Living on a Sand Castle

Date: Sunday 22nd to Tuesday 24th November 2015

Location: Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia

As you’re travelling down the East Coast of Australia it becomes apparent that the main attraction is the beach, so when you get half way through Queensland and the next thing to see is the biggest island in the world made purely of sand it’s not a huge surprise. However when you get to the island itself, it is a surprise to see that this island is not only huge (it includes ‘75 Mile Beach’), it’s full of forest and has resorts built on it. I don’t know, in my head any building on a sand island just sunk … apparently that doesn’t happen.

There are several ways of seeing Fraser Island . You can take your own car over to the island, hope it doesn’t get stuck in the sand and then buy a few nights at a hotel. You can go on a ‘tag along’ tour where you and a group of strangers are put in a 4×4 together to drive in convoy with one leader. Or you can go on a tour in a 4×4 coach. All right, I chickened out of driving the four by fours myself but only because anyone I had met who did it said they spent more time digging the cars out than they did seeing the island and as I didn’t have my own car the only way left was on a tour. I chose a company called ‘Cool Dingo’s’. Partly because their 3 day tour sounded really good and had been recommended to me by lots of friends and partly because by the time I came to book my trip it was one of the only ones with space left on it …

The main attraction of Fraser Island is its beautiful fresh water lakes (yes it is a sand island with lakes on it). During the tour you visit several which are crystal clear and beautifully warm and perfect for swimming in. (Which is a good thing as the sea surrounding Fraser Island is prime shark territory and you’d be pretty mad to swim in it). The most beautiful and famous of these is Lake McKenzie, more blue than any other water you’ve seen and surrounded by a perfect white sand beach, you could stay there forever and be pretty happy.

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But you can’t rest at Lake McKenzie for too long as there are plenty of other things to see and do. One of the best things you can do on Fraser Island is go on a plane tour with Air Fraser Island. These little 6 seater planes drive up and down 75 Mile Beach taking off for a 20 minute flight, coming back down and picking up the next lot of people. The view you get of the island as a whole is amazing with the beach stretching out on either side of you and a broccoli style forest stretching out underneath you. If you’re lucky you may even see the shadow of a whale or a shark in the water below you. Unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to see any wildlife on my flight but we did spot two turtles and a shark from the top of Indian Head. This is one of the highest points on Fraser Island, a section of the sand so old and compressed it has turned into a form of rock. From the top of this cliff you have a brilliant view out over the water and into the champagne pools. These are rock pools right on the edge of the beach meaning that, depending on the tide, the waves just about crash into them making the water bubble and giving them their name. As they are rock pools they’ve been heated by the sun and make a lovely place to kill an afternoon chatting away and looking at the view.

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But one of the best things about the Cool Dingo’s Tour is the people you meet. As you’re on a bus with the same 25 people for 3 days you get to know them all pretty well. You all stay in a resort in cabins that take up to 16 people each and all have their own kitchen/living room … meaning they make a great place for an after party once the bar on site has closed, and you have dinner as a group together every evening. I met some truly lovely people on Fraser Island that made all the swimming, flying, hiking, running over hot sand, floating down rivers, drinking and partying so much more fun.

Sailing Paradise

Date: Wednesday 18th to Friday 20th November 2015

Location: SV Whitehaven boat, The Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

The only way to see the Whitsunday Islands is by boat and, my god, do you want to see the Whitsunday Islands. When you’re travelling up or down the East Coast of Australia everyone will say ‘have you been to the Whitsundays yet?’ It is THE place to go and even though I’m not really one for following the crowd… you have to go. Right down at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef, they are a beautiful set of sand islands some of which are forested, some not but all are made of the most beautiful fine white sand, surrounded by stunning coral reefs.

I chose to travel on the SV Whitehaven which comes under the ‘Adventure’ category of trips. The Whitsundays have three categories of boats ‘Party’; mostly filled by the 18-22 crowd…I don’t want to know what happens on these boats, ‘Adventure’; for people like me who want to want to see the Whitsundays in all their glory but still have a drink in the evenings and ‘Family’ for older people and couples.  The SV Whitehaven is a medium sized sailing boat, big enough to fit 20 people sleeping for the night and small enough to still have a wonderfully intimate feeling. Run by some of the most fun and chilled out tour guides I found, they will make sure you see all the best bits of the Whitsundays and have a great time doing it. These are people who obviously absolutely love their job, and why wouldn’t they?

