Wine tasting in the Yarra Valley.

As you may know, I’m a big fan of wine … so after moving to Melbourne, the Yarra Valley was high on my list of places to visit. Having found a group of likeminded friends and a nice place to stay, we were off for the weekend!

Wines at Allinda

Wines at Allinda

The particular weekend we picked was going to be one of those crazy hot ones that were pretty common this summer, with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees. Some of the group had signed up to go possum spotting, but I had decided to forgo the woodland and mosquitos in favour of an evening by the barbecue with wine …

So, we arrived on Friday night loaded up with snacks and meat for the barbecue. We were staying at a place called Serenity @ Healesville, which was a beautiful, huge house – I claimed organiser’s privilege and took the nice ensuite bedroom with a big, claw-foot bath tub! Sadly I didn’t get to use it though, it was just too hot.

The house was ginormous, with three huge living rooms, and enough space to sleep eleven people. There was a nice big fridge in the open plan kitchen, which was already half stocked with beers and cider from the other group who had headed out to find possums. Once we added our supplies and it was pretty jam packed …

The fridge full of beer and cider

The fridge full of beer and cider

After we settled in and got the snacks out, it was time to chill outside and watch the sun set over the garden – wonderful. Silvio got the burgers going, the beers came out, and then so did the mozzies … luckily Kate produced some pretty effective bug spray, as I usually get eaten alive otherwise.

Friday night sunset

Friday night sunset

Later in the evening, all of us little bit tipsy, it was the perfect time to play one of my favourite card games, known as Cards Against Humanity. It’s terrible and hilarious, and Tom has enough expansion packs to last … well, at least a weekend.

The possum spotters were late home, and we were ready to head off to bed and get a good night’s sleep before hitting the wineries! Yay for wine!

Hurry up guys, we want some wine

Hurry up guys, we want some wine

The main living room in the house had a good supply of maps and leaflets, so we picked a winery a bit of a drive away to start from, and were a couple of routes back where we could stop and continue the sampling. The sun was already beating down on us as we arrived at Yileena Park, we were grateful for the cool, dark, air conditioned room upstairs!

At Yileena Park

At Yileena Park

We got off to a good start with some delicious sparkling wines, while the owner Dianne explained some of the workings of the vineyard. They have underground irrigation for their vines, which had helped keep them watered during the insanely hot summer days this year, and also protected their plants during the bushfires, although they lost the crop from the smoke. The sheep ate them instead.

View across Yileena Park

View across Yileena Park

We tried a beautiful reserve Cabernet, which despite the $60 price tag was so good that several of us bought a bottle or two.

Ooooh, this is rather nice!

Ooooh, this is rather nice!

After the dessert wines – which I was not so keen on at the start of the weekend – Dianne produced some special smoked food, produced using wood chips from old wine barrels, including strangely delicious merlot infused salt which we bought too!

Trying smoked food

Trying smoked food

As we left, Dianne handed us a leaflet for the smaller wineries of the Yarra Valley, most of which weren’t featured on the main map. There was a special offer where if we purchased a dozen bottles from at least two wineries, we would be able to get one free, which seemed like a pretty good deal – and quite likely too!

Relaxing outside at Graeme Miller

Relaxing outside at Graeme Miller

We changed our plan for the day to head to another small winery not too far away. This time there was one gentleman behind the counter, who seemed a bit overwhelmed by our large group, particularly when a hen party came in ten minutes later!

At Graeme Miller (Dixons Creek)

At Graeme Miller (Dixons Creek)

From the tasting room we could see down to the wine storage room, barrels and barrels of wine. Magda fell in love with the Pinot Gris and bought a caseful, I continued to indulge with the Chardonnay and Tom and Kate added to their collection too … then we were off again, this time to one of the larger wineries: De Bortoli, where there was also tasty cheese on offer.

Gorgeous grounds at De Bortoli

Gorgeous grounds at De Bortoli

The grounds at De Bortoli were absolutely stunning, brightly coloured flowers and loads of green, all helped by the lovely sunshine.

Tasting at De Bortoli

Tasting at De Bortoli

After two tastings, some people had had enough and went straight for the cheese, but Tom, Kate, Jen and I were still going strong. The wines were pretty good, but the tastings were much less personal than in the smaller wineries – there was not much explanation of the wine or the vineyard, we just had a taste poured then left on our own. Silvio brought me a piece of the cheese, which made the wine taste even more amazing … mmm, my mouth still waters at the memory while I’m writing …

Yummy salty eyebrows

Yummy salty eyebrows

We followed the tasting with more cheese, sitting outside in the sunshine, and some very special anchovies (they should be too, at $15 a tin …!) Or as Tom called them, salty eyebrows.

Vineyards at Allinda

Vineyards at Allinda

Half of the group decided to head back to the house after that, but the more determined among us – including me – felt that we had one more winery in us at least, so off we went to Allinda, back on the small winery trail again, run by Al and Linda.

Tom and Kate trying the wine

Tom and Kate trying the wine

I don’t know if the wine starts to taste better after I’ve had that many, some say that you can’t tell anymore after two or three tastes anyway (but why stop when it’s so much fun?) Either way, the wine at Allinda was delicious, and we bought several bottles including Chardonnay and a more unusual Savagnin, as well as some red, it was too good not to! I also began to appreciate dessert wines more, and we had enough stamps now for a free bottle – so we took one back for that evening.

Silvio was very tempted

Silvio was very tempted

Before heading back, it would have been sad to miss the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie, especially since they were selling ice cream too …

Yes, this is ONE SCOOP

Yes, this is ONE SCOOP

I asked for one scoop in a cone, well that was the largest scoop of ice cream I have ever seen. We wandered around the chocolate shop finishing our ice cream, I was very tempted … but we had indulged enough for one day.

Temptation.

Temptation.

We stopped for groceries on the way home, Tom had offered to cook for everybody but was looking for inspiration in the supermarket. He found it with some pork belly, and we stocked up on veggies and flavourings, and got some prawns to cook as well.

Sunset in Healesville

Sunset in Healesville

Back at the house, we sampled some of the wine and some G&Ts, Kate and Tom prepared the food for dinner, and then we watched the sun go down over the garden … fabulous.

Enjoying the sunset

Enjoying the sunset

With a little more wine, the Cards Against Humanity soon came out again with the entire group this time – once again, it was hilarious, far too many cards played that are very unsuitable for my blog …

Pork belly, yum

Pork belly, yum

Then it was time for dinner – wow! There was piles of food, soft, tender pork belly, salad with feta, potatoes, veggies, and all of it tasted amazing, we were spoiled. It was a long, lazy meal finished off with the dessert wine, and finally collapsing into our big comfy bed.

Rob was excited for dinner

Rob was excited for dinner

On Sunday, we were allowed a late checkout, so we could hang around the house until 3pm – wonderful. Rob and Jen had frozen some bananas to try and make a kind of healthy banana ice-cream, but not peeling them before freezing turned out to be a bit of an error … I believe it tasted pretty good in the end though.

Rob looking for ways to peel a frozen banana

Rob looking for ways to peel a frozen banana

Most people were happy to stick around the house, but Andy, Tom, Kate and I were up for a bit more tasting, so we headed off to “just one winery, maybe two”. Boat O’Craigo was just a couple of minutes’ drive from the house, so we started out there – they also had some lovely looking food, I almost wished we’d come there instead of eating at the house.

Andy waiting to get in and taste some vino

Andy waiting to get in and taste some vino

I was under strict orders from Silvio not to buy any more wine – “We don’t have space in the car for any more! Let alone at the flat …” – so I felt slightly guilty, but the Cabernet was so lovely, and they also had an unusual white Gewürztraminar which was rather nice …

Fruit covered at Boat O'Craigo

Fruit covered at Boat O’Craigo

Badgers Creek was also really close, so we stopped by there – it was a very small tasting room in lovely grounds, with a restaurant attached too. They had a delicious rose, well, I was already going to be in trouble, in for a penny in for a pound, as they say.

Wine choices

Wine choices

The trouble was, I still hadn’t found a really good chardonnay to take home … and it wasn’t all that far to Yering Farm, so … whoops, just one last stop.

Tasting at Badgers Brook

Tasting at Badgers Brook

Yering Farm was my favourite of all the wineries. As we arrived, the first thing we were offered was some very special Pink Lady Syder – it was actually pink, icy cold, and really delicious, cider made within pink lady apples.

