Wednesday, 19 November 2003

"Happenings" Number 10 - 2003

Homeward Bound – 2003

It is now almost 400 days since Envy commenced her South Seas odyssey, and with the cyclone season fast approaching, our thoughts are homeward turned as we prepare the ship and ourselves for our last ocean passage back across the Tasman from New Caledonia to Brisbane later this week.

Since our last contact via ‘H-8’ from Fiji’s Malolo Islands a few weeks ago, we have made two more land visits to Nadi (Nandi) and one more to Lautoka, enjoying more of the sights, culture, food and shopping experiences that add to this country’s charm, and of course, took a few hundred more photos on the digital camera to add to our book of memories. Audrey and I really enjoyed ‘the differences’ of Fiji, and would readily return and recommend it as a cruising destination.

Even though Fiji has both the most challenging navigation, with its multitude of coral reefs, sand cays and tiny islets, and the most petty crime of stealing from yachts throughout the South Pacific, we gratefully avoided all of this and safely took our leave after 43 wonderful days there, clearing from Lautoka on 16 October with the forecast of a favourable 15/20 knot breeze to commence our passage to New Caledonia.

But there was a localized stationary front just west of Fiji that was not mentioned in the forecast and so we battled strong winds and a rough sea all that first night, and indeed most of the way, and arrived in New Caledonia 6 days later after having spent the last 36 hours tacking into a strong westerly wind to cover the last 50 miles. Shades of the New Zealand to Tonga passage. But as usual Envy handled it well, whilst we got a bit more experience in heavy weather sailing!

We ducked into the first sheltered bay we came to after negotiating the dreaded Havannah Pass at the southeast corner of New Caledonia and, though strictly improper, dropped anchor and took a well-earned rest overnight, before continuing on the 40 miles to Noumea. Arriving there late in the afternoon, we anchored out in Port Moselle and ‘cleared in’ with Customs the following morning.

It all proceeded very efficiently with Quarantine and then Immigration, but a misunderstanding between the three very busy Customs teams led to us being overlooked and after waiting many hours before we initiated our concern, we had a quick visit from four senior officers who apologised profusely and cleared us in without so much as a look!

Wow!! What a great place Noumea is. We’ve neither of us have been here before and had no idea what to expect. After the lesser developed and poorer places we’d seen, New Caledonia is rich, modern, well developed, expensive, and French. Everything runs like clockwork here, though they still indulge the French colonial habit of closing for 2 hours or more in the middle of the day, and the Parisian syndrome of driving their mostly new Peugeots, Citroens, and Renaults at hair-raising speeds around the town.

The main island, Grand Terre, was discovered and named by Caption Cook in 1774, is 400km long by 50km wide, has been a French possession since 1853 and a penal settlement (as were most French colonies) from 1872 to 1913. Its successful economic background is principally due to mining with its hilly red volcanic country being rich in nickel, (the worlds third largest producer after Canada and Russia), cobalt, chromium, and iron, and together with coffee production, all add to the coffers of this nation’s economy.

Around Noumea and the mainland’s southern end, the coastline, with its several adjacent islands, is a continual jigsaw of bays, coves and headlands, running back to quite parched though scenic high hills of volcanic country, intermittently clothed in stunted green shrubbery, offering a stark vista of the contrasting monotones of red and green alone, quite striking and very unusual.

The capital, Noumea, is a modern city of over 70,000 people, principally native Melanesian Kanaks and French Europeans; the national population is 180,000 and comprises a racial mixture that additionally includes Asians, neighbouring islanders and West Indians.

After spending a few days being ‘townies’, we bolted out of expensive, bustling Noumea and sailed down to Baie de Prony for an overnight stay enroute to ‘the jewel of the Pacific’, New Caledonia’s famous Ile des Pins (the Isle of Pines).

Located 40 miles (65km) south of the main island, but still within the huge lagoon that surrounds New Cal with 1600 nm of barrier reef, the Isle of Pines is picture postcard pretty with its clear water, fine white sand, countless coral reefs and little sand cay beaches. Also discovered by Cook and named for the native pines which are indigenous to this island alone, these trees are tall and more needle shaped than Norfolk Island Pines, though they share a similar type leaf or frond.

The island is quite small – you can drive around it in half an hour – but steeped in New Cal’s early history, for it was here that 3000 deportees were incarcerated following the Paris Rebellion of 1871, thus commencing its period of penal servitude, and the numerous stone buildings of the prison infrastructure and many other public works, together with the well kept cemetery, speak to the misery of hard labour that no doubt proliferated here.

Envy was anchored 200 mtr off the main sandy beach at Baie de Kuto which, together with the adjoining Baie de Kanumera, separated only by a 200 metre wide isthmus, are two of the most beautiful places we have seen. Our anchorage here afforded us a view of the old penal era colonial residences of the governor and the doctor with their privileged waterfront locations, contrasting the adjacent new public wharf and huge offshore catamaran that spews out hundreds of tourists three days per week, bound for the many modern tourist resorts which occupy the Isle of Pines.

New Caledonians boast the sand here is the finest in the world, and that claim may well be true, for it is very clean and talcum like, though perhaps not as white as the silica sand of Whitehaven Beach in Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands. Nevertheless, the clean sandy bottom could be clearly seen 4 metres below us, as could the fish and turtles that chose to keep us company.

With no public transport, we hitchhiked the 6km of good bitumen road to check out the principal village of Vao. Its lovely old cathedral features numerous carved statuettes and an ornate ceiling comprised of many different species of timber and, high on the hilltop beyond it, up to which we climbed, is a tiny chapel containing a statue of the weeping Madonna. Peopled principally with local Kanaks, this little village comprised a mixture of small western and traditional grass-roofed houses in well-kept grounds, but as in French Wallis Island, its few shops were not close together.

Other highlights of our time here included our 3km round-trip daily walk from Kuto Bay to the only bakery for excellent baguettes (French bread sticks), we enjoyed local cuisine for lunch, and one fine windy morning struggled up a very steep stony track to the islands highest peak at 262mtr, then hiked along its narrow bare ridge for several kilometres being rewarded at every step with continual magnificent views over the entire island and its fringing turquoise reefs, sandy beaches and islands.
Fortunately (for us) there’s been very little rain anywhere we’ve been these past few months, which is good for we tourists and our camera but has left village gardens quite bereft.

Each late afternoon we played Petanque (French style bowls) on the beach with our new friends and fellow CCCA members Neil and Ley, “Crystal Blues”, usually to the inquisitive observations of the Japanese tourists who strolled by. As a result of this daily idleness we now have our own set of steel Petanque balls, to hone our skills and continue our enjoyment with visiting friends on the little sandy beach back home on Karragarra Island.

We were told by Jean Paul, a French expatriate living in Noumea and fellow yachtsman whom we met at Kuto, that New Caledonia is too distant to attract many tourists from France and that most tourists are Japanese, followed by Aussies and Kiwis.

We had a marvellous sail back the 40 n miles from the Pines and spent another couple of days in Baie du Carenage, at the top end of Baie de Prony, enroute back to Noumea. It is all red soil country around there, which clings to shoes and feet and tends to stain everything red and, with rain showers about, we shied away from the walking tracks, but we did get to enjoy a visit by dinghy to the ‘hot springs’ pool in the eastern Carenage, though it wasn’t flowing. Then it was back to Noumea.

Today is Armistice Day, a public holiday in New Caledonia, and we’re hoping to find an Internet Café that’s open to send this off.

Meanwhile, Envy rides at anchor in Noumea’s windy and overcast Port Moselle harbour as we attend final preparations and maintenance prior to ‘clearing out’ and departing later this week on the 800 nautical mile (1483 km) trip back to Brisbane, which we estimate will be a 7 to 8 day passage. At the moment our weather faxes suggest fairly good conditions of 20+ knot easterly following winds, so here’s hoping for a favourable run.

Most of this season’s Pacific cruising fleet have already arrived at, or are in transit to their summer (cyclone season) stopover destinations of Fiji, Australia or New Zealand, with not many of us stragglers yet to depart, but with a bit of luck, Envy will be back safely at home soon after a simply wonderful year in Paradise.

