Our 2016 travel blog re-arranged in chronological order
Brisbane to Darwin
Wednesday 15th June, Brisbane-Darwin
At Brisbane airport, we bought some books and caught our flight to Darwin – 4 hours and 20 minutes away!! Packed six abreast with a significant number of Aussie frontier blokey types. The one next to Kerrie was definitely the worse for wear, only opening his eyes to cough and splutter from time to time. When we arrived in Darwin, it was over 30 degrees – quite a shock after leaving NZ’s snowy, chilly winter!
We just had time to walk to our hotel – a few hundred metres away, book in and change before we caught a taxi driven by an Indian from Auckland (who works here in the NZ winter months and says the one year he worked the wet season you couldn’t see the car in front of you). He took us to the wharf to join our sunset cruise.
This was a wonderfully relaxing way to start our Northern Territory holiday – cruising around Darwin harbour eating fresh seafood as the bright red shimmering orb slid beneath the waves. We opted not to drink but there were quite a few who brought eskies of beer (you could buy drinks on board but strangely it was also BYO, must be an NT thing) and one guy who went back for three helpings of prawns sloshed down with a litre of whisky. The Territorians’ capacity for drink clearly on show! The water was calm as we made our way out to the naval base and the edge of the harbour, we noticed a huge area of mangroves before we passed the city centre, government house and the main beaches – with only the odd person on the beach but no one swimming. We got a taxi back to our room driven by a guy from Tehran who told us he is here with his brother and has been in Australia for 3 years earning money to send back to his wife and kids. A trained engineer but his qualifications are not recognised.
Back in our room we didn’t get a good night’s rest as the air conditioning and fan were so noisy. We’re not used to this!
Darwin to Litchfield NP
Thursday 16th June, Darwin to Litchfield NP
The big adventure starts. After a wee hiccup – as we discovered neither of us had or could find the room key, so we tipped everything out of our nicely repacked bags three times, moved every piece of furniture in the room five times and shook the bedding, but no, it was not to be found. Kerrie thinks she left it in the door as she had made the same mistake the day before – but it hadn’t been handed in. Luckily the hotel took a relaxed and gracious approach – “no worries”. Phew!
Time for a quick swim in the hotel pool and breakfast before we took a cab to Maui to collect our two berth campervan.
After some administrative hoo-ha with them querying our deal and having to ring head office to check that yes we had booked and paid for the premium package (thanks Stephanie at Brookers), we watched a video on basic Aussie road rules, good to see they included an advisory for overseas drivers that here in Australia we drive on the left hand side! Got a 15 minute introduction to our Mercedes Benz Ultima 2 from Sarah who was born in Dunedin and had just transferred to Darwin from Queenstown. Small world.
And so we set off – with some degree of caution and trepidation, never having driven anything this size and with so many things to remember – how to operate the on-board gas stove, shower and toilet, empty waste water and “other stuff’’, set up the bed, plug in power etc etc.
We used the on board GPS to find the nearest supermarket – heading south, where we bought up enough food for a week and then hit the Stuart Highway – the road that goes all the way from Darwin to Alice Springs and on to Adelaide.
We’d decided on Litchfield National Park as our first stop, reasonably close – just an hour and a half south of Darwin and we thought that should be a fairly easy first day.
However, on the recommendation of a couple of people we decided we’d camp the first night at Wangi Falls – which turned out to be on the opposite side of the park from the entrance– another 50-60 kms further on. Kerrie nodded off at one point and woke up to ask if she’d missed anything but the scenery was exactly the same. Our years in NZ had made us forget the long stretches in Australia with unchanging topography and vegetation.
We didn’t arrive at the camp ground till after 5pm – only to discover that it was fully booked and in any case didn’t have powered camping sites. Yikes!! We talked to another camper in the same fix – he’d spoken with a ranger who said he could park on the side of the access road and, provided he paid the fee he could stay and move into a site the next day. We decided to do the same. We put our money in the box provided with a completed form.
Temperatures all day had been in the thirties – and we were sweltering – so first stop was a visit to the falls – just 300m away and a have a swim.
The falls were impressive, tumbling off a red rock cliff – and with a huge water hole surrounded by “monsoon” forest. A sign told us reassuringly that rangers check the water hole for salt water crocs after the wet season and before it’s opened to the public for swimming but not to panic if you feel anything nibbling your toes as there are bottom dwelling shrimps.