Yering Farm

Yering Farm

We moved slowly through the white wines, and I finally found my chardonnay! Unfortunately, it was a reserve one, but wow, it was so delicious, how can I resist? As we moved on through the reds, the owner took a glass of the recently opened cabernet, shook it up and showed us how different it smells and tastes afterwards.

The tasting concluded with a deliciously lemony dessert wine, I really want to make a lemony desert to try with it now …

We all left Yering Farm quite a lot more weighed down than we had arrived, I had entirely given up on resisting any purchasing, oh well. It’s not as though any of it will go to waste :)

Back at the house, we were starting to get packed up and ready to go. We dragged the hose out to wash the worst of the dust off of our rental cars, and packed up – Silvio was right about the lack of space in our car, luckily Andy had offered to take some of the excess wine back for us!

We went home via the Coldstream Brewery, where I managed to forget to order Silvio’s pizza, and without realising, he ate Tom’s instead … oops. There was a fair bit of food, and nice ciders, so I don’t think he went too hungry! After dropping off Tom and Kate in Brunswick, all that was left was to head back to Prahran and cart all of our own purchases up to the flat!

If there’s one thing that I learned from that weekend, it was the difference that it makes when you get the right wine with the right food (oh yes and I also discovered that I like a good cabernet!). That’s something I’d love to know more about … for now, I’m just enjoying the taste of a nice steak or some strong cheese with one of the many bottles of yummy red that we brought back, and feeling very lucky and spoilt!

Journey down the Great Ocean Road.

We got off to a surprisingly on-time and smooth start to our Great Ocean Road trip on Boxing Day. It was a holiday we’d talked about doing as a weekend trip, but decided to save until we had a few extra days to explore the area. It was beautiful hot sunshine as we set off, and in fact all the way past Geelong, to Torquay, where the Great Ocean Road officially starts.

Steps to the sand

Steps to the sand

Our first stop was at Coles for food, not particularly exciting … but the next one was at Bell’s Beach where, Silvio told me, the final scene of Point Break is set (although apparently it’s not actually filmed there).

Our beach stop

Our beach stop

We drove on, past several holiday parks, often at beautiful river mouths opening on to the sea, perfect for splashing around in. I was so tempted to stop for a quick dip, and eventually we did stop at a beach but I only made it in ankle deep. Still, it was so nice and refreshing to feel the sea.

My first paddle

My first paddle

We arrived in the late afternoon at our motel in Skenes Creek. It was pretty nice, a car space right outside our room, with patio doors and a view out across the ocean, and a BBQ area just opposite our room.

Our motel

Our motel

We dumped our cases and went off to the rocky beach just opposite the motel, where there was a small rocky beach. The sky had started to cloud over and the wind had picked up, so luckily I wasn’t too inclined to jump in the sea anymore, because it wasn’t really a swimming beach – the waves were crashing on to the rocks. It looked as though the rocks had been formed in a volcano, the shapes were so unusual.

Volcanic rocks

Volcanic rocks

Wind in his hair!

Wind in his hair!

Beach!

Beach!


After exploring the beach, we took a quick drive into Apollo Bay to have a look around. We wandered along the main street, then checked out the beach and the obligatory sculptures by the grassy car park. The sky was starting to look a bit heavy and ominous, so we didn’t stay out too long.

Broken path to the beach

Broken path to the beach

Ominous sky ...

Ominous sky …

Apollo Bay art

Apollo Bay art


Back at the motel, we took advantage of the barbie and set out burgers and sausages. Silvio cooked, I watched with wine and my kindle :) The sun sets pretty late at this time of year anyway, and we got an extra ten minutes of daylight thanks to being further south.

Silvio about to cook

Silvio about to cook

I’ve picked up Silvio’s Italian habit of breakfasting on sweet biscuits, but on Friday morning when I woke up with my stomach growling, it was a disaster – I’d forgotten them! We had to make do with Christmas cake instead …

Me on Gibson's Steps

Me on Gibson’s Steps

With our sugar cravings satisfied, we set out to drive to Port Campbell to see the Twelve Apostles along the coast. Along the way, we stopped at Gibsons Steps and a first glimpse of the first Apostle and yet another beautiful beach.

Seagull posing

Seagull posing

A little further, we stopped at the next lookout and wandered along the paths taking photos. The views were just outstanding! We took a few selfies, and found some nice guys to take photos of us, but got photobombed several times by another lady who seemed completely unaware of it.

Watch the lady in the corner ...

Watch the lady in the corner …

... here she goes ...

… here she goes …

Photobombed!

Photobombed!


A little further on, we found Port Campbell and headed to a fish and chip cafe called Frying Nemo for a carb fix. Silvio brought the hot, greasy paper parcel out and we unwrapped it with glee – only to be bombarded by flies as we tried to eat our chips :( Eventually it was just too much, and we wrapped our lunch back up to eat in the car. We drove all around Port Campbell looking for shade, which took about three and a half minutes, but found none – so Silvio parked up in a cul-de-sac in front of somebody’s house to eat! We got some odd looks from the little girl playing on a skateboard in the driveway next door, but no flies and nobody asked us to move.

Fish and chips!

Fish and chips!

On our little tour, we had driven past a gorgeous little bay with turquoise water, so after lunch we stopped there so I could finally take a dip in the sea! The temperature was in the mid-twenties so it was only just warm enough really to go for a swim, and the water was fre-e-e-e-ezing! Needless to say, it took me a rather long time to go all the way in, although I did in the end, and it was lovely. Silvio was baking in the sun on the sand, so when I got out again we headed back to the car. We filled up with petrol before we left, and I found a leaflet of “Food Artisans” in the area, which looked pretty interesting.

It's c-c-c-cold!

It’s c-c-c-cold!

From Port Campbell, we drove a bit further up the road to see the arch and what used to be London Bridge – a bridge of rock that broke off in 1990, leaving the remainder of the rock stranded out in the sea. The views were once again incredible, and the strength of the waves pounding over and over against the rocks leave no doubt as to the potential power of the ocean. In the arch, the water would rush up to the rocks and then around into the curve, climbing up the walls of rock then dipping down again with each rush, it was almost hypnotising.

The archway

The archway

Back in the car park, I noticed that the car next to us not only had two antlers attached to the windows, but it had a big red nose on the front. I wanted to take a photo of it without looking too obvious, so tried to make it look like I was photographing our own car.

The car parked next to us was disguised as Rudolph

The car parked next to us was disguised as Rudolph

As we started the drive back, it seemed a bit early to be heading home already. As we reached the junction for Timboon, we decided to try and find one of the places marked on the food artisans map, a cheesery and cafe called MouseTrap Cafe.

The gap where the bridge was

The gap where the bridge was

Thanks to my amazing skill with directions, we made it! The grounds were absolutely beautiful, and I almost wished we’d come earlier and had lunch there – it was sunny, green, quiet and peaceful. We had a cheese tasting, but the pieces they offered us to try were so tiny it was almost hard to tell which ones we liked! Perhaps they have a lot of timewasters … but we like cheese, and ended up buying a gruyere as well as a strong tasting soft cheese and another hard one. I also bought a raspberry and rhubarb jam, and a rhubarb chutney, they are both really delicious.

Mousetrap Cafe

Mousetrap Cafe

Cheese counter

Cheese counter

The Mousetrap

The Mousetrap

From the cafe, we headed home and back to the barbecue! After our big lunch of fish and chips (and a few sneaky snacks along the way) neither of us were very hungry, so we just polished off the remaining burgers.

Saturday, we had planned to make the most of the good weather and spend some time on the beach – starting with breakfast out in Apollo Bay. We went to a restaurant called La Bimba, overlooking the ocean. Once again we spoilt ourselves, starting with a ginormous strawberry milkshake for me, and a huge blueberry muffing for Silvio, which I may have helped him with … followed by a proper breakfast with eggs, hollandaise sauce and toast. And we ate the lot :)

The muffin was huge!

The muffin was huge!

Breakfast, all gone!

Breakfast, all gone!

Mmmm ... all gone

Mmmm … all gone


Before heading down to the beach, we went shopping for a little beach tent. I think we slightly regretted having got rid of our beach umbrella before leaving Manly, didn’t really want to buy another one, and this seemed like a better option. We found a perfect one in the local hardware shop.

