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Chillin' in Hawke's Bay

Napier, New Zealand

Chillin' in Hawke's Bay and sressin' on the coast highway...

Everyone needs to take a break, even when they're travelling, and find a sanctuary for some solitude and sense of space. It was a 'no brainer' to choose Victoria's sister city, Napier, renown for its Art Deco architecture, as the place to toss our backpacks into a corner and chill. It's located in the Hawke's Bay region with its Mediterranean climate, beautiful scenery in every direction and home to no less than 70 wineries. We hired a 'bach' (cottage) at Wishart Vineyards in Bay View, about 10 km north of Napier. A ten minute walk through the vineyard takes us to the beach where we can watch the waves break and crash after their long journey across the Pacific. We hired a car, too, so we can explore the local area in all directions.

Truth be known, I had already arranged to spend time shadowing Napier Boys' High School rugby coaches at practices and figured that Norma would enjoy the shops and vineyards in a warmer clime. I was right, too! We were in our shorts and t-shirts having morning tea on the veranda when we heard that Dunedin is covered in snow this morning (Tuesday June 16).

We arrived last Wednesday (June 10) and have had a mix of busy and quiet days. We explored the vineyard and beach Thursday while our laundry was on the go, then visited Esk Winery across the road for a tasting. I headed off to practice at NBHS that afternoon and afterwards found myself madly scribbling notes about drills and plays.

We walked the streets of Napier Friday to see the Art Deco buildings contructed to restore the city after an earthquake devastated it in 1931. It is literally a city that rose from the ashes; its architecture is fascinating and its story is inspiring. We'll walk the opposite sides of the streets before we leave so that we can see the buildings from a different perspective.

Norma was a content rugby widow Saturday. I hit the road before 7 am on the drive to Gisborne, 200+ km north, to watch the NBHS teams play their rival, Gisborne Boys' High School. These lads play hard exciting rugby! The 1st XV game would be a close equal to any of our local premier games for skill and speed. I arrived back at the bach shortly before 6:30 pm and then headed to the local pub to watch the All Blacks vs. France game because we don't have Sky Sports on our bach telly. The game was a disappointment (France won with help from the All Blacks) and it was rebroadcast on a regular telly channel half an hour after I got back to the bach!

The road to Gisborne is the mother of all Malahats. In fact, it makes the Malahat look like a prairie freeway! It's a challenge in daylight with its twists and turns. Speed limits change from 100 kph to 25 kph in the blink of an eye. Steep climbs through the hills apparently aren't challenging enough for Kiwis - they narrow the roadway so that loaded semis almost brush cars in the opposite lane and bar any escape with a sheer drop on one side and towering overhanging rock faces on the other! None of this seems to phase the Kiwis, though. The way that they drive leads me to believe that they have visions of being the next Formula One great! Throw darkness into the mix and the whole experience requires a few stiff drinks when you get back to the bach!

Sunday...we drove down to Haverlock North and up to the top of the peak of Te Mata. The sheer escarpments and the incredible clear-day views in all directions from the 399m summit gave Norma the 'woozies'! Stops at the Arataki Honey Visitor Centre and the Te Mata Cheese Company brought her back to life.

The sun was out in all its glory yesterday (Monday June 15) so we jumped into the car and headed north for a soak at Morere Hot Springs. 40o C hot pools under the canopy of a lush rainforest of towering nikau palms, ferns and other native trees. Bird song mingled with the steam of the pools as we simmered in the mineral waters. We drove out to the Mahia Peninsula, which was once an island before sands filled in the gap over eons to join it to the mainland. The beaches and coastline were spectacular, and we found a wonderful spot on the shore to relax with a beer and snack on Te Mata blue cheese. The waves continually crashed onto the sandstone formations that waves through the millennia have etched and carved into stunning sculptures. Before leaving the peninsula, I had to stop at the local rugby pitch and marvel at its setting on an escarpment high above the wide open Pacific. The view is unobstructed and only the ocean separates the pitch from South America.

