hosts the main celebrations for the wider area. Unfortunately, they were low on staff as the couple that normally worked there were on holiday. If only they had access to someone who once served ice cream to Meg Ryan...

Sam and I scooped ice cream for four hours over the busy lunchtime rush. I felt at home in the cart and it was nice to leave at the end of our shift with sticky forearms, like old times.

We had the rest of the day to explore Picton, which is most famous for being the port where passenger ferries depart to and arrive from the North Island.

Picton is bloody lovely.

Happy New Year!

The weather has been pretty crap all week but cleared up yesterday. I jumped at the chance to go mountain biking in the Withering Hills, just south of Blenheim.

Marlborough, the region containing Blenheim and Picton, produces about 70% of New Zealand wine and is completely blanketed by vineyards. I got a nice view from the hills.