Apollo Bay has a beautiful little beach, and the weather was gloriously sunny, but unfortunately it was also really, really windy. We tried to put the little tent up in the first spot we picked, but it was obvious very quickly that it wasn’t going to stay put – the sides caved in under the wind, and the poles buckled. We gave up, packed it up again, and wandered along the shore until we found a more sheltered spot near a sand bank, and this time the tent stayed up a bit better.

Our beach shelter

Our beach shelter

I went off for a paddle while Silvio snapped photos of me, grimacing as the cold water hit me. I did manage to submerge myself eventually – up to my neck anyway! – it was even colder than the previous day!

So cold!

So cold!

Cold again

Cold again

I'm in! Almost

I’m in! Almost


After a swim and a bit of chilling out in our tent, and a few too many visitors trying to share it (flies) we left the beach, and headed out on a trip to find some koala bears. Our hosts at the motel had advised us to go down the road towards the Cape Otway lighthouse, where there were lots of them in the wild. We weren’t disappointed – a short way down the track, a group of people had stopped with cameras pointing up into the trees, and when I got out with my own, I could clearly see the koala hugging the branches and peering down at us all.

Koala in the tree

Koala in the tree

I snapped a few shots then left the others to it, but as we pulled away the cars in front had stopped for another koala who was going for a romp across the road. He sat down next to the wheel of the car behind us! Further along, we saw more koalas – most of them were curled up and sleeping in the trees.

Koala exploring

Koala exploring

On Saturday night, after admiring my koala photos, we went to Chill – a tapas place – for dinner. It wasn’t great value, but the food was pretty good, especially the mushroom croquette, yum.

On Sunday the weather was sunny again, but cooler. We set out towards Forrest, to visit some sights along the way before lunching in the local micro-brewery and sampling the beer. The first stop along the way was an “impulsive” one to Stevenson’s Falls, which was marked on the map by a small, gravelly side road. We drove down it for what seemed like forever, but actually around 5km, before we reached a campsite. Just before the campsite was a little bridge with a small, trickling river right before it … I crossed my fingers that this wasn’t what we’d driven all the way down the track for.

Waterfall

Waterfall

A lady at the campsite pointed us on down a winding, gravel road for “another kilometre and a half or so” … we debated whether to turn around, but having already come this far, we decided to carry on. Eventually, we found the car park, then hiked along a path by the river for another kilometre or so, before we saw the waterfalls. They were pretty spectacular actually, finally worth the long trek! The path led up to a bunch of rocks in front of the falls, and Silvio’s inner climber took over: he scrambled across the stones to get closer, and we took a bunch more photos!

Selfie at the falls

Selfie at the falls

Silvio climbing over the rocks

Silvio climbing over the rocks

Rock "climbing"

Rock “climbing”


Back on the road, we also stopped at a dam to walk across the top of it – more nice views, more flies too though. At least it wasn’t quite such a long, windy drive to get to it!

Finally, after the dam, it was time for food! Yay! And beer! Double yay!

Food and beer at the Forrest Brewery

Food and beer at the Forrest Brewery

The restaurant was packed (it did seem to be the only thing around though) and the menu was very inviting. We both tried one of the beers, which was good although quite bitter. An hour or so later, full up and slightly sleepy (me at least), we were back in the car, heading out to Elizabeth Lake to walk off some of the calories.

Elizabeth lake

Elizabeth lake

It was another drive down a gravelly road, the poor car was starting to look pretty dirty! We got out at the lake and I realised I’d left my jumper at the restaurant :( luckily it was pretty warm still. We headed out through the woods to the lake, a bit less than a kilometre up and down some slopes and steps. At the lake, we sat on a bench to enjoy the view for a bit, then decided to venture a bit further to the “beach” – which turned out to be another ten minute walk to a small sandy shore. Some people in front of us had paused to photograph a black lizard, but it darted away before I could see it.

Silvio on the bridge

Silvio on the bridge

Walk around Elizabeth Lake

Walk around Elizabeth Lake

Paths at Elizabeth Lake

Paths at Elizabeth Lake


Apparently there is a colony of platypus by the lake, but we didn’t see them – maybe we were too noisy as we stomped around the paths. By the time we got to the beach, my legs were in the mood for walking, and we decided to carry on around the entire lake. It was supposed to be 4km – the signs at the start indicated it would take 3 1/2 hours – but it certainly didn’t feel that far, and we were back where we started within an hour. It was a pretty walk though, particularly the first part where we had some great views across the lake. The trees around it were so tall that we couldn’t see very much of it at any point, and on the way back we were mostly walking through the forest.

Chilling out at Elizabeth Lake

Chilling out at Elizabeth Lake

We drove back along the twisty roads to Apollo Bay, stopping for yet more meat for the barbie on the way home – I think we must have used that barbecue way more than any other guests. It was still pretty early, but Silvio was suffering a bit from a pulled muscle aggravated by the walk, and didn’t really want to go out anywhere else. I decided to go to the local beach on my own, the sun was starting to sink and the light was getting pretty, it seemed a shame to waste our last evening inside.

Walking along the beach

Walking along the beach

There was a sandy beach not far up the road by a camping and caravan park, with a small river cutting through the middle of it. I did consider paddling through it, but it looked a bit too deep. I walked along the beach to the rocks that marked the beginning of the rocky beach we’d visited on our first day, more of the volcanic patterns that I’d seen there. It was still sunny, but pretty windy.

Rocks at the beach

Rocks at the beach

Back at the motel, we attempted to barbecue some veggies with our steaks – the potatoes weren’t too bad, pretty crispy :) I have to say though, I think I will stick with cooking broccoli in a pan.

Monday, it was time to pack up and head back to Melbourne. We dawdled on the way home, stopping in Lorne to wander along the beach front and pick up some lunch. Sadly the place we went too – with big adverts for fried chicken outside – had no fried chicken! What?! We went to a bakery instead, but it left both of us with a still-unsatisfied-craving for fried chicken …

The rest of the trip home was just as pretty as going – I can’t wait to go back next year!

Shrimps on the Barbie.

For the first time since arriving in Australia, this year I wasn’t on holiday for Christmas! Spoiled or what?

Silvio and I started with a pretty awesome Christmas Eve dinner: roast chicken with sage and pistachio butter, Silvio’s Special Roasted Potatoes, and gravy made with quince paste, which was so yum. I did some of the preparation before heading out for a catch up over wine with Bridget, who was in town for a few days, leaving the rest of the cooking to Silvio (who did a perfect job).

Alex and Jen enjoying the Christmas meal

Alex and Jen enjoying the Christmas meal

On Christmas Day, we headed over to spend it with a bunch of friends including Jen, who had arrived from London in October. We were pretty early, with cake and salad, so by the time the other guests arrived (bringing MEAT!) we were already enjoying some Christmas “spirit”. Jen had a K-Mart frozen daiquiri mix turning slowly to icy slush in the freezer, I had my favourite Chardonnay in the fridge, Silvio was eyeing up the enormous ribeye steaks that Brady was pulling out of the bag, everybody was happy.

Cooking the steak

Cooking the steak

The barbie was fired up and the first thing to go on was the massive prawns! Or shrimps, as I believe they are called here. Such an Aussie cliché, shrimps on the barbie, that of course it had to go on to facebook.

Shrimps on the barbie!

Shrimps on the barbie!

While we feasted on the prawns/shrimps, the steak was next. Alex had put together a yummy summer salad with watermelon and pomegranate, mine was spinach with beetroot, feta and sweet potato, and that was also going down pretty well. While the steak cooked, Silvio hovered around the barbie with the meat thermometer, guarding the precious. It really was enormous, but finally it was cooked and Alex carved it up on the table before digging in to what was left on the bone.

Brady and Alex feast on the bones

Brady and Alex feast on the bones

Meanwhile, Kai had put ribs in the oven, but since they take so long to cook, Silvio was carefully leaving room for them when they were finally done.

The massive steak

The massive steak

We finished up with slices of my Christmas cake, finally I got to cut it up! The icing was delicious. Full of food, I was feeling rather sleepy, in fact I think we all were … the lovely warm weather was helping us along to nap time! Jen was first to succumb, heading off for forty winks while the rest of us played Dixit, a game involving picture cards and a scoring system so complex that they have to write the rules on the game board. I won, thanks to a lucky round with a crytic card that Silvio played.

Dixit

Dixit

Jen returned just as we got started on Guitar Hero, and just in time to pick up the microphone! It was really heating up in the house, so she plugged in the air conditioner.

