California [weeks 1 - 2]

We compensated for six weeks of constant movement around Australia and New Zealand with two sedentary weeks of doing very little. Sam's family have been brilliant hosts at their home in idyllic Santa Barbara and despite the vast distance from England (in geography and climate) this Christmas is shaping up to be the most "homey" since I left four years ago.

Our flight from Auckland to Los Angeles had a layover on the remote, Pacific island of Tahiti. Although we had a few hours to kill between flights, we didn't feel adventurous enough to explore beyond the immediate vicinity of the airport. I only took two photos and this is one of them.

This is the other one. Several times we watched crabs emerge from the drains and attempt to cross the busy road.

Check in for our connecting flight began at 9pm. We were stuck behind a large snake of elderly American holidaymakers and didn't arrive at the desk until one hour before take off. At this point, I was told I would not be granted entry into the USA unless I provided proof of onward travel. I didn't have proof because I hadn't booked onward travel. Therefore my only option was to book a flight (any flight) out of the USA, for some future date, there and then. This was a mildly stressful experience for a number of reasons:
  • Take off was in an hour.
  • Sam had already checked in, so she was flying with or without me. 
  • The next flight to Los Angeles was in three days.
  • I had nowhere to stay in Tahiti.
  • I had not slept in almost 24 hours. This made it hard to think.
  • A band of drummers began playing loud tribal rhythms almost immediately after I received the bad news, and the noise reverberated around the whole terminal. This made it hard to think.
  • The instructions for the paid airport wifi were written entirely in French.
  • By the time we deciphered the instructions and paid the $8 fee, we discovered the wifi didn't work.
  • No one could explain why the wifi didn't work.
  • The laptop we borrowed from the lady at the information desk did work, but the keys had been arranged by someone with a severe mental illness. Letters hid in unexpected places and common characters like . and @ required obscure combinations of shifts, alts and ctrls to work.
  • The website I chose to book with - STA Travel - didn't accept my Australian debit card, nor my New Zealand debit card, nor my British credit card, nor Sam's American debit card. After each rejection I had to complete the entire form again using the insane keyboard.
Finally, after about 45 minutes and at least eight pints of sweat, I managed to book a ticket from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on January 29th 2015, and they let me on the plane.

Sam's friend Debbie scooped us up from Los Angeles International and ferried us two hours north to Santa Barbara. I felt tired but energised by my new surroundings and the ridiculous width of the highway.

When we arrived at Sam's family home, Sam spent a while embracing Lucy, the beloved dog she was forced to abandon a year ago.

Outings over the next few days usually centered around taking Lucy for walks. The first was to the beautiful Ellwood Bluffs area at sunset.

Lucy is a wild, excitable dog during "walks", which could more accurately be described as "sprints".

She reserves her top speed for birds, which she chases at breakneck speed. Once the bird panics and flaps away in the least dignified way possible, she decelerates to a canter and jaunts back towards her impressed audience.

Another walk took us to Lizard's Mouth, a jungle of alpine boulders overlooking Santa Barbara and the distant Channel Islands.

Other day trips have included Solvang, an isolated Danish colony of art galleries, gift shops and nonfunctional windmills...

...Santa Barbara City College, where Sam's mum works as a professor in the incredibly well-equipped biology department. It has its own private museum and miniature zoo, which houses these Australian Giant Prickly Stick Insects...

...and a college basketball match between home side UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara) and the University of San Diego, which ended in crushing defeat for the locals.

Sam also gave me a tour of the UCSB campus, which was mostly empty due to the Christmas holidays. The Elliot Rodger shootings occurred around here earlier this year.

Back at home, we spent time decorating the house while listening to Pandora's surprisingly limited archive of festive tunes.

This included hanging poorly-made Christmas decorations originating from childhood art projects, a tradition I'm glad seems to exist everywhere... well as making a few new ones of our own.

One disadvantage of switching hemispheres in December is the drastic shortening of days. The sun sets at about 5pm here, four hours earlier than we were used to in New Zealand. One afternoon we all climbed on the roof to watch it happen.

A central theme from my stay in Santa Barbara has been a constant supply of amazing food, thanks to Sam's mum Kris. I haven't eaten the same meal twice in two weeks and it's all been absolutely delicious.

Sunday Dinner tends to be the culinary highlight of the week. It seems appropriate to host this on a Sunday because, while the family isn't religious, good food is the closest thing they have to a God.


