Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Floating Rocks and Desert Roads

You hear a lot about Freedom camping in New Zealand. We have several friends who have camper-vanned around New Zealand and they all tell of just parking anywhere, anytime, and having a wonderful place. We've come to learn that they were either here many years ago, or they were here in off season. There are lots of rules surrounding freedom camping now and you better get there early in the day to claim your spot. Most nights, we ended up in commercial campgrounds after finding the designated freedom campsites to be full. They charge by the person here ($15-30), rather than by the site. Since we are traveling with 3 people, it's been $45-90/night. Luckily that's in New Zealand dollars and the exchange rate is well in our favor, making that $30-62/night.

So, we were thrilled when we came across a freedom camping spot that had enough room for lots of RVs. And it was gorgeous, right on the shores of lake Taupo.

There are volcanoes around here, made obvious by the pumice-stone rocks laying all about the beach. They are very light - throw it into the water and these rocks float!

We just stayed there one night, then headed south toward Wellington. Melinda's friends asked if we would be taking the "Desert Road" - highway 1. Huh? Desert is about the only environment we don't see in New Zealand, but, yes - we were taking Highway 1. Lo and Behold, a while after leaving Lake Taupo, we found ourselves in what loooked like eastern Oregon - the high desert. Straight road! So straight that it put Melinda to sleep. In this video - you'll see the view out the side window.


Where there's Hope, there's tickets

The reason that Melinda is so familiar with New Zealand is that her son married a New Zealander and lived here for many years. Two of her grandchildren were born here and she spent months at a time visiting. Her son and grandkids are back in the states, but Melinda still keeps in touch with her daughter-in-laws family living in Cambridge, New Zealand - just down the road from Matamata and Hobbiton.

We parked in their driveway and had a lovely dinner of fresh vegetables from their garden and lamb chops from their sheep. The next morning we all went out to breakfast including their other daughter, Hope, and her 2 kids. I had the "Smashed Avo" - it's toast from wonderful homemade 7 grain bread with a generous serving of avocado, a poached egg, feta cheese, pickled onions, pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The Red Cherry Cafe.

This was the best breakfast I have ever had!
During the conversation we mentioned how we were shut out from visiting Hobbiton and Hope said, y'know they always have cancellations. Let's call and check - so she did. After speaking to the person on the other end she asked: "Do you want to go on the tour at 12:30 or at 1?" Wow.
So we got to see the Hobbiton movie set after all!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

There's beer at the barn

We left Whangamata headed for Matamata and the Hobbiton movie set. The road was still curvy and we even got some rain through the Karangahake Gorge.
At every turn in the road I marveled at the sight of the Tree Ferns. It looked like we were in Fiji!
Just before Matamata was Wairere falls. We decided to stop and check it out. It was still a bit rainy and it looked like a fairly strenuous hike, so we skipped it in favor of getting to Hobbiton. Guess what? The Hobbiton tours were fully booked for the next 5 days. Oh No! That was the first sightseeing stop we had on our map from the beginning - it didn't occur to us that we needed to make pre-arrangements. Silly I know, you should always think about crowds for popular attractions like this during high tourist season. We much prefer to leave our schedule loose so we can follow serendipity, so we get over our disappointment quickly when things don't work out. It's how we roll. 
So ... back to the falls we go. The weather had cleared up a bit, and we now had all day free. WOW what a gorgeous hike. We ended up feeling grateful that Hobbiton didn't work out because this hike was SO rewarding. 

It was long and steep and hot. We felt very accomplished to complete it - and rewarded with the waterfall view at the end. Melinda had stopped before the waterfall and took a dip in the stream. We picked her up on the way back. Jim took the lead the rest of the way. I commented that he was acting like a horse that wants to get back to the barn. He responded "There's beer at the barn."

Combined with our beach walk in the morning - we recorded over 17,000 steps this day.

The beach is closed

One destination on our list was Cathedral cove on Coromandel peninsula. After miles of twisty windy road, we reached Hahei where there is a trailhead to the beach at Cathedral cove. There was a car park with a park and ride sign that looked promising, so we parked and got on the bus to the beach.
Before we could get inside the doorway, the bus driver said, just so you know, the beach is closed. The oversized surf make for crashing surf where the beach should be, so it's too dangerous right now. This bus will take you to an overlook.
We figured looking was better than nothing so we got on.

The overlook was spectacular and we could see the crashing waves. There was a walk from the overlook back to town. We took that and found a fabulous picnic spot in the shade. Otherwise it was hot. So, we didn't get to see Cathedral cove, but it was still a memorable stop.