Guitar hero!

Guitar hero!

Halfway through the track, I could smell a bit of a burny smell, but it didn’t seem too bad, so I kept concentrating on the notes, until – POP! The electricity tripped and the game was unexpectedly cut short. We all walked around sniffing and trying to locate the cause of the problem, eventually isolating it to the plug socket with the air conditioner plugged in to it. The plug itself was too hot to touch, but when I pulled it slowly out of the wall by the wire, the plastic oozed apart leaving a blackened hole and a small wisp of smoke. So that was the end of the air conditioning, but at least we got the guitar hero back on!

The burned out plug

The burned out plug

Eventually the food coma hit and I drifted off for a while as Die Hard played in the background. As the sun started to go down, we finally wished everybody a merry Christmas, what was left of it, and headed back home to enjoy the last of the evening.

Sleepy from food, wine and warm weather

Sleepy from food, wine and warm weather

Vintage Bridal Shower!

Since I’ll be in the UK when Yolly and Casey get married, I was pretty happy to find out that her bridal shower was the weekend before we left, and I would be able to fly up from Melbourne to join it.

The blushing bride

The blushing bride

I arrived on Friday evening, pretty late, and went to pick up my rental car. I’d booked a “Nissan Micra, or similar” to drive out to Fernvale and back on Sunday, I’m more used to small cars … when I found the parking spot they directed me to, I was shocked to find a pretty big Toyota sedan … that’s not a small! It was pretty comfortable and easy to drive, luckily, once they helped me figure out where the “hand” brake was …

On arrival at Yolly’s, she and Claudia were still up, so we (well, I) had a couple of glasses of wine and we admired each other’s outfits for the party, which was a Vintage Tea theme. Yolly’s mum had given her a beautiful tea set with roses, which was all laid out ready on the table, and Clauds was all set to get the food ready the next morning … it was going to be an early start, luckily I was an hour ahead!

Making posh sandwiches

Making posh sandwiches

Sandwich factory

Sandwich factory

Yum

Yum

I was sleeping in the girls’ room as usual, on the top bunk above Ivy. At 6 the next morning when Yolly and Clauds got up, I sat up and looked over to see two small, giggling blond girls in the other beds. I know I must look a bit of a fright in the morning, but surely not THAT funny … they seemed to think so though!

Ivy, by Mya

Ivy, by Mya

I want the camera!

I want the camera!

One of many bum shots

One of many bum shots

While we ate breakfast and started preparation for the food and decorations, the girls were full of energy – I gave my camera to Mya to see what came out, there were some very cute photos but also a lot of our bums – I guess that’s what you can see from that height, the poor thing!

Claudia and I made plates of sandwiches, with posh fillings and crusts delicately cut off. We had paper decorations for the garden, I hung them up along the deck, but not before trying them as earrings on the girls …

Mya with earrings

Mya with earrings

We got all dolled up in our dresses, Yolly’s was a gorgeous colour and she looked a bit like she was off the roller disco, Clauds also looked amazing in her yellow dress, and had a very cute hat to set it off. I loved the colours in mine, it was from a local vintage shop and made me feel really happy wearing it, I think the previous owner must have loved it too.

Claudia's outfit

Claudia’s outfit

People started arriving and Claudia made up some fruit punch, which tasted pretty yummy with champagne :) Everybody looked so good, and very different. As a special surprise, my aunt Michelle, who was in town for the wedding, also came along! I hadn’t seen her since Barry’s wedding over a year ago, and I hadn’t expected to see her on my upcoming visit home, so it was lovely that she was there too.

My dress

My dress

Yolly had a tiny blackboard and chalk for people to write messages on for her – Casey’s family obviously had a good sense of humour, they were writing things like “Run!” and “There’s still time …” :) Meanwhile, all the kids who were there were having a wonderfully messy time bouncing on the trampoline with water and fairy liquid …

After a suitable amount of champagne had been consumed, and the sun was making it pretty hot and sweaty outside, Claudia gathered us in the living room for games. For the first one, we scored points for items that we had in our purses. I thought our team of three weren’t doing too badly; we had 16 points thanks to phones, plasters and a drinking straw that Steph hurriedly stole from the table. I should have known better – in a room with a number of mums, they had bottomless bags full of everything they could possibly need, compared to Steph’s teeny vintage bag with only a lippy and cash card, we were stuffed. I think the winning team had around 50 points – ouch!

Friends of the bride

Friends of the bride

The second game involved reading a fairly well known passage from an old magazine for housewives about how to treat your husband. Cue a lot of groaning and “as if!” from the group – it was definitely from a bygone era, thank God! For the next game we completed a quick quiz, Steph got full marks which we found highly amusing. And then it was back to the vintage tea, posh sandwiches and bubbly …

Teaching Mya to write my name

Teaching Mya to write my name

Ivy came to sit on my lap for a cuddle while she ate chocolate biscuits, it was lovely, but I can’t believe how many biscuits she can fit in for such a small person. Mya showed me how she can write her name on the blackboard and I tried to teach her how to write mine – it’s pretty short, after all – after a few times writing it backwards, she got it! Very cool.

She got it!

She got it!

The party wound down and Yolly opened her gifts before a small group of us headed out to a local bar for some dinner. After the early start, I was ready for bed by 9:30 – Mya had asked if I’d sleep in their room again so I curled up on the top bunk and was out like a light …

The next morning Mya was up with her usual energy, but Ivy was a bit slower. Her hair was still tied up in yesterday’s bunches, and when I took the hairbands out it went into a crazy blond afro. She looked very cute but was too tired and grumpy to smile for photos, I could only get a bit of a pout, pretty good all the same.

Leave me alone, it's not even 9am ...

Leave me alone, it’s not even 9am …

It was another flying visit, after breakfast time to head back again. I hadn’t seen Silvio in nearly a week, but at last his stint working away in Sydney was over, so to finish off a fab weekend, we were off out to celebrate :)

Claudia’s 30th!

My gorgeous cousin Claudia turned 30 a week ago! I hadn’t seen my Queensland family in a while, so it was a good opportunity for a quick trip up to Brissie :)

Me and some of my Aussie family

Me and some of my Aussie family

With all the moving stuff going on it had to be a flying visit, but I did it in style, starting off with a nice relaxed glass of wine in the Qantas lounge … Which pretty much set the tone for the rest of the evening. Caseyand Justin picked me up at the airport – Claudia had gone off to get her make-up done, so I met up with her and Yolly at her place for bubbly, gifts and dress choices before heading out to the Mexican party. It was also her brother Harry’s 18th birthday on the same day.

Birthday girl

Birthday girl

Harry's balloons

Harry’s balloons

Blowing out the birthday candles

Blowing out the birthday candles

It was a fun night, plenty of food including an amazing cake (I went back for seconds the next day!), cocktails (with rosemary?!) and more bubbly stuff …

Suffice to say I was a bit worse for wear the next day. We went for brunch at Ruby’s – amazing, bubble and squeak hash browns with eggs and hollandaise sauce, freshly squeezed juice, I wolfed the lot before I remembered to take a photo!

Winter in Brissie

Winter in Brissie

The weather was absolutely beautiful, high twenties at least (in the middle of winter!), so I spent most of the day soaking up the sun on the balcony and recovering. We stopped by to say hi to Clare and eat MOAR CAKE before I had to head back home.

An Indulgent Weekend.

It was our weekend away to spoil ourselves, to celebrate the end of Silvio’s assignment in Melbourne with a bit of luxury. It wasn’t quite as relaxing as we’d hoped, with the apartment almost-but-not-quite settled and our to-do list for the move growing with each day, but you know … first world problems!

View from above Wentworth falls

View from above Wentworth falls

The drive up was pretty easy, despite taking the wrong road at the junction just after Neutral Bay, will I ever learn that road layout? We arrived just after eight, found a parking spot in town to go to a restaurant, stepped out of our warm car, and BRRRRR OH MY GOD THE LAST TIME I WAS THAT COLD WAS IN THE UK LAST SUMMER. What a pair of wusses Sydney has turned us in to! We found a warm restaurant and ordered soup and far too much food before venturing back out into the cold.