Sunday, 19 October 2003

"Happenings" Number 9 - 2003

More Landfalls in Paradise - 2003

‘Envy’ didn’t leave Samoa for Fiji “in a few day’s time”, as per our assumption in concluding ‘H-7’; indeed, we stayed a further 2 ½ weeks, principally researching Bruce’s Samoan ancestry, and what a revealing and exciting pastime for us that turned out to be. As brief as possible, here is the story.

With no intention of being pretentious, some of you may be unaware that Bruce’s paternal great-grandfather, Australian explorer and pioneer of Cape York and Somerset, Frank Jardine, met and married there, in 1872, a Samoan Princess, Sana Solia Sofala, niece of Malietoa the ruling Suzerain of Samoa from around that time.

Those details have long been historically documented, but not much was known concerning her family and background, so our visit to Samoa provided the opportunity for genealogical research. As the result of a frustrating morning pouring over complicated and confusing mid-eighteenth century local historical records at the Apia library, I decided the best approach was to go public, so contacted the major ‘Samoan Observer’ newspaper, who thought it newsworthy enough to initially run a full page story with photos, then followed that up with a further four articles over the ensuing two weeks, which got the telephones ringing, and an offer of research by a local consultancy agency free of charge. (They were newly established and wanted the associated press exposure and publicity).

Acting on a suggestion to contact an 80+ years old retired Minister who was writing the early history of The London Missionary Society in Samoa, he gave me, a few days later, a letter that his wife had since discovered in an old church magazine from an aging Sana Solia sent from Somerset in 1907 seeking news of her family in Samoa, with whom she’d had no contact for 37 years. It documented her family history, which I won’t bore you with, and that they came from Falelatai Village on Upolu, to which we have now visited twice. For us, it was a very interesting and exciting couple of weeks.

The harbour at Apia, Samoa’s capital, must be one of the busiest in the South Pacific, for frequency of shipping arrivals was one every other day, not to overlook the 30 yachts which were anchored all around the harbour there as well. The most interesting of the large ships was the up-market cruise liner “Tahitian Princess”, with almost as many crew as passengers (who oozed wealth), though a large Oil Tanker was the biggest by far, discharging its bulk fuel cargo through an underwater pipeline from the centre of the harbour.

We had intended to visit only the main Samoan island, Upolu, then sail down to Fiji, but somewhere along the way plans changed to include a visit to the tiny French possession of Wallis Island, so we stopped off for a few days at Samoa’s other major island, Savai’i (sar-vie-e), enroute. It has the reputation of being the most scenic of Samoa’s islands, and we spent six very pleasant days discovering Savai’i by bus, totally circumnavigating the island and passing through all its main villages.

Savai’i is very different to anything we’d seen; though volcanic like much of the South Pacific, it differed with its considerable areas of jet-black lava rock bare of any vegetation, including an extensive flat barren area running to precipitous cliffs on the north shore known as the Lava Fields. This coastline featured some stunning coastal cliffs and maritime scenery, plus picturesque sandy beaches with backpacker resorts. Asau Village on the northwestern end of Savai’i is a small, clean and pretty place with modest western style housing scattered throughout the undulating, hot, black lava rock terrain, skirted with sandy coves and turquoise waters. It has an excellent harbour with a large concrete wharf, and a small but modern all-weather airport, but neither ships nor aircraft call here any more. Such a waste of valuable resources in a country lacking in them both.

But it’s a South Pacific story of repeated regularity. With limited employment opportunities and little else to keep them there, Asau’s younger generation, as have many Samoans, gravitated to the cities and/or overseas, and we often heard the claim that there are more Samoans living abroad, principally in New Zealand, the USA, and Australia, than reside within their homeland.

Nevertheless, here as elsewhere, the locals were very friendly, and we had several children come aboard Envy for a drink of cordial, a biscuit and a ‘look-see’, which they absolutely love to do. They would hail us continuously from the shore until we went in to collect them in the dinghy, or if ignored, sometimes even swim out to the yacht.

We departed Asau Harbour late one afternoon with Envy scorching along at 8.6 knots (15km/hr), an exhilarating buzz from our usual 5 to 6 kts, having the benefit of a strong ocean current along the top of Savai’i Island, heading for Ile Uvea, the main island in the small Wallis Group, a tiny speck surrounded by its huge lagoon, lost in the middle of the Pacific. Its narrow entrance channel has large tidal ‘overfalls’ during mid-tide runs, so it must be negotiated at slack water, hence our late afternoon departure from Samoa, but that passage was quicker than anticipated and we found ourselves ‘hove-to’ for an hour at 4am about 20 miles offshore awaiting daylight and the tide to make our entry into the lagoon.

Wallis and Futuna Islands are a French possession lying west of Samoa and northeast of Fiji and, at 13 º south marked the northernmost extent of our cruising. The main island of Wallis, Ile Uvea, is only 12km long by 6km wide, peopled by French speaking Polynesians, and you’re hard pressed to find many who understand any English. The pace is pretty much laid back, with all shops and businesses closing at noon to re-open sometime after 2pm. Surprisingly, the island has no tourist industry at all, nor is tourism sought or encouraged. There is not one single Taxi on the island, nor any public transport whatsoever, though there is no shortage of motor vehicles. We hitchhiked or walked everywhere, and almost always got a ride with the first vehicle that came along and though everyone was friendly, communication was difficult since our French is sadly lacking.

We were fortunate to share Uvea’s only protected anchorage at Gahi (Nar-hee) with another ‘cruising yachtie’ from England who’d been there for 3 weeks and who spoke French fluently, so Chris Smith gave us a good introduction to the local scene and customs. We also met a few French expatriate professionals there on 2-year postings who informed us that Wallis Island has no domestic product or export income at all, being entirely dependent on French handouts of total aid and support. Medical, dental and hospital care are all free to the locals, and imported food lines are subsidised. Even so, the cost of everything in the provincial centre of Mata Utu except bread and some cheap French red wine was quite expensive, but the baguettes were the best bread we’ve tasted since leaving Australia.

After six wonderful days there soaking up the local culture, touring around and visiting some sights of interest including the little known but immaculately preserved ancient stone fort dating back many centuries, we departed this exciting landfall on the afternoon tide to clear the lagoon, with a nostalgic farewell to Polynesia, and commenced our 3 day passage to Fiji filled with exciting anticipation of what lay ahead.

Our destination there was Savusavu, on the southwestern corner of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second large island, where we arrived 72 hours later after a pleasant passage, though we motor-sailed for part of it due to a lack of wind. Sometimes when the wind dies away in the ocean the sea swell continues to roll on through, resulting in a most unpleasant motion as the boat rolls from side to side with sails loudly slatting, so in these circumstances we run the engine and motor sail to ease the discomfort.

Our ‘clearing in’ at Savusavu reminded us of Fiji’s colonial heritage with the copious paperwork, all in loose carbon paper triplicate, of Customs, Health, Immigration and Quarantine requirements standing proudly as a legacy of old Britain, and far outdoing any other entry experience. The annual cost of ink and paper must be staggering, but it no doubt benefits Fiji’s employment situation.

For us, Fiji is different again to the rest of the South Pacific of our travels, and in a nutshell, the following ‘thumbnails’ are our observations to date.

New Zealand is a developed cosmopolitan society and its Maori are Polynesian. Tonga is also Polynesian, comparatively poor and pretty much embraces a subsistence lifestyle; we found it mainly a ‘sailing experience’ of wonderful tropical island cruising. Samoa is Polynesian, bustling, clean and progressive with a higher standard of living, and for us, an excellent ‘on-land’ experience, somewhat determined by its relatively few suitable cruising destinations. Wallis Island was again mainly a ‘people and land’ thing; Polynesian, French, expensive, and ‘un-touristy’, yet so very interestingly different and unusual.

Fiji is pretty much a combination of it all; lying west of 180º longitude, it is Melanesian, but has an absorbing mix of ethnic Fijian and Indian Fijian cultures. Comprising over 300 islands (only 1/3 inhabited) it offers great inter-island cruising comparable to any, but is also very much a ‘land and people’ experience and, away from the main tourist areas, comparatively inexpensive.