Back on the road ... the curvy, twisty road ... with lots of views. Our destination was set to a "Freedom camping" spot in Whangamata (pronounced FungamaTAH). I found it using the Campermate app not knowing what we would find. OMG - what a find! Check out this parking spot, view and direct beach access.

However, on closer inspection, we found signs that indicated there were only 4 parking spaces designated as free camping - and those spaces were already full. :-( Melinda and I were willing to risk it, but Jim said no - we need to be good and follow the rules. He was right, so we moved on to a pay-for campground in town. It was more like a trailer park, no view, tight spaces. But, it had beach access and the beach was less than 2 blocks away. 
Jim and I actually woke up before sunrise and walked to the beach for some sunrise photos. It was beautiful - especially because there were big rocks out in the ocean to frame the sun.

What we didn't bargain for was the surfers! The big swells that closed the beach at Cathedral Cove meant Surf's UP! Here's video of a surfer who caught a great wave.

Then we continued walking around the corner to the marina. Just beautiful. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Camper Van, Horses and Heroes

On our fourth day in New Zealand, we picked up our motorhome from Wilderness RV. We chose this company and booked the motorhome several months ago because of the recommendation of Heath and Alyssa. They spent 3 months in one and highly recommended it. See their excellent video series on Camper Vanning in New Zealand. It wasn't cheap - approx $300/day - but we had to get the larger model to sleep 3, and we got extras like Internet service, and pre-booked Ferry.

See a little video here. After getting the instructions on how everything works, we took off, Jim driving on the left side of the road, and me feeling like I must be about to go off the road on the left side. White knuckles driving thru Auckland and over the bridge to the north. "Keep Left" "Look Right"  "Keep Left"
It's the right turns that are really freaky - crossing the the traffic to turn right on the far side. What?

Here is a little video (it's in the main Album) of when we first got the RV and are ready to take off.

We traveled about an hour north of Auckland to a campground we found in the Campermate app.

Our first night in the camper was just Jim and me. It was good to get everything stowed and get a little familiar with it before picking up Melinda.

After our one night, we drove back into Auckland to pick up Melinda and start our adventure! The whole excuse for this trip is that Melinda was asked to present her workshop on Equine Assisted Professional Development (see her website We were early for the Spirit Horse Festival, so we found a campground not to far and settled in for 2 nights. Aaaaahhhh.

I've known Melinda since the late 70s, lived with her in Lake Tahoe, and traveled together many times. We let Jim come along :-) He likes it!

Spirit Horse Festival

What a trip. People, horses, kids, food, camping, seminars - all on a gorgeous piece of property called Dunes Lake Lodge. Melinda gave two presentations: 1-Thinking outside the Paddock, and 2-Creativity in the Arena. She is a teacher - that is the bond we share - and she has been teaching and facilitating with people and horses for many years. She has a herd of her own on her property near Reno, Nevada. Jim and I know nothing about horses, we were just there as Melinda's support. Something different for sure!
Melinda's presentation on Creativity in the Arena

Here's a little movie put together from Jim's photos and videos.

Jim is still the Technology Hero

We were only there to support Melinda, but she made sure that the festival organizers knew that we were Technology Geeks - so when their WiFi stopped working, they came to Jim!

He saved the day. We actually called ourselves Computer Heroes years ago. And, when the presenters arrived at their session with only  thumb drive containing their PowerPoint presentation - Jim got them hooked up with a computer and HDMI cable to the big screen TV in the presentation room.

It was a fun time. Now on with the adventure!

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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Auckland Rocks!

We met Grant and Ali in Wyoming last summer while they were RVing in the US. They invited us to visit their home in Auckland. We accept those invitations! We already had one night booked at a downtown hotel (Scenic Hotel) then we spent 2 nights at their house before we picked up our rental RV.
Grant and Ali call themselves Gypsy Rockers - they travel all over the world and their passion is dancing Rock and Roll! While chatting in Wyoming they told us of the Rock and Roll clubs in New Zealand and how they go dancing all the time. I said I'd love to do that - so they took us out on Saturday night. What great fun! Do these kind of clubs exist in the States? I gotta find out.

Sightseeing in Auckland

We did spend one day walking around downtown (that's called CBD around here: Central Business District) Auckland and the Maritime museum.

Then Ali picked us up and took us home with her! It feels so much like California around here. It makes sense when you look at a map with Latitudes - San Francisco is about 38 degrees north of the equator and Auckland is about 38 degrees south. The temperature is similar, the plants are similar - we're just in opposite seasons. It's summer here - January is like July/August. It's hot inland, but the water is cool - about 22 degrees celsius (72 fahrenheit) so it makes for cool breezes.