Upon arriving at Melba House, we met Sue and the adorable Izzy, a fluffy bundle of a dog who immediately demanded cuddles before sniffing our bag in search of snacks :)

We were staying in the Dame Edna suite, a gorgeous room decorated with plenty of pink (I loved it), a huge, comfy bed piled with blankets and a bathtub with pink candles! Unlike most houses in the UK, Australian apartments rarely have baths, so this is definitely a treat.

Yummy breakfast

Yummy breakfast

Sue brought us a breakfast menu to place our order for the next morning, it all sounded yummy, but I can’t resist pancakes with maple syrup – done! It arrived around 9am, with a steaming pot of tea, fruit juice and piles of strawberries … all finished off with home baked cookies.

Just checking emails ...

Just checking emails …

Water blowing back up

Water blowing back up

On a cliff edge

On a cliff edge


On Saturday, we flicked through the book of bush walks, and feeling brave, picked the National Pass – classified as “hard”. Hey, we’re fit enough, it was a beautiful sunny day (albeit rather windy), we have hats, scarfs, gloves, plenty of layers :)

It's cold up here

It’s cold up here

The walk started off easily enough at Wentworth Falls picnic area, with views across the valley and look out points down to the falls, where the wind was blowing the flowing water back up, creating a rainbow. Further down, we crossed the waterfall on stepping stones, then embarked on a downward path, around stony cliff edges and down a lot of stairs.

Stepping stones

Stepping stones

Heights are not really my favourite thing, but luckily there were plenty of rails to hold on to, and some breathtaking views across the valley and back up to the waterfalls. Going down the steep steps was harder than I’d anticipated, well, there was half a pancake worked off maybe. I couldn’t help thinking that to get back to the car, at some point, we’d have to come back up again …

We were lucky though, throughout most of the walk the path was virtually empty and the weather stayed sunny the whole time.

We've made it halfway!

We’ve made it halfway!

We passed the halfway mark, carried on across another waterfall, then found ourselves on the way back up. It wasn’t too bad at first, a few stairs, a flat bit, a few more stairs, until we got closer to the end and I found myself on what seemed like a never-ending staircase up. Hundreds of the bloody things … I stormed breathlessly up, past groups of tourists taking a break, wishing now that I hadn’t worn quite so many layers. On the bright side, I think I worked off the pancakes.

Under the waterfall

Under the waterfall

Looking out from under

Looking out from under

Under the overhang

Under the overhang

The entire walk took us around two hours (the book said three, the signs said four, we win!) and was really beautiful. By the end, my scarf was tied around my waist, the gloves were in my pockets, and Silvio was down to a t-shirt. After our energetic walk, we clearly deserved a good meal. We drove into Leura and meandered along looking for a parking spot on a busy road … the driver behind us did not have much patience though, and soon sped past blaring the horn, how rude!

We walked past a few places advertising scones with jam and cream (I looked longingly back …) and ended up in a pub, with mulled wine and a yummy charcuterie plate with thin salty fries … it hit the spot! Service was pretty slow though, so we headed back to Melba House for dessert, Silvio had had his eye on the homemade banana bread since we had arrived. We weren’t disappointed either, it was so good.

Watching the water

Watching the water

Later in the afternoon, we tried to build a fire in the bedroom fireplace but without much success – the kindling sticks caught OK, but we couldn’t get the larger logs to catch. It was disappointing, after our long walk I was looking forward to cosying up by the fire with a glass of wine, but it wasn’t to be.

There was a book of menus from local restaurants, so we browsed through and decided to go to the Rooster, called and booked a table. It was only a couple of blocks away, so we bundled up and made our way along the dark road … only to realise as we’d arrived that we’d left our bottle of wine at home! So it was all the way back to get it, and then back to the restaurant, by which time we were nice and warm and HUNGRY! (I was kind of glad that we went back, it was a nice New Zealand Pinot, but I have to admit I’d have happily ordered a bottle in the restaurant and not done the extra walk :) my legs were still sore from all the steps).

Walking across the falls

Walking across the falls

I had duck with orange sauce, Silvio had lamb and a good portion of my duck. He observed that he eats 70% of the food, while I drink 70% of the wine, sounds like a perfect balance to me.

We woke up on Sunday morning to more delicious breakfast smells! A delicious plate of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, and mushrooms arrived in our room, with tea, juice and toast, mmmm, I love being spoilt with food.

After another lazy breakfast, we packed up and headed out to Echo Point to see the Three Sisters and wander along the paths through the wood – it was another gorgeous day, but I wasn’t really in the mood for more steps.

OM NOM NOM

OM NOM NOM

Scones and JAM

Scones and JAM

Selfie

Selfie

We stopped off at Solitary in Leura, a favourite place of mine that I’ve visited with Andrea and my parents on previous trips. Our final indulgant feast was scones with cream and jam, my mouth still waters just thinking about it …

We headed back to Sydney, full of carbs and sugar, warm and slightly sleepy and definitely more relaxed than on the way in!

Adventures in Queenstown

From Wanaka to Queenstown was not very far, the Milford Sound flight was booked for early afternoon so we had time to stop in at a winery along the way. The one I picked was, typically, closed! Luckily there was another one close by, Amisfield, where we picked a yummy pinot noir and a surprisingly good rose to take away with us. At the last minute I asked about good places to go for Chardonnay and the sommellier suggested I try one more: an oaky sauvignon blanc … and then we were leaving with three bottles instead of two.

Busy barman at Amisfield

Busy barman at Amisfield

We carried on to Queenstown, with Silvio’s budgie smugglers and my bikini still spread across the dashboard of the van drying out from our swim the previous day.

Excited!

Excited!

We drove around Queenstown airport before we found the little hangar for the Milford Sound flights, and crawled into a tiny aircraft just wide enough for two cramped seats, fitting about nine passengers in all. The bumpy flight across the mountains, Silvio wrote, “made me entertain the thought of displaying my breakfast to the other passengers, only personal pride and gravity saved them”.

Our flight path

Our flight path

Snowy mountains

Snowy mountains

River

River


The views out of the window were really amazing, we could see the Shotover river with the small red jet boats streaming down it, then the snow capped mountains followed by aquamarine lakes opening up below us as we grew closer to Milford Sound. Despite that, I was glad when we touched down, I think my breakfast was still safe but my stomach was also beginning to churn.

Mountains from the wharf

Mountains from the wharf

On the boat, we headed all the way through to the mouth of the Sound, where we met two cruise ships coming in. It was sunny, but with huge, heavy clouds sagging over the mountains that rose right from the sides of the water. There were several waterfalls cascading down the rocks, but with the dry weather there weren’t as many as when it rains. Apparently, Milford Sound is beautiful no matter what the weather.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Waterfalls


We were pretty far south and near the coast, so it wasn’t very warm despite the sun, and the wind on the boat was fierce – my hair was soon whipped into a birds nest and I dreaded trying to brush it afterwards. The top deck was fairly packed, but I managed to take a few nice photos of the misty river between the mountains. On the way back, we saw a bunch of young seals sunbathing on some rocks – apparently these were the young male seals that had been thrown out of the pack, and would grow stronger before returning to find a mate.

Seals on the rocks

Seals on the rocks

The flight back was much smoother – whether because we took a slightly different route, or maybe the wind was less, who knows, but we were both glad. I took photos of mountain tops poking through fluffy clouds, and the late afternoon light making the hills look blue.

Low clouds

Low clouds

At the holiday park in Queenstown – the first place we hadn’t phoned ahead to book, not having had any issues so far finding a spot – there was only one spot left for the night, right outside reception. We grabbed it anyway – the most expensive place of all the ones we stayed in, as well – I guess that’s what you get for coming to Queenstown so close to New Years.

View from the campervan

View from the campervan

Camper at the site

Camper at the site

Quackers at the campsite

Quackers at the campsite

Still, it was close to the centre of town, so we headed to a local place for dinner. We must have been early because it was empty, and we easily got a table outside with an awesome view out across the lake. We were messing about with the self timer on the camera, balancing it on the cutlery and trying to line up photos, when the waitress finally took pity on us and took one for us. I had lamb and Silvio went for the fillet steak, it was all delicious … I seized the dessert menu afterwards, I’d already seen the pavlova on it – a New Zealand specialty apparently. Silvio suggested we share it, but I pretended I hadn’t heard … (ok, I’m not that bad, I let him have a spoonful in the end).

Dinner time view

Dinner time view

Cheers!

Cheers!