Finally, this photo is dedicated to my cousin Emma, who complained that last week's update didn't contain enough photos of dogs. Merry Christmas Emma and everyone else that still reads this blog!

Australia to New Zealand

Once again I find myself a billion years behind schedule. To help tackle the towering backlog, I've decided to combine two weeks of photos into a single monstrous update.

Perth is probably the most isolated major city in the world. Our midnight flight across the country took four hours, longer than a flight from London to Moscow.

We arrived in Sydney early on Monday morning, tired and disheveled. This feeling of dishevelment never really disappeared the whole time we were there, but we gave the city our best shot.

Much of our first day was consumed trying to find Sam a dress for the wedding we were due to attend that weekend, a predictably nightmarish experience spanning several of Sydney's shopping cathedrals.

Our second day was more relaxed, with visits to various beaches, including the iconic Bondi Beach.

You're supposed to take photos of this building so I did.

For our last night in Australia, our hosts drove us to North Heads, where Sydney Harbour meets the ocean. The skyline in the distance gradually lit up as the sun vanished. It was very pretty.

Our hosts (probably the best-looking yet) were a Hungarian couple who were in the process of setting up their own Escape Room business. They shared a lot of wonderful Hungarian food with us.

When it finally came to getting on a plane and leaving Australia, I felt neither particularly happy nor sad. Despite the amazing experiences we'd had there, it still felt like waving goodbye to someone I never properly got to know. This was partly due to the relatively short amount of time we'd spent there, seven months. But mostly it was because we were flying to New Zealand, a country which still feels an awful lot like home.

We arrived in Christchurch early on American Thanksgiving. This was excellent timing as it meant a quick visit to my old office became a grand feast...

...followed by the annual Thanksgiving Paper Rocket Competition.

The idea was to build rockets from printer paper which could be fired as far as possible from a pipe attached to a air compressor. It was a relief to discover that despite the enormous growth of the company since I left, valuable time was still being spent doing silly things like this. 

Later that afternoon, we joined a convoy of cars heading south to Dunedin for the wedding of my friends Katherine and Hamish.

The wedding was a great success, with the outdoor ceremony somehow dodging the forecasted hail.

I'm borrowing this photo from Facebook because during the reception I was too busy drinking gallons of free gin and tonic to take any photos myself. It was a great night and an awesome opportunity to catch up with everyone. Congratulations Katherine and Hamish!

Most of the guests returned to Christchurch after the wedding, leaving us with a few days to explore some areas of the South Island we'd missed during our travels last year. The first was the Catlins, a paradise of rolling farmland...

...dense rainforest...

...and rugged coastline. 

It was really novel to be surrounded by fresh water again, something I didn't even realise I missed during our mostly dry experiences in Western Australia.

Just off the highway, we stumbled across "The Lost Gypsy": a caravan overflowing with mechanical contraptions built from old recycled materials by creative mastermind and slight lunatic Blair Sommerville. It's quite hard to describe, but if you've got a couple of minutes, I'd really recommend watching this short film about his amazing creations.

We also visited somewhere called Teapotland, which had a lot of teapots.

In terms of wildlife, sheep outnumbered everything else by a wide margin.

Cows were also pretty rife, carefully positioning themselves on the roads to maximise traffic congestion.

Slightly harder to find were the sea lions and seals. We saw a few, but I don't know how to tell the difference.

Trickiest of all were the yellow-eyed penguins, which emerged silently from the ocean at dusk. They are native to New Zealand and are the rarest penguins in the world.

On Thursday we drove north to Akaroa, picking up a German hitchhiker along the way. We stopped off in Ashburton for some real fruit ice cream, Sam's favourite thing in the universe.

Our hostel in Akaroa was buried in the forest on the site of an old farm. A baby goose inspected our bags at the reception desk.

Also patrolling the hostel grounds was an exceptionally thirsty lamb.

The following morning we returned to Christchurch. It had been almost a year since I left, and wandering around the city center I got a sense of progress being made, with widespread demolition finally giving way to construction. The cathedral was still a complete mess.

We spent the weekend catching up with friends across various gatherings.

On Sunday night we were invited to my friend Sam's birthday celebrations at his family's place. They are great people who also hosted us on Christmas day last year.

Finally, on Monday morning we left beautiful New Zealand once again. En route to our transfer in Auckland, we caught a glimpse of Mount Taranaki poking through the clouds.

Another post on the way shortly...