The tour takes two days, on the first you spend the morning sailing through the bright blue sea with the wind in your hair and what seems like the whole world stretched out in front of you. You come to a stop at a sheltered cove which has some amazing snorkelling and if you’re lucky a turtle or two, then after a few hours you get back on board for an amazing lunch. The afternoon is spent getting to know your boatmates (… boatmates? Yeah, I’m going with it) while lounging in the sun on the front deck and waiting to see the sun set over the prow of the boat.

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As night falls and the boat moors up you can either head down to your bunk to sleep, or set out your bed on deck under the beautiful stars. I opted for outdoors sleep, admiring the constellations, at least for a few hours. It gets surprisingly cold out at sea.

On the second day comes the highlight of the tour; Whitehaven Beach. Pulling up at a small inlet on what’s called the ‘back’ side of the island you get introduced to S**t beach. At first look you wonder why it deserves its name, it’s really not that bad. Then you walk through the forest (up a hill no less) for about 20 minutes until you come to the island viewpoint and then in front of you is one of the most spectacular beaches you have ever seen. Bright white sand and perfect turquoise sea stretching out in front of you. I’ve added a photo below but so far no photo I’ve seen has done it justice, it has to be seen to be believed.

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Not only is the sand pure white and super fine, and the sea crystal clear and as warm as a bath, it’s also full of sharks and stingrays! That’s better than it sounds, as in the sharks are little baby sharks (under a metre long) and won’t come near you but they are pretty cool to watch. And the stingrays stay in the shallows and keep themselves to themselves but you can get a very close look at these elegant creatures in the wild. After soaking up the scenery and the sun we headed back to the boat for an amazing lunch, followed by more snorkelling and kayaking around the island. This was some of the most fantastic snorkelling I have ever done and because of the laidback vibe of the trip you can wander to your heart’s desire. There aren’t many rules and the time limit isn’t one that’s going to bother you. Besides if you get bored of snorkelling you can always just spend your time jumping off the boat instead.

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The whole trip ended with a chilled out return to the harbour where if you ask nicely they’ll let you drive the boat too.

Gateway to the Water World

Date: Friday 6th November to Saturday 7th November 2015

Location: Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

My journey to Kaikoura didn’t exactly start smoothly. I meant to drive from Queenstown to Kaikoura in a day (admittedly a long drive), however after about an hour and a half on the road I got a migraine. Now I have suffered with these all my life, however I have never had one while driving, which is a good thing as I go completely blind within about 2 minutes. Knowing I had barely any time to pull over somewhere safe I aimed for the first layby I could see, parked the car and took my pills. After 45 minutes of trying to sleep on the side of an A road there was a knock on my window. By this time I am not only blind from the funny lights dancing in front of my eyes, I am also in excruciating pain with what feels like someone tying rubber bands around my brain and increasing them in number and tightness. All in all it means I’m not at my highest functioning self and I generally can’t string a sentence together. So I answered the knock by rolling down my window and staring vaguely at the man standing there. He answered my stare with ‘hello sleeping beauty, you’re asleep on my driveway. Could I get to my house please?’ … crap… groggily I tried to explain what was going on and to my delight and amazement he told me his mum used to have migraines, he’d had one or two, knew exactly what I was going through and wanted to help. He said his daughter was away at university and her room was free if I wanted to sleep it off on her bed for a while. Since the migraine had taken full control over me at this time my ‘this guy could be a creep’ sensors were well and truly turned off and the idea of a bed and proper sleep was all I heard and focused on. True to his word the man helped me move my car, led me into the house, got me a glass of water and pointed me to his daughter’s room, closed the door and left me to sleep.

Five hours later I woke up staring at a dressing table I didn’t recognise. The events of the day coming back to me, I dragged myself out of bed and sheepishly walked into the sitting room. There was my saviour and his son sitting watching TV and eating their dinner (Just FYI this might be one of the weirdest points in my life). He offered me dinner, which I refused, and when I said I needed to move on he said he hoped I was safe to drive and wished me luck on the rest of my travels. I drove off to the nearest town to find a motel to fall into thinking that mostly, on an individual level, people are just really nice. It’s a very warm and fuzzy feeling. And I did send him a bottle of wine the next day which I really hope got to him. If you read this, let me know you got it!