Yum

Yum


On Saturday morning, we drove out to the Shotover river to have a ride on the jet boat. We were pretty early and had quite a wait – those guys were sending out two full boats every fifteen minutes, we calculated that they must have been making a mint! We finally got kitted up with damp black jackets and bright red life vests, and only just missed out on sitting in the front seats!

Ready to go on the boat

Ready to go on the boat

The boat driver warmed us all up for the trip by speeding up the river and spinning around before coming back for the obligatory photos, then we were off downstream. The river wasn’t very wide, and he swung the boat close to the rocks until we all screamed – even knowing he did this dozens of times a day without hitting them, it was hard to believe as we sped within a whisker!

Shotover jet

Shotover jet

Every so often, he spun the boat in a full 360 degree turn, sending a big splash across all of us and raising noisy shrieks, it was great fun. On the return journey he described the river in the winter with blocks of ice, apparently there are only a few weeks a year when the boats don’t operate although I’m pretty sure it must be freezing when it’s icy … glad we came in the summer!

Lunch at Wild Earth

Lunch at Wild Earth

After our wild river trip, it was back in the van and off towards Cromwell for lunch at Wild Earth, a winery and restaurant that we’d been recommended to try. All of the food is smoked in barrels and matched to the wines they produce, so we opted for the taster menu with six small dishes. Obviously, I also decided to go for the matching wine selection! It all arrived beautifully presented on a long wooden plate – it was all delicious, although the lamb with a 2008 pinot noir really stood out. The setting was really pretty as well, we sat outside in the garden where we could look across the hills.

Lunch platter at Wild Earth

Lunch platter at Wild Earth

Selfie!

Selfie!

Being silly

Being silly


Although it was good, the food left us wanting dessert but as it had already taken a long time to arrive we decided to stop somewhere else along the way home. We’d passed loads of wineries and one cheesery, so that seemed like a good place to make a stop! We tasted some really good cheeses, and ended up buying a lovely sweet cheddar (the thought of which is making my mouth water still while I’m writing this!) and a tasty blue cheese, with the intent of saving them for New Year’s Eve back in Christchurch. We also tasted some chardonnay and pinot noir in the winery and bought another bottle to add to the growing collection in the van!

Later that afternoon, back at the campsite but in a new site that was a bit quieter, we had decided to head out to go up in the gondola to the luge but it wasn’t meant to be: the heavens opened just as we were making our way out of the campsite!

20121230_115443

Luckily the weather cleared up overnight and on Sunday we made it over to the gondola. The luge was like a toboggan with small wheels underneath and a track nearly 1km long; we bought five rides but it was so busy that we kept getting stuck behind slower riders! We amused ourselves on the chairlift up to the top by making stupid poses for the camera halfway up, didn’t get to see any of them apart from the last one which was actually quite nice, so we bought it :)

On the very last ride, we finally lost the slow riders and sped down, taking the corners on two wheels, it was all over far too quickly and we came out giggling.

West Coast to Wanaka

From Greymouth on Boxing Day, our next stop was Franz Josef. We wanted to go quad biking, so set off reasonably early to get there for just after lunch. It was a little over four hours away, through more beautiful mountainous roads and valleys – easily the most amazing driving I’ve ever experienced.

Rivers along the drive

Rivers along the drive

We arrived at the quad biking and headed out to a dusty car park, where we kitted up under blazing sunshine in rubber trousers and jackets, with big wellies and red helmets. The bikes were all two seaters and Silvio and I were sharing, this could be dangerous in more ways than one!

Splashing through the water!

Splashing through the water!

The first part of the tour was great – after practicing a figure of eight, we drove across some dusty tracks and big rocks, through grass and then across a couple of shallow streams – that was the most fun. For the second one as our guide Kim took photos I tried to hold bunny ears behind Silvio’s head but it was too bumpy in the end and he missed them in the photo!

Off we go!

Off we go!

First drive through the river

First drive through the river

Lady biker

Lady biker


We drove up and over a small, steep bump then turned sharply along a river, coming to stop in a group behind Kim, who suddenly jumped off his quad bike in a panic. One of our group, Paul, had accidentally driven over the side into the river!

After Paul drove his quad bike into the river

After Paul drove his quad bike into the river

A few minutes later they reappeared, Paul looking very shellshocked and cradling a swollen wrist. The bike was turned over in the river, a good six foot drop, so despite his injuries it was something of a lucky escape. One of the other members of the group was a paramedic, so he was well looked after until help arrived to take him back to Franz Josef and hospital with his wife.

Pebbles, mountains and clouds

Pebbles, mountains and clouds

The rest of the group decided to continue on the tour, where we had a second long break by a beautiful, milky grey and icy cold river. I nearly lost my sunglasses after leaving them on the back of the bike as we drove off, luckily with the dust blowing into my face I realised very quickly something was missing! Silvio ran back awkwardly in his rubber boots while I just watched from the bike :)

Glacial river

Glacial river

Taking a rest

Taking a rest

Dramatic skies

Dramatic skies


He drove the last part of the tour, at the back of the group, intermittently slowing down to create a big gap so that he could rev up the bike for a bit to catch up.

Getting a speed up!

Getting a speed up!

Back at the camper van by late afternoon, we headed to the Rainforest holiday park that we’d picked for the night. It was really pretty inside, we were parked up in front of a wall of trees with the glacier and mountains rising up from both sides of us. We had a little table and chairs, plenty of time to chill in the forest and get going on some of the wine we had bought on the way to Kaikoura! There were loads of tiny biting flies though, we both ended up getting eaten alive.

Our home for the night in Franz Josef

Our home for the night in Franz Josef

Chilling with wine

Chilling with wine

Sunset at the Rainforest holiday park

Sunset at the Rainforest holiday park


We wanted to barbecue that night, but couldn’t find anywhere close to buy the meat, so we ate out instead. I tried two more New Zealand Chardonnays and we underestimated the size of the portions, ending up with a massive “side dish” of wedges to go with our already-pretty-large platter.

Selfie in the restaurant

Selfie in the restaurant

The next morning was sunny and hot again, the van was steaming by the time we finally decided to get up. We were headed towards Queenstown now, with a planned stop in Wanaka to break up the drive. With no real rush to leave, we had breakfast in a local cafe: pancakes with fruit, eggs with hollandaise sauce, mmmm … didn’t last long.

Ten minutes up the road, I had a panic: where was my phone? I tried calling it but we couldn’t hear it anywhere in the van, we had to stop, but luckily after a few scary minutes I found it buried in a bag in the back. Silvio teased me for always putting things down and forgetting where they are … well 34 now, must be my age catching up with me :(

Along the drive to Wanaka

Along the drive to Wanaka

We were trying to decide what to do in Queenstown – originally we had wanted to go canyoning, but the warm weather wasn’t set to continue for much longer and jumping into cold waterfalls when it’s grey and cloudy didn’t appeal that much. The alternative was to go and see Milford Sound, but that meant either driving several more hours to get there and back … or taking a beautiful scenic (but pretty expensive!) flight over the mountains to get there.

Bruce Bay

Bruce Bay

Meanwhile, the weather was gorgeous and along the way to Wanaka we passed Bruce Bay, a beautiful beach with irresistible sparkling turquoise water and sparkling pebbles full of crystals. We couldn’t not go for a dip! The water was cold but refreshing.

Enjoying the sea at Bruce Bay

Enjoying the sea at Bruce Bay

View across the bay

View across the bay

Enjoying the beach

Enjoying the beach


Silvio underestimated the force of the waves when he tried to go in wearing his sandals; luckily he managed to rescue them both but they were nearly headed back to Australia as unaccompanied baggage …

Back in the van, I managed to start writing notes for the blog (thank god, because otherwise I’d have forgotten a lot of things by now) and then practiced some Italian verb conjugation … quando arriviamo?

View from the lookout point

View from the lookout point

The roads began to climb and we stopped again at a beautiful lookout point before we finally reached Wanaka. We arrived before 5pm, the cut off time because that’s when the wineries close :) We made it with time to spare to the Rippon winery, which had the most incredible views across the lake out of all of its windows and from a small picnic garden. I sipped a cool glass of sauv blanc and we both took (and posed for) photos until it closed, and we headed to the next campsite.