When we got to their house, we settled in the guest bedroom, then had just the best New Zealand dinner ever - mussels! What a treat.

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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sydney: 17,000 steps, a visit to Google, and the Opera House

We are in Sydney, and our hotel is very conveniently located. From our hotel to the Sydney Opera house is just over one mile, to the Google offices is just a bit more, and there's a lot of stuff in between. It was a beautiful day. Hot, but beautiful, so we did a lot of walking and were proud to see we'd racked up 17,000 steps for the day.

Especially nice was the pedestrian bridge over the Darling Harbour. How pleasant to walk across the water, taking in the sights and not worrying about cars.

Why did we go to the Google offices? I'm glad you asked! Some Googlers (that's what you call Google employees) who work on Blogger (that's what I use to make this blog) work out of that office. I met Fontaine in Mountain View, CA last fall when I was at the Google Product Experts Summit.  When I learned she worked in the Sydney office, I asked if we could somehow visit when we were  in Sydney. Not only did she say yes, but she arranged for us to have lunch with a few other members of the Blogger team as well. Google is renowned for the great, free, food in their employee cafeterias - and Sydney is no exception. There is a rule of no photography inside the office building, but Fontaine had someone take a photo with with her phone so I have a memento to post here:
Fontaine, Michael, us, Ste, and Jaime got together to talk about Blogger ...and scuba diving!

I've used Blogger for this website since 2003 (check the archives) and we've taught a seminar called "Every Traveler Needs a Blog!" dozens, maybe hundreds, of times over the years. On our website we have 2 learning guides for Members, and many more short videos. 
I'm a real fan of and it was stimulating to chat with some of the people who build the product and hear their enthusiasm. Keep up the good work guys! And ... thanks for lunch.

Maritime Museum

Google offices were just down the street from the Sydney Maritime Museum, so off we went. 

There was an exhibit on sharks, a presentation on "Our Blue Planet" and a very special presentation on James Cameron. I know him primarily as the producer/director of Avatar, but he's so much more. His passion is in the depths of the ocean and, in Sydney, he built the submersible that would take him to the deepest part of the ocean. What an extraordinary man.

The Sydney Opera House

Few sights in the world are recognized as easily as the Sydney Opera house. Part of traveling, for us, is to experience a place that we know so well in photos. Such was our excitement for seeing the Sydney Opera House.
We wanted to be there at sunset time and hoped to see the "sails" of the opera house do a light-show after dark. We had a little bit of time to take a rest-break at our hotel, then head out about 7pm for the 8pm sunset. OMG - in the couple of hours in between, the weather got cool and very windy. It felt like a thunderstorm was brewing, but our weather apps did not call for rain - so we headed out walking. The apps were right - it didn't rain, but it sure was blustery and cold!
The first sight of the Opera house was thrilling.

We walked around and looked at it from all sides, then found a table at the outdoor bar/restaurant where you can continue to admire the view while paying $13 for a glass of wine. :-)

Unfortunately, the light show that displays on the sails did not happen this night. Check out this YouTube video for a glimpse of what we had hoped to see.

Remember to check out our photo album for even more photos. If you "join" the album, you'll get notifications when be post more photos. You can also comment on photos. G'night.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Boat Mom and Boat Dad on the Great Barrier Reef

Our arrival to Cairns coincided with the end of our good weather. It was raining fiercely and all the locals chatted about how it had been raining for days. We had listened nervously a few days earlier when someone mentioned a cyclone in the coral sea, in the vicinity of where we planned a boat trip to dive the Great Barrier Reef. We learned that the cyclone went away, but the bad weather was very real.
Hey we're going diving, we're going to get wet anyway. No big deal. We piled in the van and headed to the boat.

But it was a big deal. The seas were rough and the boat pitched and rolled in ways I've never experienced. The boat had dispensers for "barf bags" and several people needed to use them. If you needed to move, you took your life in your hands. If you were on your feet, you were a toy for the boat to throw against one wall and then another. Walking was impossible. Even once we reached the dive site (3 hours later) and the boat was tied up and secured to buoys, we were still rocking and rolling and being tossed around. It was pouring rain and both the sea and the sky we're gray.
Nasty weather, but we're going diving anyway.
We're wet anyway, let's go diving. Ugh, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. We were diving in the legendary Great Barrier Reef and we couldn't see a thing. When we got back to the boat and were talking to other divers, one asked me how the dive was. She was a new diver and was thoroughly enjoying herself. I didn't want to say anything bad but I couldn't help myself and blurted out, "That was one of the worst dives I've ever had."