Vanua Levu has never shared the glitzy tourist reputation of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, and this made it all the more appealing to us. Having only the two towns of Lambasa and Savusavu on the entire island, (but numerous villages), with a large Indian community, many sugar cane plantations, and a character reminiscent of ‘old Fiji’ in so many ways, we generally immersed ourselves in both ethnic and Indian experiences and enjoyed our ten days there immensely. The municipal market in Savusavu offered the best vegetables since NZ, cost of living ‘across the board’ was comparatively cheap, and the unpretentious Indian Curry Cafes served unbelievably good dishes at Aust$3.00 per meal. You couldn’t cook a similar meal any cheaper!

We took a local bus over the 80km of rough bitumen road, through farms of drought-stricken sugar cane, up to the main town of Lambasa with its majority Indian population, where we fortuitously arrived in time to witness a major annual religious procession down the main street, honouring a Hindu deity. About thirty men all clad in white physically towed a very ornate float garlanded with leis & flowers, and featuring a mural of an elephant-trunked female deity, no doubt the subject of this colourful celebration, which contained a very serious, young looking priest who was having a lovely time playing with fire and blowing flames everywhere. All this excitement, together with the crowds of women dressed in their bright multi-hued saris, made this a most memorable spectacle of colour and mystery indeed.

Departing Savusavu, Envy sailed west through narrow coral reef passes and boisterous Nasonisoni Passage with its mile-long 2 to 3 metre high standing tidal surge, for overnight stays at Nambouwalu and Mbau Bay before leaving Vanua Levu for Yandua Island. Now somewhat off the beaten track, our three days in this splendid anchorage offered the best reef snorkelling so far, and our digital camera, safe and dry in its underwater housing, worked overtime among the pretty tropical fish and the coral gardens. Most small tropical fish maintain a ‘comfort zone’ of a metre or more but here, with much less human contact, they inquisitively checked us out at a much closer range than that. The long hot climb up to the top of the narrow isthmus ridge behind the anchorage rewarded the hardy with some truly awesome views of either side of the island, a panorama of several idyllic coves whose multi-hued blues, turquoise and green waters lapped shallow coral giving way to palm lined beaches. Real postcard stuff, and very pretty.

It was time to see something of the main island, Viti Levu, so we sailed south into a 15/20 kt south-easterly averaging 6 knots for the thirty miles across notoriously rough and windy Bligh Water to the reef strewn entrance to small Nananu-I-Ra Island, where we anchored in a long sweeping bay that fronted a lovely sandy beach lined with several up-market homes, which we later learned were the property of international absentee landlords, and that foreign holiday home ownership is a growing trend in several areas of Fiji.

The entire northern coast of Viti Levu is fringed by almost continuous barrier reefs, as well as many more lying further offshore, and Envy cautiously picked her way in short day hops around the top of the island inside these reefs, to Lautoka, our home for the next five days, and where we had to again ‘clear in’ with Customs. So much bureaucracy!

Being now the sugar-harvesting season, each night in our anchorages around this coast we were treated to the spectacular vision of cane fires illuminating the night sky as nearby farmers burnt their fields preparatory to hand harvesting the next morning, but this spectacle was not without cost. Since all the mills were crushing daily and non-stop, our anchorage in Lautoka, Fiji’s ‘sugar capital’ and second largest town, for both Customs and sightseeing requirements, had all the yachts there clothed in a blanket of fine black ash, which floated down day and night and covered everything with soot.

But Lautoka was otherwise a great experience with its colourful busy street scenes with their mix of multi-cultures, the buzz of the large municipal market, the aromas of the cafes and fragrances of the Indian shops, and better still, perhaps even less expensive than Vanua Levu. The government’s Public Service Information Week and the Annual Sugar Festival added further appeal to our time there, as did our indulgence in their culinary delights plus the occasional ice cream or two. Here, as elsewhere, we almost always shared our visits ashore in the company of other cruising yachties.

We also took the one hour bus trip to Nadi (Nandi) for a look around this touristy gateway to the nation, and were pleasantly surprised to discover our visit coincided with day 1 of a four day ‘town-wide’ “sale”, in which most of the shops were participating, with much merchandise reduced to half price; what good fortune, for we had intended to shop anyway! That afternoon we visited the nearby up-market Denarau Island Resort and Marina, a 20-minute trip from Nadi, which in addition to its pristine maritime environment and beachfront, features superb resort accommodation, championship golf and tennis facilities, and two new residential estates. Having been shown around these facilities and the modern Marina, which are both still ongoing developments, we are very impressed and decided that we could quite easily live there, being only a 2 hour fight from Brisbane.

Finally, the bagasse ash from the sugar mill got the better of us so we moved a few miles down the coast for an overnighter at Saweni Bay, another popular anchorage, before moving on to refuel and take water at Vuda Point Marina, enroute to the well-known yachties haunt at Musket Cove Resort and Marina on Malolo Lailai Island, about 20 miles distant, where F$1 secures life membership of the Musket Cove Yacht Club, for whatever it’s worth. In order to qualify you must have sailed to or from a foreign port to Musket Cove, and by all accounts, it seems very few yachties do not sign up.

Envy is currently cruising Fiji’s highly regarded Yasawa Islands, having spent the past nine days visiting the islands of Navandra, Vanua Levu, Waya, Naviti, and Matacawa Levu and as we were writing this at anchor in The Blue Lagoon yesterday, snugly enclosed by four islands and famous for the film of the same name, we watched a film crew in action shooting another movie, much to the pride and delight of Var, Kara, Bill, Bei, and Semi, residents of this tiny island with its million dollar location and views across the lagoon. The night before Semi built us a fire on the beach for another memorable BBQ and sing-a-long with guitar and banjo accompaniment, with our Fijian friends joining in. Thanks again for the memories.

This morning we commenced our move twelve miles southwards down the chain as we slowly make our way back to Lautoka in preparation for our ultimate departure from Fiji later in October. Today finds us in a rolly anchorage at Naviti Island’s lovely ‘One Dollar Beach’, reputedly so named since it featured on the old Fijian one dollar note. On the way up here off Waya Island we were approached by some local fishermen in a small open boat offering us the two largest crayfish we’ve ever, ever seen for $45 each, which we reluctantly declined. This afternoon here in One Dollar Beach we purchased two large Crays for their asking price of $10 each, not quite as big as the others, from a boat full of young boys who just dive for fun. Yummy, yummy, guess what’s for dinner tonight!

Perhaps we’ve mentioned it previously, but one of our biggest surprises and laments has been the scarcity of marine life we’ve encountered during our cruising since leaving Australia. One whale, one sea snake, comparatively few ocean birds and not a single porpoise until a few days ago when a pod of around 12 of them put on a great show for our camera as we cruised along in the Yasawas.

It’s a couple of days later and Envy sits at rest back in Musket Cove as we plan our last few days here in Fiji before sailing off to New Caledonia next week. Tomorrow marks 1 year to the day since leaving Australia, so we’ll probably pop a celebratory bottle of Champers then.

The annual ‘Cyclone Season’ is fast approaching, so we must turn our thoughts towards home. Regrettably, we’ve run out of time to visit Vanuatu this season, but perhaps that is something to think about for next year. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to discovering French New Caledonia on our way back to Oz, and hope the weather favours a trip down to its spectacular cruising grounds in the Isle of Pines.

Malolo Lailai, Fiji. 12-Oct-03

Wednesday, 20 August 2003

"Happenings" Number 8 - 2003

Landfalls in Paradise

‘Races to the swift, Fortunes to the brave’ - goes an old ‘saw’ (adage) to which one might add, certainly in our recent experience, ‘Paradise to the seekers’, for wandering about and going the extra mile off the beaten track brought us its rewards in northern Tonga. But I’ll come to that presently.

Continuing on from our last report, ‘Envy’ spent a further two weeks moseying about more of Vava’u’s sheltered island anchorages, indulging the marvellous scenery of small secluded bays with their palm lined beaches, whilst enjoying making the acquaintance of both the local village peoples and some newly met fellow cruising yachties. However, not every day is a Valhalla in paradise, for we must admit to some yucky unseasonal wet weather, and a few horrible windy days as well, which kept us holed up in snug anchorages.