Other swimmers were already in there so we jumped in – ahh, how fabulously cooling it was. We enjoyed it so much we stayed for half an hour and got talking to a guy from Perth who said it was great now but shoulder to shoulder during the day when the buses arrive, so we enjoyed the relative quiet. Back to the campervan to organise dinner and to avoid getting eaten by the mossies and midges – we noticed wallabies eating grass in the picnic grounds on the walk back including a Mum with a cute joey.
But of course we hadn’t really remembered everything Sarah had told us – and we didn’t have a powered site, so we had to work out how to do everything with whatever the van could supply. Dinner was ‘cooked herbed chicken’ and salad, eaten standing up as our stuff was piled all over the place and we hadn’t worked out how to set up the table or make the bed. Wallabies wandered past the door in the dark but offered no help! We were wacked, so we collapsed – Kerrie on a fold out bed behind the driver’s seat nearest the only open window and Andrew on a bench in the back surrounded by luggage. Not the best night’s sleep – swelteringly hot for the first half then as the temperature dropped – chilly the last part. Hmmm – wondering if this camping thing really is for us.
Our daily blog has proved trickier than we thought. Internet access while travelling by campervan in the remote national parks of the Northern Territory is patchy or simply not there and while our campervan has wifi, it’s not exactly reliable and you need to have the key inserted and power on in the vehicle for it to work.
Friday 17th June, Litchfield NP
In the morning – it was another gorgeous blue-sky day in Litchfield, the birds were making a racket and the temperature and humidity were down so we decided to do a circuit walk around the falls, climbing up through the monsoon forest as shrieking flying foxes, aka fruit bats flapped and crawled amongst the trees. There were one or two trees which appeared to be their favourites where they fought over branches for a hanging perch.
A series of man-made stairs and platforms took us up through the canopy until we reached the top – with a vista of plains stretching as far as the eye could see. Awe inspiring but also daunting, imagine being stranded in this vastness – or indeed being the first Europeans traversing this land. Our respect for the Aboriginal inhabitants who have lived here for thousands of years is immense.
We crossed a bridge over the creek that feeds the falls, wondering where all the water comes from in such an apparently dessicated landscape. Apparently the rocks and fissures across the savannah capture the wet season deluge and slowly release their stored supply over the dry. A natural reservoir. A small water monitor lizard hung onto a rock in the creek, looking but never moving.
At 8am when we set off on our walk, the temperature was already rising rapidly and after an hour we were saturated with perspiration – time for another swim! This time we ventured further into the pool to a sandy spot where we could stand and see some fair sized fish looking with interest at our legs and toes. No nibbles though. Andrew headed over the rocks near the waterfall where he’d been told there was a hole you could climb up to with its own pool inside. Which he did – to discover that the hole was deeper than he was tall – he did wonder what else might live in there, but no attacks from lurking monsters.
Given our overnight experience, we decided we’d go back to Batchelor, the small town at the park entrance, stopping to see sights on the way. First stop was Florence Falls where we did a 4-5 km walk along the river, through a section called the savannah and then the shady creek forest. It was beautiful in that Aussie bush way – everything feels ancient, dry as a bone, plants and trees pared down to basics for survival in a tough landscape.
We did this around midday – not the smartest time as the sun was beating directly down and the temperature was up around 32-34 degrees. But we wanted to make the most of our visit. After that drove on and stopped once more, this time to see the magnetic termite mounds – so named as they are oriented in a north-south direction to reduce the amount of direct sunlight they receive at the hottest time of day and so regulate the temperature of the nest. Somewhat alien, they look a bit like the monolith in the movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey”.
Scientists have discovered the termites construct their mounds using magnetic fields. There are different termites with different jobs to do in these mounds from workers to soldiers and of course, the queen who does nothing but breed day in and day out. The termites who build the mounds are blind which makes their achievements even more remarkable – they orientate themselves entirely by other senses including pheromones.
That’s one species. Another creates massive mounds with pipes and towers – up to 5 metres tall. The cathedral mounds are so named as they appear to have buttresses and resemble a gothic cathedral in shape. There are termite mounds in every direction. We actually saw lots of small termite mounds on the drive down beside the road and along one stretch of the Stuart Highway, one group dressed in baby clothes!
We arrived back at Batchelor mid-afternoon, got our camp site organised, hooked up to power – and at last could turn on the van’s main air conditioner. Kerrie stood underneath it for about half an hour just to try and cool down. Then we hopped into the park’s small but very refreshing swimming pool which really chilled us down.