Most of the dive was even worse visibility than this!

The Kids

We survived, and we all gathered in the main salon for briefings. Surprisingly all the passengers except us were young kids- 20 to 34. We're accustomed to liveaboards having mostly retirees on board. We are usually in the middle of the age group. Not this time, we were the oldest by at least 30 years. Jim offered parental advice for anyone missing their family, and we were dubbed Boat Mom and Dad 😀.

We managed one more dive in zero visibility, and I said I'm done for the day. Olga, a 21 year old from Sweden, didn't have a buddy for the next dive because Anouk, from Holland, was seasick. Since Jim was a free agent at this point, he volunteered to be her buddy and told me this new dive site actually had pretty good visibility.

During the night we were treated to light shows with thunder, rain, and lightning, but the next morning brought improved conditions. We thought of the song, The Land Down Under by Men at Work
Have you come from the land down under, where women glow and men plunder. 

   Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?

You better run, you better take cover

After a while the sun even came out. We had wonderful food, great conversations with young people from all over the world and even a good dive or two.  We would love to keep in touch with some of these kids - many of them are on their "Gap Year" of travel before settling into college. They're off to Thailand, VietNam, New Zealand, and many more places. Some of them are on their way back home to England, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Brazil, New Zealand and even a couple of Aussies. We set up Facebook friendships with a couple of them, but Instagram was clearly the social media of choice for most, so we got their usernames and started following.

The afternoon dive looked like it was going to be pretty good so I decided to go and started suiting up. Olga's buddy, Anouk was feeling better so Jim could just buddy with me, but Olga asked if she and Anouk could tag along with us. They were both new divers and would feel more comfortable diving with boat Mom and Dad!

The last dive was great

On the third day there were 3 dives crammed into the morning. Jim and I actually got up and did the 6:30am. Then we figured on one more, the 9am dive.
YES! this dive was the stuff that dive dreams are made of. Some people think that the scary and stressful parts of diving are seeing things like sharks and barracuda. No, not at all. Seeing sharks, barracuda, and other creatures of the deep are the reason you go diving. The scary and stressful parts come from other things.
  1. Fear of losing your buddy because you went in different directions and there's not enough visibility to see where he went. 
  2. Fear of losing the boat because you just can't tell where you are when you're underwater, or know which way to get back
  3. Fear of malfunctioning equipment
We had none of that on this last dive. Everyone had their own buddies, so Jim and I were diving together and there was no group leader so we were on our own. Jim and I have had several hundred dives together, I think we have a force field that keeps us together with no effort on our part. We had no fear of losing the boat because this was a wall dive. A wall is what we call an underwater cliff. So, instead of just wandering around coral heads and getting lost, you just follow the wall. When you start your dive you head one way on the wall - wall to your right, open water to your left. Half way thru (about 25 minutes) you turn around. Easy peasy, no stress. All our equipment, except our masks, were rented from ProDive Cairns, and took some getting used to. The gauges were all in metric, so instead of watching your air so that you come up with no less than 500psi, we were looking at no less than 50 bars. Our safety stop is set to 5 meters instead of 15 feet. This was our 6th or 7th dive with the same equipment and we were fully comfortable.
The water temperature was wonderful at 28-29 Celsius (82-84 Fahrenheit.) Did we see amazing stuff? No. But, it was a wonderful dive nonetheless. I simply love the sensual experience of diving, zen-like relaxation, being weightless and feeling like you're flying. Then just looking around. There were some nice corals - especially the plate coral that we don't have in the Atlantic. As soon as we jumped in, we saw anemone fish, aka clown fish - another Pacific-only sight. It's funny how they are now called "Nemo's" because of the movie. We were also told we might see some Dory's (Blue Tang / Surgeonfish) also from the movie Finding Nemo.

And, later in the dive, we saw this great clown trigger fish. You can also see in this video how Chris is swimming just at the edge over the wall.

It was depressing how much of the coral reef was dead. The crew did tell us that the weather limited their choices of dive sites and others are in better shape, but still - the corals are not at all what they should be. There were lots of tropical fish, just not much of any size.
All in all it was a good trip. The chef - Luke - was amazing. How he managed to cook in that rocking boat is a miracle, and the food was really good. Lots of grilled vegies. One night was chicken curry and I don't even like curry, but this was so tasty!
But, I think the best part was getting to know the others on board, both crew and passengers. What an international group. These young people give me hope for our world!