Captain Cook named Tonga ‘the friendly islands’ (although unbeknown to him the local chiefs were planning to kill him) and that moniker holds true today, for we met such friendly people everywhere we went. Whilst village lifestyle, away from the towns, is basically one of subsistence, these Polynesian peoples are a picture of beaming health and happiness, and their smiles, so pleasing in themselves, are further enhanced by the nicest pearly white teeth you’d ever hope to see. Such a contrast to their beetle nut chewing Melanesian ‘cousins’ with their orange and black stained teeth.

After 35 days of sailing around the many islands of the Vava’u group, we departed these excellent cruising grounds sailing out from Port Mourelle (not a port at all – just another lovely small sandy palm lined cove) on a moonless night at 2:30am to arrive in daylight the following afternoon 177 n/miles away at Niuatoputapu Island, the administrative centre of Tonga’s isolated far northern Niuan Islands group, and whose unlit dogs-leg entry through the reef is a ‘daylight only’ exercise.

The 33 hour trip was good sailing until mid morning the following day, just 15 miles out from our destination, when we entered the ever moving Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and it rained so heavily out of almost black clouds that we couldn’t see 100 metres ahead (on and off) for the next two hours and, fearing it may not stop in time, we took the decision to abort Niuatoputapu if necessary and sail on the further 180 nm to Samoa, but then the rain cleared 5 miles out and we had lovely sunshine and light airs to negotiate the narrow channel into the lagoon.

What a magic place this turned out to be. Very few yachties, or anyone else, bothers to go to Niuatoputapu, in their hurry to reach Vava’u or Fiji. It’s so small, so undeveloped, and so well off the ‘tourist track’ that almost no one’s ever heard of it, but little do they know what they’ve missed. Mind you, not much really, since there is not much here – no Bars, Restaurants, shopping opportunities or Hotels, etc. other than the small Palm Tree Island Resort, which seldom has many, if any guests, on tiny adjoining Hunganga Island, to which we waded across at low tide and were towed home in a motor-less dinghy at high tide, with the resort employee walking across the 200 mtr wide clear sandy channel with water covering his shoulders and only his head showing above it!

But what Niuatoputapu does have is a superb lagoon surrounded by a tropical island with a most excellent anchorage that looks across royal blue water to the perfectly conical volcanic island of Tafahi five miles away. It’s an absolute picture postcard setting and the perfect epitome of what our romantic “South Pacific” fantasy is all about.

Niuatoputapu has no sealed roads, indeed most are just 2 wheel grassy tracks, but then there are only about 1000 people on this small 9km by 4km Island, and very few vehicles. We walked 4.5 km each way from our lagoon anchorage at Falehau village, past Vaipoa village and on into the principal village of Hihifo to ‘clear in’ with Customs, and saw only four cars the whole time.

The few official government administration offices are located in old single level timber buildings, sorely in need of maintenance, paint, and ground works, but they ooze charm and character like something out of a Mitchener novel. Hihifo, with its grassy wheel-track streets, just wouldn’t have the same ambience if the place were ‘tarted up’!

The attractions here are nature and people, and especially the people, who were so ‘down-to-earth’ friendly that it was a pleasure to be with them. We noticed very few domestic pigs running around here, in contrast to the rest of Tonga, nor is there any television or internet cafes, but you can ‘phone anywhere in the world from the local TCC office.

The tropical scenery matches the beauty of the lagoon, with a high hill a little back from the sandy beach offering magnificent views of it all if one can survive the steep climb up. These three villages are the only places we saw in all four Tonga Island groups where traditional housing of bush material construction dominates. We felt privileged to be here in this wonderful ‘out-of-the –way’ part of old traditional Tonga.

But time and a good weather window beckoned us on, so after an all too short a stay, we sailed on a further 185 nm Northeasterly arriving in Apia, capital of Independent (Western) Samoa 40 hrs later, having lost a day enroute as we crossed the International Dateline into the Western Hemisphere. It was exciting to see all the village lights as we traversed the northwest coast of Upolu Island at night, and to arrive at Apia just after sunrise.

And what a surprising difference we found here. Clean, bright and on the move is the way we see Samoa, a nation that has reversed its fortunes in the past decade from having one of the Pacific’s poorest economies to being one of its success stories, and in that respect such a contrast to Tonga. Apia is buzzing with commercial activity, has numerous new buildings, mostly newish vehicles and a smartly dressed business community. And, of course, there’s a McDonald here, which Tonga doesn’t have, so we figure that’s another economic barometer as well.

Soon after arriving we visited ‘Vailima’, the former residence of Robert Louis Stevenson, located 4km out of Apia, and it took an hour to climb up Mt.Vaea to Stevenson’s tomb with its magnificent hill top vista overlooking Apia and the sea. Stevenson was a small framed sickly man most of his life, dying at 49. We’ve all heard his requiem inscribed on his tomb, but it warrants repeating here.

“Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie
Glad did I live, and gladly die
And I laid me down with a will.”

“This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter home from the hill”.

That evening we went to the weekly ‘Samoan Cultural Dance & Fire Show’ at Aggie Grey’s Hotel, a famous institution in its own right throughout the South Pacific, dating back to WW2 when Aggie ran a burger joint here for US GI’s. It is now a new, modern up-market ‘5*’establishment.

Then we rented a small 4WD Suzuki and spent a day driving around the eastern end of this main island of Upolu. Stopping to chat at a few of the numerous coastal villages along the way, we came across some very interesting places and met some interesting people. All roads are bitumen sealed, and many villages have clean, white painted rocks lining both sides of the road, which looks quite striking, supported by their well kept lawns and colourful gardens.

All the waterfront land is privately owned either by individuals or the village, there are no public beaches as such, and you have to pay to go onto any nice white sandy beach. The usual rate is 10 Tala each (Aust$6), and by the time you’ve got out of the car, there’ll be a local telling you that if you stay more than 2 minutes then you’ll have to pay.

Other highlights included swimming in waterfront ‘cave pools’, where fresh water springs bubbled up into crystal clear rock pools at such a rate as to prevent salt seawater from flowing into them. We visited two different waterfalls up in the hills, sat and chatted with village chiefs, and inspected a large church three years under construction by local village tradesmen.

The villages comprised a mixture of both traditional and western style housing, but spotlessly clean and often painted in bright colours. The traditional Samoan houses were totally open, with no fixed walls, and a large overhanging thatched roof. There is little furniture in them for the people sit, eat and sleep on woven Pandanus mats on the floor, though some do have wooden easy chairs.

Each village has its own privately run bus service, and there are scores of them around Upolu. What these (tray-back truck) buses lack in their modest design and construction, is more than compensated for in their livery. Like the taxis in Manilla, Samoan buses are a blaze of colour, with no two the same, and the central terminal beside the seafront fish market is a kaleidoscope of colour and design as the buses constantly come and go, on the right hand side of the road, as in the USA. We rode one back the 4km to town following our visit to R.L. Stevenson’s ‘Vailima’ house, and they sure look better than their hard seat ride.

This time of year is known as the Dry Season here, rather than winter, since it’s always warm to hot in these latitudes (13º S), with daytime temperatures of 30º+C reducing to a warm 26ºC overnight. Thank goodness we have fans in the yacht. There have been a few showers but generally the weather has been favourable.

We plan to depart this vibrant South Pacific jewel in a few days time and, hopefully, from here onwards it’s the downhill, mainly downwind run back to Oz, albeit over 2000 miles of ocean sailing.

Our next stop will be at Savusavu, in Fiji’s northern island of Vanua Levu, and we expect the 580nm passage will take five days. We will probably spend several weeks cruising Fiji, so we’ll tell you about that later on.

Thursday, 19 June 2003

"Happenings" Number 7 - 2003

Into The South Pacific - 2003

April 23, coincidentally six months to the day of ‘Envy’s’ arrival in New Zealand, finds us departing Auckland and heading the 50 nm to Great Barrier Island, and the beginning of the next phase of our South Pacific adventure. A few days there at the Barrier resulted in 32 fillets, mostly Snapper, going into the freezer before sailing overnight back up to The Bay of Islands where we relaxed and slowly re-adjusted back into ‘sea mode’ for two weeks, prior to clearing New Zealand Customs at Opua.