Anyway, the next day I set off for Kaikoura and I managed to get there. It’s a winding coast road that leads you to this tiny little town by the sea. You spend the last half hour of your drive squished between super tall cliffs and the rocky edge of the sea which is lined with seals. And then you come around a corner and this is the view in front of you …

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…The beautiful south island mountain range, covered in snow, coming all the way to the edge of the blue, blue sea. It’s a stunning view that took my breath away, and it’s a lovely little town. When I say little, it’s tiny! One road is pretty much all there is but it’s not what’s in the town that brings people to Kaikoura, its what’s in the water. This is the best place in New Zealand to go whale watching (via boat or helicopter), swimming with dolphins and swimming with seals. The waters are rich in food and relatively sheltered so it’s a great place for all these animals to hang out. As I now had one day less in Kaikoura I had to fit everything in so I booked whale watching for 7:30am and swimming with sea lions at 1:00pm which still left time to get the boat to North Island in the evening. The whale watching was incredible, Whale Watch is one of the biggest and oldest companies in the town and it also has some of the fastest boats. These take you way out to sea and maximise your chances of seeing the whales close up. We saw two, including one diving and then on the way home, a pod of dolphins escorted us all the way back to the harbour. I couldn’t have been more excited … until I went swimming with seals.

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Seal Swim Kaikoura by contrast is a very small company that runs daily (weather dependent) trips to go and snorkel with the fur seals that live on the rocky coastline. They are beautiful creatures who are amazingly agile in the sea and also very curious. If you swim slowly towards them they will more than likely come and say ‘hi’ and see what you’re about. I had one seal swim under and around me, one come and stare at me eyes to mask and one even gave me a whack with its tail to tell me I was getting too close. However you can see why they have all their layers of blubber because the water is freezing. As in, full wetsuit and still turning blue freezing! After 2 hours in and out of the water I was so cold I couldn’t control the constant shivering and my lips had turned blue so it was time to call it a day. Our nice little boat had one last hidden trick, a hose with hot water. There is no better feeling than filling an icy wetsuit with hot water, it’s like being inside your own personal hot water bottle. Lovely!

 

 

 

Blue Ice

Location: Franz Josef, South Island, New Zealand

Date: Thursday 29th October to Friday 30th October 2015

One of the most famous spots in New Zealand’s South Island is Franz Josef Glacier, and rightly so. This stunning natural wonder is one of the most beautiful pieces of scenery I have ever seen. Not only that, it’s also one of the most perfect glacially formed (or U-shape) valleys I have ever seen. Being a Geography student I bounced around the valley, shouting about how perfect it was until my friends must have thought I was completely mental. Then I took loads of photos and sent them all to my friends who are now geography teachers, telling them to use them in class. Thinking back, that may have been a little bossy … but I have a feeling they already knew that about me.

The walk up the valley to the terminus of the glacier takes you past beautiful waterfalls that cascade down bare rock, running into the braided streams that zig-zag across the rubble bed of the valley. These days you can’t walk all the way up to the edge of the glacier, the ground is too unstable and there have been too many accidents for the authorities to think you may be capable of looking after yourself on this trek.  But you do get a pretty good view from the barrier and you can clearly see the blue ice shining in between the two mountain peaks.

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Of course the best way to see the glacier is by getting on top of it, however the only way of doing this is by helicopter and if you’ve read my blog on Hawaii you will already know that I’ve learnt helicopters make me very, very sick. The view from the top is meant to be stunning and having flown up there, Franz Josef’s guides will take you walking over the best bits of the glacier. That said, flying in to the glacier is one of the most dangerous things you can do in New Zealand (more than jumping off or out of anything) purely because the weather and the glacier are so very, very unpredictable.

The glacier isn’t the only thing to explore in Franz Josef, it’s also a gateway to some of the most untouched temperate rainforest in the world. There are several wonderful walks from the town that will take you through what looks like the set of Jurassic park. It’s cold and wet (it being a temperate rainforest and all) but it’s the most amazing selection of ferns you will ever see and the feeling it gives you is amazing. You have to keep looking over your shoulder, just in case you see T-Rex behind you.