So now we have the tables sorted, the bed set up and we’re back on the internet. We’ve booked and paid online for our Kakadu Park permits. All is well.
Time to sleep – hopefully better than last night!
Saturday 18th June Litchfield NP to Kakadu
The day broke to the sound of raucous sharp bird calls and one that sounded exactly like a dog repeatedly barking– but a much better night’s rest with the air conditioning on. We had breakfast in our Kea, making tea and toast and setting off the fire alarm each time, before hitting the road and backtracking the way we had come in from the Stuart Highway.
We re-joined the Stuart Highway and headed back north to the turn off for the Arnhem Highway and Kakadu. We saw numerous signs for WW2 airfields beside the main road as we drove along, not sure if they were right beside the highway although some appeared to be – a reminder of the major part the Northern Territory played in the war, both being bombed and defending Australia from a potential Japanese invasion.
We reached the turnoff and drove through the wonderfully named town Humpty Doo. Passed lots of mango orchards and farms with Brahmin cattle, best adapted to this hot, tropical climate.
Our first stop was the Original Jumping Croc tour on the Adelaide River. We made good time and got onto the 11am trip. We were lucky to get Rod as our guide and boat driver – a genuine NT character with a fund of stories and good information.
Rod started the tour by giving his obligatory safety talk – he said he was required to give it but then went on to say it was basically a waste of time, as if anything happened to the boat, the best advice he could give was to grab a life jacket from down the back, throw it at the croc and swim like crazy for the shore, making sure you were ahead of anyone else in the hope the slower ones get eaten first!
As we motored down the river a tourist pointed to what she thought was a croc – Rod says good try but actually it was a “logodile’’.
Rod recounted his days when he worked for the saltwater croc management program, dropped in by chopper to remove eggs from nests; he’d go in solo, with just 15 minutes to do his job. Incredibly dangerous and the scariest job he has ever had. He says there is video of him up a tree and a croc jumping in the air to get him – it’s completely off the ground!!
Rod told us a story of a 4 metre croc jumping into the boat – it was definitely after him. Rod whacked the croc around the snout with the “fishing pole’’ used to dangle tempting snacks for the crocs; crocs have hollow bone structure in their skulls which resonates when hit – so that put him off.
Rod said the crocs might only have the brain the size of a golf ball – but they’re smart enough to recognise a voice, they know his voice and come in response for food – or to eat him!!
He told the story of a Vietnamese farmer who’d been fishing around the Jumping Croc wharf and the nearby bridge and been warned 50-100 times about the dangers of the crocs. The man had just given two thumbs up and continued. Until one day he stepped into the water to retrieve a 50 cent hook that was snagged. Big mistake. He stepped on a large male half albino croc which grabbed him and dragged him under – to the horror of his watching wife. Parts of him were later found in a nearby creek – and when they shot the croc – they found one of his arms in the stomach. According to Rod, there were frantic scrabbling marks in the mud where the man had tried to pull away – but crocs have the most powerful bite in the world – equivalent to two trucks hitting each other. He didn’t have a chance.
The croc had to be shot as it had caught a human and therefore it’s assumed discovered how easy it is to catch one for a feed – the theory being it will become a habitual ‘man-eater’. Rod actually seemed more upset about the fact that what was once a major tourist attraction and a crocodilian rarity was now gone.
To get the crocs to jump in the air – Rod teased with a pork chop tied to a pole, splashing the surface of the water repeatedly then yanking it high in the air and out of reach. There were several females which grow to three to three and a half metres long. One big male came up – around 5.3 metres, he seemed to be eyeing up the chop – and the boat full of tasty tourists, but in the end the chop was the easier catch. Later Rod tempted him up onto the bank so we could see him out of the water. Massive! But he’s not the biggest. The top croc on the river is Agro, over 6 metres long – he’s shown off or killed all the other males and has a croc harem of around 10-13 females
At the end of the tour everyone clapped and Rod’s response was to say that that was great because it meant everyone had come back with both their hands and all ten digits.
Back on land, we jumped into the Kea and after taking a couple of shots of large roadside signs warning of the dangers of climate change and the impact of sea level rise on Arnhem Land’s vast wetlands, we backtracked a few kms to visit the wetlands information centre – set high up on a hill. Another reminder of how critical wetlands are to the entire northern ecosystem – human, fauna and flora.