Light breezes were forecast for the following few days as we farewelled New Zealand from The Bay of Islands on May 13, in brilliant sunshine and friendly seas bound for Tonga 1080 nautical miles away, concluding a wonderful 203 day ‘kiwi experience.

By noon the next day ‘Envy’ was close hauled and bashing into squally 30kt headwinds, which blew continuously for the next 36 hours (so much for the forecast), after which they turned gale force E/NE gusting 40 knots (74 km / hr) ‘on the nose’ for the following two days, so we ‘hove to’ with tiny storm sails up (as did other yachts), drifting at 2 knots in the wrong direction going nowhere, but at least it was more comfortable than taking a pasting, and we caught up on some sleep.

And so it was to be, beating close hauled all the way to Tonga, 16 days and nights at sea with mostly strong headwinds and sailing zigzag more than 1300 nautical miles to get there. Merely balancing on the toilet took the strength and agility of a gymnast, to say nothing of Audrey’s balance skills whilst strapped into the galley reheating prepared meals, and having to hang on to avoid being thrown about with the boat’s constant pitching during the worst of it. By now we’d become accustomed to the ship’s noise and movement so sleeping wasn’t too difficult, and the only time of any decent relaxation.

Crossing the notorious Tasman last year was child’s play by comparison. Fortunately we don’t suffer seasickness to any extent, we ate well and slept well, and I hasten to say that at no time did we or the yacht feel compromised from a safety point of view; indeed “Envy” handled it very well – t’was just the crew that found the going tedious and uncomfortable.

The one highlight of the passage was on day 12 at sea when we stopped overnight in the large lagoon of North Minerva Reef, out in the middle of nowhere in the ocean and the only passage break on our entire route. We treated ourselves to a roast beef dinner that night, and 9 hours of ‘watch-free’ deep uninterrupted sleep!

We sailed into Nuku’alofa, capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, refreshed and happy on Wednesday 28 May, the passage taking 5 days longer than expected. By the time we were ready to ‘Clear In’ with Customs later that afternoon, seems like all three government officials wanted to finish early, so they all just stamped our entry papers ashore, without even coming aboard to check our quarantine items!

We’d been told Nuku’alofa, on Tongatapu Island, was a fairly ordinary place that many yachties don’t bother to visit but since it’s the first landfall coming from New Zealand and a Custom’s entry port as well, it seemed a logical stop for us. The town appears old, tired and dirty, like so many developing countries, yet offers the contradiction of a well-maintained causeway along the scenic reef strewn waterfront, and isolated pockets of civic pride.

The King’s Palace is an attractive 19th century, architecturally grand three-storied iron roofed timber complex, occupying extensive open lawns on the beachfront at the edge of town. Nuku’alofa’s business centre comprises a half dozen blocks of one and two storey mostly old poorly maintained shops, cafes and government buildings, interspersed with large shade trees, with the focal point of the large central market where locals sell a good variety of fresh produce, including fruit, green and salad vegetables, eggs, clothing, arts & crafts, woven baskets, mats, carvings and all sorts of local cultural artefacts.

Nuku’alofa’s topography is quite flat, town streets are basic bitumen sealed, there is a general profusion of broad leafed tropical green trees and colourful variegated flora with small grassy-lawned house blocks neatly aligned, and domestic pigs, scrawny half-starved dogs and happy, smiling children are everywhere. Several large churches dominate the town area, whose size and grandeur by comparison with all other town buildings reflect the importance of religion to this pious nation.

The Tongan people, though quite conservative but very friendly, and often big framed, are keen Rugby fans, live in small modest western style houses, drive mostly old Japanese wrecks of cars and enjoy a fairly easy-going lifestyle; they are very devout with church the only thing that happens throughout the nation on a Sunday, and though they sing with gusto and superb harmony, by all accounts many embrace an indifferent work ethic with a commercial culture frustratingly ‘laid back’, not that there’s any depth or variety of business activity here beyond the basic necessities.

In order to keep the country’s economy viable and competitive, the Tongan Pa’anga (dollar) is well over-valued, being pegged close to the ‘Kiwi’ dollar, resulting in a not so cheap cost of living other than for those fortunate enough to have strong currencies like the US dollar or UK pounds to spend.

Our second day in Nuku’alofa fortuitously coincided with the annual ‘Opening of Parliament’ by the King. This occasion is celebrated with a public holiday and a large Procession through the town streets, led by the 85 year old King’s motorcade and Foreign Dignitaries, followed by several marching Brass Bands with the Armed Services, hundreds of colourfully uniformed school children, church groups and other civic bodies marching in the one and a half hour long procession through waving crowds. What an interesting introduction to Tonga, their culture, customs and traditional dress.

Next job was to find someone to re-sew our Genoa headsail that suffered some stitching failure during the gale enroute from NZ, but since there’s no sailmakers here, we settled for a Pakistani shirtmaker who did a good job on it. While ‘Med moored’ in the tiny Nuku’alofa boat basin we discovered a bunch of nylon fishing line wrapped tightly around the propeller and shaft and, believe me, the half hour it took diving down in that filthy water to clear it was excessive punishment for all my past sins. Yuk!

One evening we joined several other yachties and went to The Tongan Cultural Centre in Nuku’alofa for a traditional feast and cultural night where we were treated to a great meal of local Tongan dishes followed by traditional dancing. Another interesting experience for T$ 20 per person, incl taxi fare.

After 10 interesting days in the capital, it was time to move on and see ‘the real Tonga’ – the multitude of islands that make up the four main groups, Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and Niuatoputapu, as they stretch some 320 n/miles northwards, in that order, to comprise The Kingdom of Tonga.

The central cluster of Tongan Islands known as the Ha’apai (Har/pie) Group are interspersed with numerous coral reefs and unchartered shoals, so many cruising yachties bypass them for the safer, less hazardous Vava’u islands farther north. However, we joined two other yachts, ‘Dream Catcher’ and ‘Paula’, heading northwards from Tongatapu and day sailed up through the coral to tiny uninhabited Tau Island (15 nm away) where we anchored off overnight, then another 35nm on to Kelefesia Island, (uninhabited & 3km around) where we stayed two nights, followed by a lovely sail 20nm to Nomuka Iki Island, uninhabited site of an abandoned prison, once again going ashore to look around as usual.

Next morning found us sailing 15nm in a gentle 15kt breeze to O’ua Island, with its ‘S’ bend entry 1km long through the coral reef, where we stayed 2 days. Going ashore to meet the locals the following morning, we found a team of men building an 8 metre wooden fishing boat out of ‘scrap’ wood, which they assured us would give at least 15 years of service. Amazing! Their village covered about half a sq./km and was completely boundary fenced to contain the scores of domestic pigs that freely roamed the village. We were invited to visit the primary school here, much to the enjoyment of the children, who gazed in amazement at instantly seeing their photograph on the screen of our digital camera.

Sailing at six knots the 19 nm to Tofanga Island the next morning, ‘Paula’s’ trolling line caught a Wahoo, a game fish of international repute. A powerful swimmer, it took a lot of time and effort to land this over 4ft. specimen, and we all enjoyed its high quality, fine-grained white flesh.

Word got around on ship’s radio one of the several yachties sailing ‘loosely together’ through the Ha’apai was celebrating his birthday with a beach BBQ, bonfire and sing-a-long on the magnificent palm-lined sandy beach at Uoleva Island (they’re all like that over here), about nine miles northwards, so several boats gravitated there for a night to remember. There were perhaps 40 yachties there from Sweden, Canada, USA, NZ, Australia and Switzerland, and it was a night to remember.

After three days there soaking up this sandy, turquoise part of paradise ‘Envy’ headed a further eight miles north to Pangai township, the administrative centre of the Ha’apai Group, on Lifuka Island. We anchored 300 metres off shore in 4 mtr of crystal clear water on a sandy bottom. Pangai’s an attractive small village with a grassy waterfront shaded by large fig trees, surrounding clusters of romantic old timber government buildings with shaded courtyards where women swept leaves off the well-kept lawns. Churches were again the dominant feature of the landscape, and the people always so friendly. Big brawny Tonga football players were warming up for a game as we passed by, and I mentally cringed at the thought of playing against them.