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The Legendary River Valley

Date: Wednesday 21st to Thursday 22nd October and Saturday 7th to Monday 9th November 2015

Location: River Valley near Taihape, North Island, New Zealand

As you travel down through the North Island you come across a road. On this road you can go hours without seeing another car, you’re miles from the nearest town, on a very sparsely populated Island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, 1300 miles from the next nearest land mass and suddenly you feel very small and free. This road twists and turns, bends and loops through hills so green they glow. The hills rise and fall around you as you drive, sometimes filling your view with a bank of lush grass and sometimes dropping away to reveal a landscape worthy of a novel.

The road becomes smaller and steeper with every minute until you feel like you’re falling into the middle of the Island, and then, you come round a corner and there is a river and next to the river, a little lodge. At first sight it’s not much, just a small single storey building nestled in amongst the trees, but looks can be deceiving.

To a weary traveller, as you enter the building the first thing that hits you is delicious smell of home cooked food pouring from the kitchen, next is the warm, homely look of the lounge/reception (complete with squashy sofas and fireplace) and third is the fun, excitable and friendly atmosphere that is radiating from the staff.

River Valley, which is where you have just arrived, is an adventure lodge that offers white water rafting, scenic rafting trips and horse riding. All of which come accompanied by their helpful, incredibly well trained (and slightly crazy) staff. It also offers accommodation from deluxe river suites to your basic backpacker dorms … and then there’s this one room that has 16 bunk beds all joined together on either side of a half-height wall, but we won’t talk about that room (or what goes on in there). Wherever you stay you will be able to see endless beauty out of your window and take part in some brilliant activities.

I have to say I’m a chicken (if you haven’t worked that out by reading this blog yet, you’re not reading enough of it) and I’m a clumsy chicken at that, so I did not try out the white water rafting. Last time I tried white water rafting I strained the ligaments in one finger by bending it back and gave myself concussion, I just don’t think I’m made to do it. But I am reliably informed by my friends that it was one of the best activities they had ever done. This comment came from friends trained in rafting and those who have never been on a river before in their life so I’m guessing it’s an all-round winner. Although, be warned, the river is very cold…

I went for the activity which is a little more me and that was horse riding. The stables connected with River Valley ride ‘freestyle’ which is a completely different form of riding to anything I’ve tried before. I guess it kind of falls in the middle of British and Western with a lean towards having more of a connection with your horse than the other two styles. Keeping this connection in mind the first 45 minutes of your ride are spent getting to know your horse better in their arena. Your guide (who will be one of their fabulous riders) will give you a few exercises to get to know your horse and to understand how they work. Meaning that when you set out across the stunning farmland (full of the classic New Zealand sheep) your horse is actually listening to you and you’re listening to them and you all work together in one big wonderful partnership! It was some of the best horse riding I have ever done and I would recommend it to anyone.

Not only does River Valley fill up your day time with fun, it’s pretty amusing in the evening as well. After a top notch roast dinner, just as everyone is moaning from the fullness of their stomachs, the river valley games start. If you just wanted to watch this merriment you could and have a very funny night but I highly recommend joining in as you may find you have hidden talents that not even you knew about. The centrepiece of the entertainment is the legendary ‘River Valley Table Challenge’. This game is far too legendary to need to explain it to you, it would just be going over old knowledge. But if you really don’t know of the wonder that is this game you’ll just have to go and find out for yourself.  I can say my bruises lasted at least a week.

I loved River Valley so much that I came back to stay a couple more nights a few weeks later and this time I was blessed with the most fabulous weather. I took the opportunity to go walking up the valley but in order to do this you have to cross the river on an interesting bridge. It’s a piece of wood, large enough for two adults to sit on side by side, attached to a pulley system which is fitted to the bank of the river. You jump onto this seat (with a little difficulty if you’re on your own) and then pull yourself across by the ropes while being suspended about 3 metres above the river. Slightly unnerving, but it works! After this there’s about a half hour uphill walk to the top of the valley but the views you get from the top are incredible. I sat there for a good hour just watching the nature in front of my eyes and listening to the thoughts in my mind. The countryside in this area of New Zealand is unlike any I have seen anywhere else in the world and has to be seen to be believed, photos just can’t do it justice though I promise you, you will try … just like I did, see:

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So this little hidden gem of a place, deep in to the centre of New Zealand may have become one of my favourite places in the world. It’s quiet, calm and peaceful. It gives you time to think, time to look at life and time to enjoy the beauty around you. And yet, it is staffed by the most generous, fun loving, intelligent and funny collection of people that have all gathered to this stunning corner of the world to call it their home. They will welcome you into the fold with no questions asked and include you in their fun and games as if you are part of the team. Go to River Valley and you will make happy memories to last you a lifetime.

 

The Day of all Days

Date: Monday 19th October 2015

Location: Rotorua and Taupo, North Island, New Zealand

Have you ever lived one of those days where you do so much stuff that you feel like you’ve lived a week in 24 hours? The last one for me was 19th October, which was a Monday. It was one of the best Mondays I have ever had.

We started off in Rotorua, a town famous for its geothermal activities, and took a tour around the national park which is a hot bed (excuse the pun) of bubbling mud, hot springs and, best of all, geysers. We took a full two hours wandering around the park and happened to arrive just as the largest geyser of all was blowing its top. The jet of water rises about 3 metres into the air and it carries on going for aaages, at least 30 minutes – way longer than I ever thought it was going to last. I was happy as Larry in the park, surrounded by the smell of sulphur, hot ground under my feet and watching all the geothermal activity, relating it all back to my textbooks.

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Then came the next part of my adventure, after a leisurely morning in a national park we jumped back on the bus to drive to Taupo… and then to jump out of a plane. Yep, that’s right, I did a skydive over Taupo. What made me decide I wanted to do this I have absolutely no idea. I hate rollercoasters, I find them scary, I am so not an adrenalin junkie, I hate the feeling of fear and I had not made a losing bet with anyone. I think the New Zealand spirit just took over me when I signed my name on the line. Once you get to the jump site and they get you suited and booted, that’s it, there’s no going back, but even though I was pretty terrified I did not want to back out of this.

The moment when you’re in the plane, attached to your qualified buddy (thank god he’s there) and you’re sitting on the edge of the door, with your legs hanging over the edge is a moment I don’t think you can recreate. I am reliably informed that the entire plane heard me scream as we fell out of the door. I didn’t stop there either, I screamed the whole way through free fall, especially when we went straight through a cloud, I screamed when the parachute opened, I screamed when we turned corners and I screamed when we hit the ground. Essentially, I screamed the whole way … my poor partners ears. It is one of the most terrifying things I have ever done and I can’t say I’ll ever be trying it again in a hurry but I am so glad I did it and really pretty proud of myself as well.

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Absolutely pumped on adrenaline we headed back into Taupo to spend the early evening on the lake in a very lovely boat. This is run by a company called Sail Barbary. They own a beautiful sailing boat called Barbary (I think you could have guessed that …) which I took a ride on the next day, but they also have a motorboat which they take out in the evenings for a much more chilled out ride. With free pizza and a free drink on board they make sure you are perfectly comfortable while you chug around the lake. While there, the captain casts out some fishing lines in the hope of catching dinner, pumps out some music and you just relax and enjoy yourself. If you’re getting a bit bored the captain is always on hand to give you a lesson in driving the boat or if you’re up for a little competition, there is a shooting contest going on out the back of the boat. The aim is to hit a balloon tied to the end of a fishing line with an air rifle, more difficult than it sounds when you take into account a moving boat and waves. I’d love to say that I managed it… but I didn’t. Maybe next time in in Taupo!

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We were back on land by 8:00pm and ready to head on out and see the nightlife of Taupo, running up to my room to grab a few bits and pieces for the night. I sat down on my bed for a second … and woke up the next day. I completely crashed but I guess there’s only so much you can fit into one day.

A land steeped in history

Date: Sunday 18th October 2015

Location: Tamaki Maori Village, North Island, New Zealand

One of the first things you notice when you come to New Zealand is how proud they are of their Maori culture. People speak Maori to one another on the streets, people know the Maori stories that connect them with the land, Maori tribal tattoos are worn with pride on nearly every person, street and road signs are written in Maori and everyone, really everyone, is respectful of the culture. It is really wonderful to see such old traditions thriving in a modern setting, intertwined with the current lifestyle and causing no problems at all. And the kind, friendly Maori people are more than happy to teach you about their culture.