We noticed a poster produced by the CSIRO suggesting how climate change would affect Australia over the coming decades, scary stuff; but we both thought how good it would be if the same thing was produced for NZ. We later discovered that the CSIRO unit that produced the data and the poster had had its funding cut although with a partial reprieve as the original draconian staff cuts had been reduced to a third of what was originally proposed.
We noticed large traffic signs beside the road reminding everyone (obviously for foreign visitors) that in Australia they drive on the left hand side of the road. Be good to see these in strategic locations in New Zealand where there have been some horrific and tragic accidents caused by overseas drivers driving on the wrong side and causing head-on crashes.
That night we stayed at Aurora camping ground about 60-70 kms short of Jabiru. We got ourselves a powered site, did some overdue washing and went and had a swim in the pool. Wonderfully cooling and refreshing after a long hot day.
Sunday 19th June, Kakadu
Rested and refreshed, we took a short walk from the back of the camping ground to the Gungarre billabong which was largely dried up, a pontoon rested on the ground and there were signs of wild pigs rooting up the mud on the edge. Not much wildlife to be seen – but warning signs of crocs – which we were to see repeatedly throughout Kakadu.
We hit the road and our next stop was the Mamukala wetlands – with a large viewing hide for bird enthusiasts. We could see a few magpie geese in the distance – a much more impressive billabong.
From there it was a few kms to the Bowali Visitor Centre – which was highly recommended and definitely worthwhile. We had a cup of coffee and a look around the shop selling Aboriginal artefacts and wares; bought ourselves two scarves – one really beautiful woollen scarf with an Aboriginal design and a lighter one with “dragonfly” motifs. The display with information about Kakadu was very good – we took a good look around, got some information from the desk and took advantage of free wifi at the kiosk to check out emails, finances, etc. We also called Lords to confirm our booking for the Arnhem Land trip the next day – Monday.
We set off for that night’s campground – Merl up at Ubirr, about an hour’s drive. The camping site was classic bush style, basic with cleared sites amongst the trees – no power here! There was an ablutions block, basic but ok. We parked, brewed a cuppa (usually the first priority wherever we stopped) and then went for a walk down to Cahill’s crossing over the East Alligator river – the entry point by road to Arnhem Land. The landscape was bone dry, with interesting rock formations. We walked back – packed up and headed up to Ubirr around 4:30pm – to view the rock art and climb the rocky escarpment and witness sunset over the vast wetland plains. A magical evening – some really beautiful rock art and even though there must have been 2-300 people up there – it was still a great experience. Calm, serenity, stunning rock formations lit up by the reddening sun as it slipped down and below the horizon. The land that time forgot….
We drove back to the campsite, made up the bed (more complicated than it sounds) ate and hit the hay. Once again the broken flyscreen was a menace – Merl is notorious for its mosquitoes and although we were later told by a ranger that it was nowhere near as bad as other times, it was bad enough. The whining and dining were not to our taste! The gaps in the flyscreen seemed to have expanded when we were away – as we lay there Kerrie was convinced she could see the mosquitoes squeezing their way through and making them bigger. Before either of us could actually nod off we jumped up and swatted as many as we could leaving bloody splodge marks over the interior. It was a very long, hot and torturous night which included using the inside “convenience” for the first time as we couldn’t face running the gauntlet of the mosquitoes. And we thought airline toilets were tiny!
Monday 20th June , Kakadu
After our hot, humid and horrid night’s sleep (the temperature finally dropped at about 3am) we breakfasted, packed up the van, locked it up and walked to the campground entrance – our pick up point for the Lord’s tour to Arnhem Land at 9am. We were there with twenty minutes to spare so chatted with a ranger who arrived to set up a noticeboard advertising a free weaving talk that morning and told us the mossies weren’t nearly as bad as usual!! Given our night’s rest was fitful at best due to their efforts to sup on our blood – this wasn’t reassuring, and we started thinking about whether we were up for another night at Merl.
The bus didn’t appear at 9am, but another ute with two other rangers drove past, saw us and did a u-turn stopping to say they saw a tour bus at the border crossing kiosk up ahead waiting for passengers. We started to wonder if our rendezvous had been forgotten. They kindly drove off to check and came back after about 15 mins to say it was a different tour company and our’s was on its way. It finally turned up at 9.25 and we were told that it was indeed early!