Then it was on to Ofolanga Island, a short 15-mile sail from Lifuka, and our last Ha’apai destination, where we spent two days. This is another typical tropical small sandy coral island with a fringing reef around which we walked in 90 minutes, and an ideal departure point for our next leg, a 63-mile sail overnight up to the Vava’u Group. Here again, as in much of Tonga with its volcanic origins, many anchorages are quite deep, 15 to 25 metres not uncommon. We weighed anchor just before midnight so as to arrive at the Vava’u group in daylight to negotiate the many small islands and reefs enroute, and enjoyed a perfect overnight sail arriving at the cosy anchorage of Port Mourelle around noon. Our anchorage here was 14 mtr deep (45ft) but you could clearly see the sandy bottom, and we slept well that night after the previous overnight passage.

Next morning we motored the five miles or so around to Neiafu, the administrative centre of these northern Vava’u islands, where we again had to clear in with Customs. Unlike most places in the world, even though one doesn’t leave the country, it is necessary to ‘clear in’ and ‘clear out’ with Customs as you travel between each of the 4 Tonga Island groups.

The harbour at Neiafu is considered one of the pick anchorages of the south Pacific, and it’s not difficult to understand why. It is very scenically attractive, deep, safe, and wonderfully sheltered from all directions; kidney shaped and about 2km long by 600 mtr wide, its clear waters are surrounded by low hills all around with the township built into them on one side, offering magnificent panoramas overlooking the clean harbour and across to a verdant landscape of coconut palms interspersed with various tropical trees on the other side.

Vava’u (Var-var-oo) is a Mecca for international yachties and, for most cruisers, Vava’u is Tonga. There are perhaps 35 yachts here at the moment, of which four are mega-yachts - two huge motor yachts and two huge sailing yachts, one of the latter being larger than any we saw in Auckland during the America’s Cup, more than twenty times the volume of ‘Envy’, and more than twenty million $$’s I’ll bet. How our heart goes out to those troubled people, we feel terribly sorry for them; so much to go wrong, so much to look after, so much to worry about !! We’re blessed to be poor!

Accompanying the food, fun and facilities of Neiafu, with its waterfront bars and restaurants, are over 40 anchorages just hours or less away. The nearby ones are situated amongst the fjords of the main island, whilst the others are small islands surrounded by reef. Vava’u is considered one of the worlds best viewing spots for Humpback Whales, and its hills and shorelines are riddled with caves and crevices. Most are little more than shallow holes, but two of them are unique enough to have obtained near legendary status, and we enjoyed the exhilarating experience to swim in both of them

Swallows Cave near Port Mourelle on Kapa Island is large enough to take several dinghies into. It is a very attractive cave, particularly when its eroded limestone walls and high cathedral like ceiling are lit by the afternoon sun, which shines down through its quiet crystal clear waters to the floor 10 mtrs below. Many thousands of baby fish make the cave their home, and their extensive schools all but hide the bottom from view.

Mariner’s Cave is the most famous of the Vava’u caves, and also the most difficult to find and get into. The cave entrance is about 2 metres underwater and, to get inside, requires a dive similar to swimming from one side of a yacht to the other, passing under the keel. Entering Mariner’s is mentally difficult as what to expect is unknown, and there’s little light inside until ones eyes adjust to the dimness. But it certainly is a buzz to achieve it.

As I write this we’ve now been in Vava’u two weeks, spending most of the time around several of the island anchorages in picturesque, sandy palm-lined bays, and have experienced a couple more Tongan feasts. Yesterday one of the other yachties went trolling and caught a 3 metre Sailfish, looks similar to a Marlin with its ‘sword’ bill, but generally fishing for table fish is not so rewarding.

We’ll depart here for Samoa in about 10 days’ time.

Monday, 19 May 2003

"Happenings" Number 6 - 2003

Farewell ‘Aotearoa’ New Zealand- 2003

Autumn is here and its warm bronzing hues remind us that ‘cruising yachties’ are very much seasonal people and that change is in the wind for us as well. Soon “Envy” will depart this beautiful country, with both the land and its people indelibly in our hearts.

It’s late in the day as we enjoy a BBQ on the deck taking in another glorious crimson sunset from our privileged vantage overlooking extinct Rangitoto and Auckland’s other satellite islands in their postcard setting nestled in the Hauraki Gulf, just a kilometre or so across from our special friends’ Maraetai Beach home.

Last weekend we sailed “Envy” down the 20 nm from Auckland’s West Harbour to Pine Harbour Marina at Beachlands to be near Ralph and Yvonne for our last 10 days here in Auckland, as we prepare for departure.

Today is Good Friday and this Easter celebration pretty well marks the end of our New Zealand adventure as we attend final preparations and provisioning of “Envy” in nearby Pine Harbour, making ready for our departure on April 22, back up the coast to The Bay of Islands, where we will clear Customs out of NZ enroute to Tonga around 12 May 2003.

What a wonderful experience we’ve had here in ‘Aotearoa’, happily surpassing our greatest expectations, and since neither of us had been to NZ before, every day was excitingly new.

Now we have many happy memories, some wonderful new ‘Kiwi mates’, as well as hundreds of digital photos to share with family and friends, and also enable us to re-live those memories as we view them on our large screen TV during the years ahead.

Buying the old van was undoubtedly the best move we made, providing total independence, freedom and ‘free’ accommodation those 4+ months of ownership, whilst taking us 13,000km over much of this great country discovering both the North & South Islands and Stewart Island as well. It doesn’t come much better than this, but you need mobility to visit all the pick tourist spots and time to smell the roses along the way.

Fortunately we had both and saw a tremendous amount of NZ, at a surprisingly low cost, though no doubt, some friends may fairly question the lack of comfort associated with our travels.

We have a ‘buy back’ agreement with the man who sold us the van, at a small monthly rental cost to us, and arrangements are in hand to return it to him on Easter Monday, prior to “Envy’s” departure the next morning. Can’t get a more convenient deal than that!

Now our sights are set on putting as many Snapper fillets as possible into the ship’s freezer from the waters of Great Barrier Island enroute back up to Opua, (even we can catch fish over here!), as we settle down to sea life and get used to hanging on the anchor once again.

Then it’s all go with passage plans, course navigation and radio ‘skeds’ for our continuing cruising adventure into the South Pacific. It is almost the same distance to Tonga from here as it is to Brisbane, around 1100 nautical miles (2200 km), and we hope to cover the distance in 12 days of non-stop sailing, similar to our passage across the Tasman.

Final plans will depend on many factors of wind, weather, comfort, time and convenience but for the moment, we’re considering the following, and look forward to all the challenges and interest that Polynesia and Melanesia offer, though email contacts during the months ahead may be few and far between. We’ll keep you posted.

“Envy” Itinerary 2003

May 12 depart New Zealand at Opua

May 24 arrive Tonga

July 22 depart Tonga

July 25 arrive Samoa

Aug 5 depart Samoa

Aug 10 arrive Fiji

Oct 10 depart Fiji

Oct 15 arrive Vanuatu

Nov 3 depart Vanuatu

“ 6 arrive New Caledonia

“ 20 depart New Caledonia

Dec 1 arrive Australia
(Either Bundaberg or Brisbane depending on wind & weather)

Saturday, 19 April 2003

"Happenings" Number 5 - 2003

Touring New Zealand 2002/03

For more than a century at least, according to our historical gleanings, this nation’s people have referred to New Zealand as ‘GOD'S OWN COUNTRY’, and frankly, the more we see of ‘Aotearoa’ the more we’re inclined to understand where they’re coming from.

New Zealand is scientifically acknowledged as being the only country in the world that experiences all climatic conditions. It’s simply awash with scenic beauty, has no snakes or other ‘dangerous bighties’ whatsoever (other than one venomous spider species rarely ever seen), and with a multitude of rivers, forests and year round snow capped peaks, plus it’s an angler’s paradise to boot, with a fascinating history and culture, we can readily accept why ‘the land of the long white cloud’ has been selected by the authoritative travel guide group ‘Lonely Planet’ as the world’s No. 1 tourist destination.