We turned onto the highway for the trip home as the sun started to set and the skies ahead glowed with its fiery colors. The marvels of nature disappeared with darkness and the challenges of driving the coast highway took over. The experience gripped Norma and she too found comfort in a stiff drink once back in the comfort of the bach!

Yep, you have appreciate the ying and yang of chillin' in Hawke's Bay and stressin' on the coast highway...

permalink written by  Shane & Norma on June 15, 2009 from Napier, New Zealand
from the travel blog: "Not Just Another Rugby Tour" - New Zealand, Samoa and Australia
tagged Hot, Napier, TeMata, Morere, Springs, Mahia and Peninsula

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Cold in the Desert

Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni is surrounded by some of the most spectacular and surreal scenery in Bolivia so, like every other gringo who visits the tumbleweed town, we hopped in a jeep for a tour of the nearby salt flats and National Park. We set off on a cloudy Sunday, our first stop was to pay our respects at the train “cemetery” which lies on the outskirts of town. Rows of rusty old trains create an amazing spectacle – abandoned in the baron wasteland, the tired brown relics lean passively, resigned to the slow erosion of the desert. We took photos and climbed all over them before being ferried off to the salt flats.

Both salty and flat, the salt flats were everything I was expecting. The endless white desert was fascinating and, above all, provided the opportunity to take vaguely amusing photos of us treading on each other and swinging on Josh’s beard. Josh’s beard really does deserve a mention. Cultivated since our departure and affectionately known as “The Wedge”, it has received praise and extended stares the world over. It has become a tourist attraction in itself. Now, after almost four months, Josh’s meticulous beauty regime has been extended to include a daily combing of The Wedge, which is habitually twisted and tangled in times of reflection.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, in the middle of a salty nowhere getting back into our jeep. The roads were thin smudges across the landscape and we gazed out of the windows at the blankness until we reached our lunch stop, the Isla Inchahuasi. An island upon the salt covered in cacti, Inchahuasis claim to fame seemed to be the fact that it is so spectacularly out of place. Nevertheless, it is a good place to climb up for a view of the flats and the distant mountains. After lunch and some more time dedicated to the perfect photographic illusion (it’s actually really hard to do if your camera is clever enough to have auto focus) we headed towards these mountains.

Our hotel was located on the edge of the salt flat where the terrain suddenly turned brown and rough. It was fairly comfortable, with hot water and a dining area from which we could see the colourful beams of the sun setting behind the mountains. Its most notable feature however was that it was constructed almost entirely out of salt! The walls, the tables, the chairs, even the beds were carved out of the stuff! If your chips were a bit bland you could simply scratch a bit of table onto them! It was a beautiful looking building, with salt crystal chandeliers illuminating the white uniformity of the rooms. In one corner they had a huge pile of salt and a stack of salt blocks – I like to think they just make anything they find lacking: “No, sorry we don´t have a bar but if you just give me a few minutes…” etc.

That night we got to know the other half of our group, a trio of flatulent Frenchmen who had a mysterious collection of cuts and bruises. They told us that they had just come from La Paz they had been robbed on two separate occasions, once by a fake taxi driver and then again at the hands of some Bolivians they had befriended who had drugged their drinks and beaten them before taking (what was left of) their valuables. To add injury to insult, one of them had also fallen off his bike on the Death Road. It was fair to say that these were an unlucky bunch but it did make me realise how fortunate we were to get out of that place unscathed – particularly considering the risky nature of our adventures. Anyway, we played some poker, drank some palpably cheap wine and retired to our salty beds for a good nights sleep. The pillows, mattresses and sheets were made of more familiar materials.

We set off as the sun came up the next morning. Our first stop, after an hour or so, was unplanned. Our jeep suddenly went quiet and we found ourselves watching hopefully as our driver tinkered with the engine. His toolkit consisted of a screwdriver and a knife, it wasn´t very convincing, but after a helping hand from the driver of another jeep (there were loads, breaking down in this desert was not as dramatic as you may imagine) we continued on our way to see Volcano Ollague, an active volcano which I had heard smokes like a Feltham housewife.