Enjoying the sun outside the winery

Enjoying the sun outside the winery

Gardens at Rippon Winery

Gardens at Rippon Winery

Rippon Winery

Rippon Winery

Panorama of the winery view

Panorama of the winery view


It was still early evening and the sun was high and hot, so we headed down to the lake for the second cold dip of the day. I took my time getting all the way in but Silvio ducked under and tried to pull me in quicker …

Just taking the dog out for a jet ski

Just taking the dog out for a jet ski

Swimming under the mountains

Swimming under the mountains

Splash!

Splash!


Back on the gravelly beach, we finally decided on the Milford Sound flight over canyoning and I called to book. Silvio went to find his wallet but disaster struck … as he later wrote in my blog notes:

“the loss-phobia proves contagious: I can’t remember where I put my wallet: frantic moments followed by relief when my memory saves us from drama …”

It was in the glove compartment. Phew … flights booked!

Back to the campsite via the supermarket and we were all set for dinner – finally a place where we could buy some good meat! Over to Silvio again for a description of what happened when we got back …

“Back to the camping for a glass of wine and a bbq: rumbling in the air means it’s all but certain that there will be thunders in the night, dark clouds are forming in Jo’s tummy …”

Cleaning the barbie

Cleaning the barbie

And that’s enough of that, suffice to say I was feeling better by bed time, and we slept well under the shade of a tree until the van got too warm again the next morning.

New Zealand Christmas

New Zealand has always been a place I thought I would go one day, but after seeing Claudia’s amazing photos of her trip early last year, it moved pretty high up on my list!

Beautiful views

Beautiful views

We had booked the flights and organised a camper van while Silvio was away in Bangalore, thinking we’d have loads of time once he got back to research where we wanted to go … well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. With less than a week to go, we ended up spending more time arguing over whether I really needed three pairs of jeans than we did planning places to visit. We ended up with a rough plan to start by heading north, with a few places to stay in mind; to hit a few wineries and spend a couple of days in Queenstown.

After a pretty awesome (and fairly large) meal at Ribs and Rumps on Saturday it was an early start on Sunday, we had to catch the first ferry to make our flight.

Pebbles at sunset in Greymouth

Pebbles at sunset in Greymouth

We got to Christchurch, bought a NZ sim card since we can’t possibly live without the interwebz for a week, and jumped in a shuttle to our motel. The weather was gorgeous – glorious sunshine and almost as hot as Sydney – and it seemed like every other building was a small motel, this place is certainly set up for driving holidays.

We had a moment of panic as the shuttle drove off when I suddenly wondered if we’d remembered the name of the motel right, having booked a different one for the final night of our stay. We hovered outside reception waiting for Silvio’s laptop to start up, where the owner eventually found us and reassured us that yes, we were booked in – thank god!

Driving through the mountains

Driving through the mountains

Armed with leaflets and maps, we meandered down to the local Countdown supermarket for snacks (the logo looked suspiciously like Woolworths) They sell salt and vinegar Pringles here – wow!! Good thing junk food is allowed on holiday :)

Later in the evening we headed out to eat and then watch The Hobbit in 3D – although we could have seen it at home, it was pretty special to watch the scenery knowing that we were in the country it was filmed in, with a week of driving around that same scenery ahead of us. Compared to Australia, the evening stayed light really late, even by 8pm it still felt like 5 or 6.

Monday morning, yawning because with the time difference 9am felt like 7am, we headed off to the Wicked depot to collect our camper van. On the way, our taxi driver told us not to bother with the far south of the island, which knocked a few hundred kilometres off the journey very quickly.

Our camper van at the first campsite

Our camper van at the first campsite

At Wicked, we were bombarded with information. Firstly, I discovered that insurance works differently in New Zealand: although we had paid to avoid any liability for damage to the camper van itself, they didn’t cover us for damage to any third parties. Oh well, better drive carefully then.

She asked where we were heading, and was very concerned when we told her we hadn’t booked a campsite.

Kaikoura in the sunshine

Kaikoura in the sunshine

Brains buzzing and feeling a bit worried already, we trailed after her as she showed us where to check the oil and water, pointed out our small gas canister for cooking and how the sink worked, and informed us where to take it to clean it before returning it. This wasn’t like anything I’ve ever rented before! It was kind of cute though – smaller than we’d thought, just a converted people carrier with enough space for a bed and small shelves at the back, with curtains strung up across the windows for privacy, well almost, since they didn’t quite stretch all the way!

Our van was called Alien Life Forms, painted black and blue with various weird creatures on it. Across the back, it read “Artificial intelligence usually beats real stupidity” … at least it wasn’t rude!

Food store in the van

Food store in the van

At last we were off! We headed north towards Kaikoura, but it wasn’t long before we were feeling a bit hungry and seeing signs for wineries … mmmm! I wanted to stop at one that the taxi driver had mentioned but after taking a wrong turn and ending up in the middle of a vineyard, we finally arrived to find it was closed :( We headed back to the Mud House instead, which turned out to be an amazing place with beautifully cooked food. I tasted most of their wines afterwards, Silvio stuck to the pinot noir, and we left with three bottles including a lovely oaky chardonnay (mmm my favourite) and feeling pretty full and a bit sleepy.

Outside The Mud House winery

Outside The Mud House winery

Despite the warnings, we found a spot at a campsite in Kaikoura fairly easily. They were busy and everybody was fairly packed in – our closest neighbours had a large caravan and seemed to have already consumed rather a lot of wine, they were enjoying a good old sing song most of the evening.

Low cloud across the hills

Low cloud across the hills

More low hanging clouds

More low hanging clouds

Clouds hanging low over the beach

Clouds hanging low over the beach


The clouds were low over the hills, and it was pretty cool out, but we headed out for a walk along the rocky beach. I saw a single seal on the rocks, but it slithered away before I could get Silvio’s attention … meanwhile he found a rock that he could climb and headed up. Despite the grey sky the views were pretty cool, huge hills rising almost out of the sea and draped in clouds.

I'm the king of the castle

I’m the king of the castle

Hmmm how do I get down now?

Hmmm how do I get down now?

Me at the beach

Me at the beach

On Christmas Day, we woke up in a hot tin can! The campsite had a pretty good kitchen – in fact, one family were using it to roast a large hunk of meat for their Christmas dinner. As we sat eating breakfast, they carted bags and bags of presents out to their table and started handing them around.

Christmas Quackers!

Christmas Quackers!

This is as Christmassy as I get!

This is as Christmassy as I get!

Quackers, and our site marker

Quackers, and our site marker


We left the campsite and headed into the town of Kaikoura. The sky was still grey and the town was pretty dead, with only one small cafe and a tiny supermarket open. We wandered along the pebbly beaches watching the seagulls and the scenery, debating where to spend the day and night. The original plan was to explore Kaikoura then head to the wineries in the north, but it didn’t seem likely that they’d be open and there wasn’t much to do in Kaikoura on Christmas Day.

Mine Mine Mine Mine Mine

Mine Mine Mine Mine Mine

Where'd the beach go?

Where’d the beach go?

I'm ready, where to?

I’m ready, where to?


In the end we decided to skip the north and head straight across to the West Coast, in the hope that we could get to Greymouth that day (an estimated 7 hour drive, although we later found out that was very conservative). By the time we left, the weather was brightening up, and even as we drove out of the town everything was looking very pretty in the sunshine.

Lord of the Rings country!

Lord of the Rings country!

The road was empty. Occasionally we would pass another camper van, but for most of the journey the world was ours alone. We followed a mix of winding mountain roads and single lane highways through the middle of the country, luckily the GPS on the iPhone worked so we could see where we were on the map, but there was no phone signal for most of the way.

We stopped in Waiau to get petrol from an unmanned roadside pump. The town was completely deserted, we didn’t see another soul – it was as though the Mayan predictions had really come true! In contrast to the heavy morning mists in Kaikoura, the sun was beating down by that time and it was lovely and warm.

Quackers in Waiau

Quackers in Waiau

We continued along to Hanmer Springs, where there is a fantastic looking indoor water park with slides and spa pools, unfortunately the one day of the year that they close is Christmas Day :( We stretched our legs and wandered around, but there wasn’t much to see – at least here though, there were a few people milling around so we weren’t totally alone!

Throughout the journey, there were loads of single lane bridges, some fairly long, luckily we seemed to have priority on our side most of the time. One in particular did scare me though: around 200m or more driving along a railway track. In fact, there were a lot of railway tracks, but we never did see a single train :)

Lookout point near Hanmer Springs

Lookout point near Hanmer Springs

Along the way, I tried to listen to some of my Italian recordings, but I struggled with too many words I couldn’t fathom and eventually got too cross with it, deciding to dig out one of the books for another day instead.