It all sounds so long ago now, but we spent a lovely Christmas festive season in Auckland sharing it with our local friends, and around the same time purchased a used Mazda panel van which we converted to a Campervan, complete with refrigeration, gas stove, queen size bed, hidden storage, a tent fly awning and 2 canvass fold-up easy chairs & camp-table. Though hardly luxurious, it is quite eminently suited to both budget and requirements.

Come early January we were doing 2 and 3 day discovery tours out of Auckland in all directions to places of interest around the North Island, including the orchard belt, several historical towns and places of special interest, rich sheep and cattle grazing country and the famous giant Kauri forests with some huge 2000 yr old trees whose size belies imagination; and all of it very scenic.

Two of our early observations involved flora and fauna. The North Island should be renamed Agapanthus-land to acknowledge the overwhelming saturation of these plants which grow just about everywhere along the roads, countryside and domestically. Australian Possums, protected by law in OZ, were introduced to NZ many years ago and have thrived alarmingly, to the extent that they are a serious pest to native flora here and considered public enemy #1, and their high road kill numbers are indicative of their abundance.

One thing we have learnt here has to do with weather, or more specifically, its unpredictability. We now very much understand the old adage – ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour or two’; from sunshine to rain and back again, and again, and sometimes rain all day, often with big heaps of wind thrown in for good measure, day or night makes little difference. Not a cloud in the sky and next moment it’s raining. Such is a maritime climate as opposed to the continental climate that we in Australia are used to. (Here endeth the lesson in meteorology).

By late January we were ‘chomping at the bit’ to commence our South Island experience, so, with an inter-island vehicle ferry booking confirmed, “Envy’s” two intrepid adventurers departed their floating home in Auckland’s West Park Marina to become land gypsies for the next couple of months.

Saturday afternoon 1st. February 2003 found us crossing boisterous Cook Strait, notoriously one of the rougher ferry crossings of the world, but we arrived cool and unruffled at Picton 3 hours
later and $190 poorer. Neptune smiled on us that day for it had been blowing 115km/hr (70mph) in ‘windy Wellington’ all the previous day, and that wind (speed) against tide would have resulted in a very rough crossing a day earlier.

We had agreed that as part of our South Island adventure we would not stop overnight in ‘paid’ campgrounds unless we wanted to, but rather ‘freedom camp’ in most places, we hoped, tucked away in a variety of scenic nooks beside streams, at ocean foreshores, or along wooded tracks, which is quite the done thing with campervans on the laid-back South Island. So our first night was spent beside the sea near Kaikoura, in company with other vans, and awoke next morning to discover a colony of fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks only metres away.

Then on to Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest metropolis, a lovely garden city with its expansive town square, superb Cathedral and renowned private schools, with the lovely clear Avon River flowing through it. Here we enjoyed the hospitality of wonderful friends before heading west below snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps through Arthur’s Pass, across the stunningly deep Otira Gorge viaduct, and free camped that night at Hokitika Beach, facing the Tasman Sea. To our amazement the 200 metre wide beach was considerably covered with old driftwood, a phenomenon we were to discover all along the west coast, where trees are washed down rivers and out to sea and eventually end up as smooth bleached driftwood on the beaches.

Continuing southwards we explored the old gold mining town of Ross, now a sleepy village steeped in history, then visited both the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers and marvelled at their magnitude and frozen beauty right there at the ice face.

The South Island’s mountainous west coast runs back to distant snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps and offers a montage of scenic beauty in its clear, fast flowing rivers, high cascading waterfalls, steep winding roads through gorges and mountain passes opening onto fertile highland valleys with wildflowers including the attractive orange blossomed Montretia, and the commonly called ‘red hot poker’, a striking orange and yellow wild flower of bulrush appearance. We enjoyed some excellent freedom campsites along this coast at beaches and alongside clear running streams, though the sandflies were always quite active around sundown wherever we went.

Leaving the coast we ventured inland through the Haast Pass, alongside beautiful Lake Wanaka and on to Lake Hawea where we had a perfect lakeside campsite, and swam in its surprisingly warm, pristine clear fresh water, before continuing on over the scenic Crown Range Road which has the highest elevation of any road in NZ, past the isolated Cardrona Hotel (famously, the nations oldest existing hotel), before negotiating a seriously steep razor-back descent into the stunningly attractive resort hub of Queenstown.

Here we took the Gondola cable car up to the mountaintop overlooking Queenstown and its Lake Wakatipu, a view that is truly awesome and one of the most attractive sights we’ve ever seen. Little wonder it features so often in international Kiwi tourism promotions. Then Bruce, ever the big kid thrill seeker, took the ski chair lift even higher up the peak and rode ‘The Luge’, (it’s like a small one person ‘go-cart’) flying back down the winding mountain track, similar to its namesake in the winter Olympics. Great fun! But not as big a thrill as our next little escapade, when, the following day, we rode the rapids through the canyons of the famous Shotover River in a seriously fast Jet Boat, purposefully screaming along just a hair’s breadth away from the entombing rock canyon walls, and only centimetres above stony shallow rapids, then doing full-speed 360 degree ‘thrill spins’ that took your breath away and showered you with ice-cold spray, and of which we’ve got photos to relive it! Some people never grow up…

Our 110th day since arriving in NZ (late October) finds us on the uninhabited 121km long, slow, winding, mountainous, isolated road into Milford Sound on a cold, grey, drizzling day with snow capped peaks all around and driving in and out through low cloud cover, and we’re about to experience what will undoubtedly become one of our absolute ‘life-long memories’, the ‘Saga of Milford Sound’.

It’s around 5pm and time to call it a day, so we drive up a two-wheel track for half a km along Cascade Creek looking for a suitable overnight camp site, stop, then decide to look elsewhere, but the Van won’t start! When it does finally go, we (and our stress levels) decide to continue on to the safety of a Milford Sound garage, along the remaining very slow, totally mountainous 45km, which includes the 1.25km long Homer Tunnel high up in the cloudy Southern Alps.

Up the steep incline and into the Homer Tunnel we go, perhaps 50 metres or so in, and whooa !!, can’t see a thing, slam on the brakes and out shoots the van in reverse! We check that the headlights are working OK, and all the time concerned the engine’s going to conk out in the dark, unlit tunnel, but back in we go again. Still can’t see a thing; bloody frightening!! Stress levels rising! Wham..! On go the brakes and back out we shoot once again, just like a cartoon at a kid’s movie matinee! (Thankfully no other traffic around). Bruce then discovers he’s wearing his sunglasses, so off they come and, with lights on and wipers going, back in we go for round 3.

No one told us the tunnel was rough hewn, unlined, unlit, barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass and that at the entrance it continues to rise upwards for a short way before its steady decline for over a kilometre in the dark. But the main problem was that the tunnel was full of cloud, which the headlights could barely penetrate, as with thick fog we could barely see past our noses; there was water dripping through the rocky roof veins overhead almost like rain in places, it was eerily dark & gloomy and a long, slow 2nd gear downhill grind for those 1250 metres, and all this virtually in the dark, underscored by an engine that would not idle and much preferred to stop dead at the first unattended opportunity and cause an Autobahn style pile-up in the wet, cloudy tunnel. Thankfully there was no one behind us through the tunnel and we shot out the other end like pilgrims to the Promised Land! Phew!!

To our dismay we discovered there is no garage in tiny spectacular Milford Sound and the inclement weather added little to the whole affair, so after a restless sleep wondering whether the motor would start and how many millions of $$’s it would cost to fix, (the van’s done 329,000 km) a somewhat surprisingly better natured engine started next morning and had us retracing our steps of the evening before, and we were delighted to find the Homer Tunnel clear as crystal in the fresh morning air. Later that morning, 10 minutes and $15 after arrival at a Te Anau garage, the problem caused by incorrect points gap in the distributor was fixed, and we were back on the road again.