Tamaki Village is the perfect setting to learn boatloads of this culture. It’s a lodge and cultural centre out in the middle of the beautiful North Island forest where tourists can come to learn about the Aboriginal stories, crafts and way of life. This isn’t just some dusty visitors’ centre with a few sun bleached posters to read, this is a full on working village with lodges, dining hall, example traditional buildings, sleeping quarters … and some lovely hot tubs. The trip I chose included an overnight stay and the first place we were taken was to our bedroom. We were asked to wait in the room until our host came to explain a few things to us. Expecting the usual rules and regulations we all chose a bed and proceeded to settle in. When our host came to say hello the talk was completely different from what we expected. She started to explain the meanings behind the shape and style of the Maori houses and then the stories behind the carvings on the inside of the wall. These houses are filled with hundreds of years of traditions, from the carvings on the outside of a house representing an ancestor, to each of the Maori deities telling the stories of the earth in the carvings on the wall. We learnt that shoes must come off as once you have entered a Maori house you have entered inside an ancestor, the triangle the roof makes are his open arms, the rafters his rib cage and the central wooden strut his spine. We learnt that the markings on the face of the ancestor carved above the door show his lineage, the left side for the father’s family and the right for the mother’s. We learnt that the carvings around the walls are the guardians of the earth and more ancestors, all there to keep you safe and remind you of the stories passed down through many generations.

After this we were whisked away to learn the skills that all good Maoris should know. We learnt how to collect string from leaves and then how to bind this together to create a rope, joining our short length onto an already lengthy rope created purely by those travelling on the Kiwi Experience, this is known as ‘braiding together the rope of mankind’. Next came games for Maori warriors to improve hand eye coordination which involved throwing a stick in a circle – can’t say I was good at it! And finally, a song which helped with pronunciation of Maori words … which we were then told we had to perform to the general public at dinner … But before dinner we had a welcome ceremony to enjoy (to welcome those who were arriving just for dinner). The welcome ceremony is a serious affair. You are told before it begins that this is no joke, it is a traditional and important part of the ceremony and laughter during it will not be appreciated. Of course this means you instantly fall into the ‘church giggles’ where you just can’t stop laughing because you’re nervous and you know you shouldn’t… When the Maori came out however all thoughts of laughter were gone. This impressive show was haunting and mysterious from the beginning with the calls of the tribe echoing through the clear air. As the members of the tribe started to appear one by one they began a proud (and slightly scary) dance and song which I am assured was a welcome dance but it was slightly hard to look past the spears and facial expressions and see ‘welcome’…

The welcome concluded (with no laughter, thank god) we moved into the workshop area. Here the whole tribe were friendly and chatty and so willing to show us what they had planned. This was a series of stands to show a multitude of different Maori traditions. There were games to develop hunting and fighting skills, musical instruments to develop rhythm and teamwork, weaving to show how their baskets and pots were made, demonstrations of what the different houses mean and, of course, an area to learn the Hakka. Men only though … shame.

Then, thankfully, we moved inside. By this point in the night it was freezing and although the multitude of fires were keeping us reasonably warm the Maori were starting to look very cold. The traditional dress the women wore included a fur cape, unfortunately these days that cape is synthetic fur and I can’t imagine it gave anywhere near the same amount of protection that the original capes did. Inside we were seated in a theatre space and given a fantastic show of songs and dances showcasing the Maori stories and myths including several of the skills and techniques that we had learnt outside.

Then came dinner … it was amazing. A huge buffet of pretty much anything you could hope for and, halleluiah, dessert!! When you’re backpacking, dessert is an expense too far that just can’t be justified but when someone serves you Pavlova with cream and it’s included! Don’t mind me if I do have a second helping … and maybe a third. Full to the brim with food (and maybe a nice glass of wine) we were then reminded we had a song to perform to the room… but it was over quickly and as a reward there were some lovely hot tubs that we were allowed to spend the remainder of the evening in before resting our heads underneath our individual Maori guardians back in our ancestor house.