Due to the somewhat dangerous nature of active volcanoes we viewed this one from a distance – the “mirador” an interesting set of rock formations which I found almost as impressive as the distant smoke-tipped spectacle. The rest of the day was spent driving between picturesque lakes where the high mineral content means not only a welcome collection of flamingos but also spectacular variations in colour from deep reds to rich greens and streaks of yellow. Around the edges the lakes were framed with thick ice, this and the icy wind gave us a taste of the freezing night which we had been frequently warned to prepare for. We also visited the surreal and other-worldly landscape known as Salvador Dali Desert because the strange rocks are set to have inspired Dali when he visited the region.

It was an indescribable day of sights and I am well aware that my descriptive language fails to deliver the necessary images – even my photos don’t do the places justice – but to attempt to describe the constant, often baffling, changes in landscape would probably mean me dedicating the remainder of the trip to sitting hunched in various internet cafés across Argentina and Brazil. Thankfully, the hotel we were staying in requires very little description. It was basic and cold. We huddled around a small iron oven for warmth, played cards and the Frenchmen attempted to play the Beverly Hills Cop theme tune on panpipes (their Ipods had, after all, been robbed) – eventually the bitter cold of the night began to set in and we retreated to the warmth of our beds wearing as much as possible. It was the kind of night where you wake up to find an arm has fallen out of your sleeping bag and started collecting icicles but I slept well and, at 5am when we had to get up, was even fairly chirpy.

We set off in darkness, with stars scattered generously across the sky and our bodies still clinging to the warmth of our beds. I joked that breaking down now would be the worst thing ever. Then we did. Our driver tried to restart it but the engine gave nothing but a pained groan and a clangy rattle. We shivered patiently in the back. He tried the screwdriver, then the knife but nothing seemed to work! We tried to roll back to the hotel but we had driven too far and down too many hills – eventually the driver told us to wait while he walked back and got another jeep. By the time we watched the sun rise from the icy windows of our jeep, my chirpy mood had frozen over. We had been sitting in the cold for an hour and my feet were so cold they hurt. Our driver returned in a new and improved jeep and, happily abandoning the frozen corpse of that which had taken us so far, we continued on to the steaming land of the geysers.

Pools of thick, muddy water bubbled furiously and everywhere cracks in the ground shot streams of warm mist which drifted over us and filled our nostrils with its horrifically pungent sulphuric odour. I was amazed at how active the geysers were – there was a constant hissing and bubbling – and we were told that this was the case 24 hours a day. In an attempt to thaw my frozen feet, I stood nonchalantly on one of the smaller holes and immediately hopped off as the scolding steam burnt through my thin shoe! My feet half numb and half burnt, I got back into the jeep. I wasn´t particularly enjoying our last day.

We had breakfast at the nearby hot springs where we were also able to revive our feet. While Josh and I sat on the edge watching our toes come back to life, Niall and the Frenchmen braved partial nudity and went in fully. I was tempted, the water was nice and hot, until I considered that one has also to get out of the springs at some point. I decided to devote all my energy to eating as much breakfast as possible.

Fully defrosted and revitalized, the mornings mishaps were actively repressed and we proceeded to our final stop, Laguna Verde. This was a huge, deserted lake surrounded by red rocky mountains where the sulphur content repels flamingos but demands photography with its brilliant green water. Our driver said something in Spanish about the landscape being similar to Mars and that it is used by NASA for training purposes. That is at least what I decided he was saying – it could have been anything really. I have to confess that despite a tenfold increase in my vocabulary I probably only know about ten words of Spanish and most of them are only of any use when bargaining for alpaca jumpers or looking for a train station which is on the right hand side (I don’t know the word for left).

Anyway, so began our epic drive back to civilisation. It really was epic too; once we had bounced over the surface of Mars we crossed vast stretches of sand, slate, rubble and rock, splashed our way through icy frozen streams which trickled down through the valley from frosted mountaintops and eventually watched the sky changing colour as we roared across the flat, limitless landscapes before Uyuni.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 31, 2009 from Uyuni, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Desert, Photos, Lakes, Ice, Salt, Flamingos, Cold, Springs, Jeep, Breakdowns, Geyzers and Epic

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