The ‘deep south’ lured us on and we discovered Riverton on the far south coast, a production centre for Paua Shells, which are NZ Abalone shells ground and polished to reveal their striking natural hues of blue, green, silver and turquoise and which, together with carved and polished greenstone (jade - prized by early Maori above gold) and white (bovine) bone, comprise the three most popular ornament items in the country. We had been gifted a number of ‘raw’ Paua shells by a coastal farmer and had them polished in Riverton. This whole area east of the Fiordlands and right down to the coast, including the greater Invercargill district, is quite fertile undulating farmland, used for dairying and crops, and has a most interesting coast of cliffs and sandy beaches.

After a look around Invercargill, an attractive big country town whose city centre streets were still festooned with Santa Claus and Christmas Decorations in mid February, we left our van in Bluff and took a high speed catamaran ferry 22km across the Foveaux Strait to picturesque Stewart Island with its pretty bays and scenic walks, staying 3 days at Jo & Andy’s quaint Bed & Breakfast in Oban, and also celebrated Bruce’s 59th birthday with a great local seafood dinner in the Boardwalk Restaurant above the wharf at Oban’s Halfmoon Bay, while Penguins swam around outside. Down here at 47º South, only Cape Horn and Antarctica are below us, but if you kept out of the wind, the days were quite hot in the sun.

Returning to Bluff and Invercargill, we took the Catlins scenic route across the Island’s south- eastern corner to the staunchly Scottish city of Dunedin, imposingly set in the hills around Otago Harbour, with its stately stone buildings and grand architecture which are arguably amongst the finest in the nation. Unfortunately the good weather we’d been enjoying turned otherwise, but it didn’t dampen our appreciation of this striking city, which like so many other southern towns, boasts magnificently colourful and well kept flower gardens that evidence and credit civic pride.

We then headed inland through the high country past Raes Junction to the Roxburgh Hydroelectric Station, going as far as Cromwell, then back through the open beef cattle grazing country of Ranfurly to the coast beyond Palmerston, where we saw the Moeraki Boulders, man-size spherical stone marbles on the beach, whose pre-historic origins are of world geological acclaim. Continuing on up the coast, Oamaru offered much interest with its many well-preserved late 1800’s limestone buildings around the old port area. Limestone was mined locally and comparatively inexpensive during that era, hence its widespread use within the south-eastern towns between Invercargill and Timaru, with their strongly Scottish character.

Our itinerary called for a return to the snow capped Southern Alps, but on the eastern side to visit famous Mt. Cook, so we headed up the mighty Waitaki River valley stopping to gaze in awe at the huge Hydroelectric Stations at Aviemore and Benmore Dams with their extensive colourful lakes, the latter having the second largest rock fill dam wall in the southern hemisphere. As we passed through Omarama and Twizel, steadily gaining altitude all the way, we watched very black storm clouds build, then down came heavy hail clattering on roof and windscreen while buffeting winds shook the van around. The storm quickly passed but misty rain and light snow took its place as we arrived at Mt. Cook, somewhat limiting our views of the nations highest peak, and easily being the coldest we’d felt in NZ. Glacial sediment colours the waters of the lakes and hydro canals a most brilliant turquoise hue, and both Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo are simply stunningly attractive. The historic small stone ‘Church of The Good Shepherd’, built on the shore of Lake Tekapo with its total clear glass wall behind the altar, offers a post card vista to equal almost anything, anywhere.

Having purchased some smoked salmon from the Mt. Cook Salmon Farm on Tekapo’s hydro channel, we returned to the coast at Timaru and drove up to Christchurch to again stay with friends and rediscover real beds! After a few days ‘holiday’, and the opportunity to organize hundreds of digital photos on the laptop, it was back on the road again.

This time we took in the hot thermal village of Hanmer Springs enroute across the Alps through Lewis Pass, another very scenic route of mountains and river valleys, through the old gold town of Reefton, the first town in the southern hemisphere to have electric street lighting in 1888, which they boast, was even before London or New York. We visited coastal Greymouth, stocked up with the nation’s best venison salamis in tiny Blackball, and inspected the nearby infamous Brunner Coal Mine, site of NZ’s worst mining disaster, killing 63 men and boys in 1896.

Further up the coast we watched the Tasman Sea at play in the blowholes at Punataiki’s Pancake Rocks, on our way to Westport, before our road took us away from the coast and back up into the mountains once again, where we shared the Lyell D.O.C. campground with several other foreign campers and several million sandflies. Next day found us continuing through the mountains with all the scenic panoramas of clear stony streams and rapids of the Buller River, plus its two gorges, and half tunnels gouged out of the cliff face. Throughout the Alps, almost every corner offered a striking new vista, and no doubt the slower travelling cyclists enjoyed the greatest views.

No matter where we went, the number of touring cyclists, and their stamina, never ceased to amaze us, especially here in the South Island (or ‘the mainland’ as they love to call it with their good humoured parochialism); we would come upon couples pedalling their bicycles, sometimes in the rain, laden with heavy saddlebags and packs up the steepest mountain roads that our van groaned up in 2nd gear out of 5! Girls and guys, mostly Germans by their flags, but Brits, Yanks and others as well, some on two, and three wheeled laid back ‘reclining’ bikes, others towing young children in little trailers, couples on tandem bikes, but mostly traditional custom made touring bicycles, usually with 27 gears. ‘Me dips me lid to ‘em!

We drove up the fertile Motueka River valley with its mixture of dairying, sheep, beef cattle and deer to the coastal town of the same name, then took a look at beautiful Kaiteriteri Beach, by far the nicest seaside spot in the South Island, with its golden sands and very attractive setting. Then came the seriously high and winding road from the Riwaka Valley through to Upper Takaka, which offered more lovely views and no doubt considerable brake wear, but we made it alright and continued our way up to Puponga at the western tip of the Island adjacent to Cape Farewell, enjoying an excellent beach front campsite at Pohara’s Ligar Bay enroute, with its natural stone archway covering the roadway, and hilltop ‘Abel Tasman’ monument, partly supplied by the Dutch Royal Family to acknowledge this famous son of the Netherlands and commemorate his discovery of New Zealand.

Our South Island adventure was in its last few days as we skirted around Tasman Bay zipping past orchards of mainly apples, sizable vineyards and hop fields on their high wire trellises, as we travelled on towards Nelson, another pretty downtown area full of multi-coloured hanging flower baskets suspended from the footpath awnings, with the magnificent Cathedral above ‘The Town Steps’ imposingly overlooking Trafalgar Street and the city heart. New Zealand’s first game of Rugby was played here in 1870 and the hilltop behind this acclaimed rugby field officially marks the North/South centre of the nation. (How’s that for trivia!)

So we moved on to Blenheim and up the coast road to isolated White’s Bay, where the historic old Cable House still stands from its heady days of 1867 when it was the end of the first submarine cable which linked NZ’s North and South Islands. That evening we stayed with new friends on their Marlborough farm near Blenheim, where they are establishing a vineyard, and have a variety of olives trees from which they press olive oil. Fascinating.

On our last day we took a trip up the somewhat remote and rugged Queen Charlotte Peninsular to the pretty little landlocked bay at Portage, before returning to our departure point in Picton at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, to await our departure back to Wellington on the big Cook Strait vehicle ferry early next morning.

There were so many highlights during our five weeks’ South Island adventure that to mention some at the expense of others would seem almost impolitic, but for us ‘banana benders’ from the flattest, driest and almost hottest place on earth, the majesty of the snow capped Alps contrasting the tranquillity of turquoise lakes, cloud shrouded Milford Sound and the rugged grandeur of the ice glaciers were all spectacular for us, as was Mt. Cook with its cold sleety snowfall, and the serenity of sparkling Queenstown with our high eagle’s eye view from the Gondola. The myriad of well maintained walking tracks rate a special mention, as does sleepy, picturesque Stewart Island tucked away down below, and the beautifully colourful inner city flower gardens of most S/E coastal towns add a further dimension to their outstanding old stone architecture. But people make the country, and the easy going southern Kiwis certainly uphold this tradition. They were simply great to us.

Now its back to Auckland for a few weeks of yacht preparation to get ready for further adventures.