We eventually made it to Greymouth and headed to the Top 10 Holiday Park there, it was absolutely lovely, the best place out of all the campsites we stayed at. They were busy but not full, and our camper van site was pretty spacious with walls each side and nobody directly overlooking us.

Campsite in Greymouth

Campsite in Greymouth

The holiday park had a jacuzzi that we could book for a half hour, which was exactly what we needed after the long drive – a huge, hot bath!

The weather was threatening rain, but we were just over the back of the beach and the sun was starting to set so it would have been a waste not to go and watch it for a little while. Afterwards, we made use of the kitchen to cook a Christmas dinner of pasta :) eating outside under a shelter while the rain spattered a bit.

So that was Christmas over for another year!

Falls Creek.

It seemed like a long wait for the ThoughtWorks ski trip to Falls Creek (aka ThoughtCarver – although I don’t work for TW anymore, it will be part of my life for a long time yet it seems!). I had been counting down the days since getting back from Kuala Lumpur. After endless Skype calls, with unreliable internet and dubious sound quality resulting in a lot of our conversations being along the lines of “huh? what did you say? I can’t hear you!”, Silvio and I would finally be in the same place, and able to have a normal conversation :) Oh yeah, and I was pretty excited about my first time skiing in Australia too.

I have to admit though, Aussies don’t seem to have a very good opinion of their snow quality – I was led to expect soggy slush, short runs and bad conditions, and I was pleasantly surprised by the skiing in Falls Creek. But I’ll start as usual, at the beginning of the trip, with the journey …

I flew to Melbourne to meet Silvio, where we’d rented a car to drive across Victoria to Falls Creek. I was desperately impatient as the plane began the descent into Melbourne, it had been a long two months, and the taxiing from the runway to the gate seemed to take for-eeeevvvv-a … until finally, the moment of reunion at the gate! We grinned like daft idiots all the way through the airport, but I didn’t care, it was a nice feeling.

It was a pretty long drive from Melbourne, over five hours … and we still had to find snow chains, since it’s a legal requirement in Falls Creek. Thanks to Google and TomTom, we found Ray’s ski shop along the way, and then finally, FINALLY we arrived. It was bloody freezing, and raining! We parked the car in the last available spot in a cold, windy car park and luckily there were parking attendants to drive us back to our apartments, where the rest of the ThoughtCarvers we were sharing with were already cosy in front of a log fire with red wine … didn’t take us long to join in!

Thursday morning the mountain didn’t look particularly inviting. A heavy cloud hung over it, drizzling cold rain on the village streets … we almost gave it a miss, but eventually bundled up in ski gear and braved the low visibility and high winds for a few pretty good runs. My legs were a bit shaky on the first run down, but Silvio was off like a shot, and then on the second run he led the way into the soft, ungroomed snow. Like an idiot, I followed – well, couldn’t really see much else to aim for – but my legs were not quite ready for that! I was a bit all over the place on my skis that first day, but at least the snow wasn’t too slushy or icy, even if we couldn’t see where we were going. The runs were all very short and over too quickly, but the chairlifts were also short so not too cold (except for Scotts Chair, where the wind seemed to blow right through me) and there were no real queues. I pretty quickly discovered that most of the black runs were comparable to hard red runs in Europe, although there were a few with some decent steep slopes and moguls.

Snowy mountains

Thursday night, Silvio had one goal: MEAT! We went to the Falls Creek Country Club which was described on the website as the best place in town for a steak, it was pretty quiet but the steak was good. When we left it was snowing fairly heavily, the roads were white and we left trails of footprints back up the road … this was promising for the skiing conditions the following day!

Friday was definitely better – although there were still times when the clouds closed in, there were also moments of sunny, clear runs. The first two heats of the Age Corporate ski race were held, and many of the ThoughtWorkers were participating – I watched a few, most weren’t too competitive, but some definitely were (coughDuncan). Everybody had to do the course twice, it was fairly short though – I ended up taking Silvio and Alex-no-brakes-Ong’s jackets down the slope for them while they competed (better for speed, apparently, did I mention some people were competitive?), I must have looked a right sight in my own bulky ski gear, with two more jackets tied around me on top!

Sarah finishing in style

Friday night, we all headed out for drinks at Tom Dick and Harry’s. ThoughtWorks had sponsored some pretty cool jackets for all of us, which most people had worn for the drinks, so we were pretty easy to spot as a group. The drinks were put on for the racers, so there were lots of other corporate groups there too – Sarah managed to get talking to a guy from another company who happened to have a tiger suit (wtf?) – she later convinced him to trade it for her ThoughtWorks jacket. I haven’t yet seen proof that the deal went through, although he did wear it (and partly remove it) in the next bar.

Sarah had her eyes on this suit …

The drinks were flowing on Friday and we got steadily more rowdy as we progressed to The Man bar. Andy Tam was particularly good fun that night, until eventually somebody decided to make sure he got home :) We discovered the foosball table, which brought back memories of playing in Berlin with Alex … this time we played against each other, Silvio and I won by a narrow margin (I’m pretty rubbish). Some randoms decided to challenge the winners but I told Alex to take my place, they almost won as well :)

Saturday would be our final day of skiing since we had planned to leave around lunchtime on Sunday, and it was also the second day of the race, with two more heats down a smaller slalom. Silvio had decided to try a new technique that involved bashing down the poles as he skied past them, it was successful in terms of getting him a pretty good time, but less so in that after finishing the second race, he had some pretty nasty bruises on his arms.

Julie

As he finished, I was pretty excited, he had almost equalled Julie’s time which was bloody good, she’s done a lot of racing in the past and in fact she beat Duncan that day too, which she didn’t let him forget (I hear there are now two new email aliases at ThoughtWorks now … ibeatduncan and ilosttojulie!). After Silvio raced, he sat down in the snow complaining about his arms being in pain and trying to use the snow to ease the bruises, but I didn’t really clock on how bad it was until the ski patrol arrived (two of them!) They were incredibly efficient, and even offered to take him back down the slope on a stretcher – which I thought was kind of funny, although when one of them pulled up on a skidoo I did think it might have been exciting to get a ride on that :) Eventually they left us with an ice pack after filling in about seventeen forms, and I continued to tease him for the rest of the day for being such a drama queen.

Saturday night, it was back to The Man for food and more drinking … but we sneaked out before the dancing started (sorry, Sarah!) Sunday, I crammed my gear back into my suitcase – I swear, no matter how tidy I am at home, whenever I go away, my suitcase seems to just explode everything out the minute I arrive – and Silvio headed off to the cold, windy car park to get our car. He was gone for ages, and I was wondering how he could possibly have got lost walking up one road … until I saw him walking back, waving his phone at me and asking why I hadn’t answered his (five) calls … must remember to take that thing off of silent sometimes. It turned out that the car wouldn’t start: the battery was flat as a pancake. Nobody else had jump leads, not sure I’d know how to use them safely anyway, but there was roadside assistance man with a truck who headed up the hill to help us. He attached the cables, and the alarm promptly started to go off – but with power restored, once that was disarmed we could at least get the car going again. Apparently it happens quite often :( anyway, we were sorted and heading off to the airport, with a few stops in the city along the way to trade ski gear for work clothes.

Although it was an awesome trip (and expertly organised, thanks Julie and Andy!) and I was sorry to leave the snow behind, it was also pretty good going back … we flew together back to Sydney and spent a couple of days enjoying Manly before Silvio had to head back to Bangalore for his second and final semester as a trainer at ThoughtWorks University.

I think we might have enjoyed Manly even more if I hadn’t forgotten my keys on Monday morning, resulting in two pretty hungry and tired people slouching over the table in the Wharf Bar after work until my new housemate Matthias finally arrived home at 10pm to let us in :( We sat watching the rain sluice across the harbour and worried about the bags we’d left in the porch of the house, which luckily were still dry when we finally made it back!

Quackers made it to Falls Creek – of course!

So on Wednesday morning, not only did I say ciao to Silvio but my friend and housemate Viviana was also heading off on a two month trip to Europe, so I am now missing both of them. Ah well, not long to go now until my own big holiday – heading back to the UK to watch my little brother get married, which I can’t believe has come around already. I will be squeezing in a quick weekend in Singapore on the way though …