We were the last passengers for the tour to be picked up but were informed that they had kept two seats for us (strange thing to say as we had paid and confirmed our seats!). We were wedged in the back corner of the bus and had obviously missed a bit of introductory commentary which had started from Jabiru. However, on the positive side, we only had a few kms to drive before we headed over the border crossing which was a tidal and croc infested river ford and up into Arnhem Land.
From the minute you drove past the sign warning that you needed a permit to enter, you felt civilisation fall away – this was a part of Australia unlike any other, this was ancient land.
The dirt road took us through a sweeping grassy plain bordered by spectacular rugged sandstone formations. In the centre of the plain was a billabong with an egret feeding. We passed the other tour company as it had stopped by the billabong to see some art in a nearby cave but we kept going. It was hot and humid and the road was appallingly rutted and juddery – our tour guide blamed the semis and road trains ploughing through it in the west season.
The four-wheel drive bus swayed precariously, jumped high and thudded heavily – we were glad we had both seatbelts and air conditioning.
First stop was the township of Gunbalanya and the Injalak arts centre. It was a one storey building with an open area at the back where two painters were at work. Kerrie had a brief conversation with Gabriel Maralngurra who our tour guide Petra told us was one of the most senior and best painters there. Both painters used a one hair paintbrush, made from a reed, each stroke deliberate and slow. As Gabriel told Kerrie, there were no rubbers, so no mistakes. He said he started work at 5 to 5.30 every morning and stopped at 2pm when it got too hot.
Inside was a room where fabrics were screen printed and painted. Cloth was first introduced in Arnhem Land by Macassan traders three to four hundred years ago. They came to collect trepang or bêche-de-mer and traded a range of goods for services with Aboriginal people along the northern coast. Early documentation of the presence of cloth comes through rock art images of figures possibly wearing sarongs of patterned fabric. Now there’s a screen printing business here so local artists – men and women – create the designs that the workshop team carefully prints on-site.
Back outside and past the dogs lying in the sun and a group of men sitting under the trees chatting, there was an area to the side where the women did their weaving. They had run out of flax and were dependent on others to get it for them and they said they were hoping someone was going to get some for them on Thursday – this was Monday. Our guide Petra gave us some commentary and showed us a young flax plant nearby as well as roots that are a source of the yellow colour. She pointed out a rocky outcrop across the river and said that was where we were going to climb to see the 20,000 year or more old rock art. We picked up our Aboriginal guide, Christina, who was sitting waiting for us. We guessed she was in her mid-twenties, and clambered back onto the bus and along another bumpy road to the base of the outcrop.
Before the climb we were offered a morning tea break consisting of water and a biscuit, (we thought for the money we might have got more) before Christina headed up the scree and rocks into the ancient caves and rock formations. She didn’t say anything at first and just walked up. In the meantime, the other tour group with an elderly man as their guide headed off in a different direction. Christina and he had conversed in their language and decided which way each would go. We found out later that there were some areas where Christina and he were not allowed by law to be together.
Christina was very quiet to begin with but Andrew said that is quite common with Aborigines. She stopped every so often to count heads, nodded quietly as she counted, then continued climbing. She guided us to different caves, overhanging rocks and shelters and at each site explained the story and significance of the images. She spoke in a slow and deliberate way, as English was her second language, but was always happy to answer questions. We were told our lunch stop was to be a lookout but what we didn’t know was that the lookout was a rock shelf which we had to crawl to under an overhanging rock; but it was worth it – offering panoramic views of the wetlands.
I think we all felt very privileged to be in the company of Christina, and to see and be a part of this remote and extremely ancient landscape. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we felt the spirits of the ancients but I felt the longevity of human occupation there and we were in awe of their ability to survive, thrive and live a rich and complex life in this harsh and dangerous part of the world. We were amazed at the complicated kinship laws and beliefs they had developed. A number of times Christina asked us to share the respect and awe we had acquired for her living culture and for her ancestors with others when we returned back home.
After lunch Christina took us to a cave that had human bones in it, including a skull as this had been a traditional burial site. She explained that archaeologists had removed many of them for analysis but then returned them for re-burial. Fortunately, she had finished giving her talk when she caught sight of the other guide, an elderly man and suddenly moved faster than she had before – they were related in Aboriginal customary law and she wasn’t allowed to be at the burial site at the same time him.
At the bottom of the rocks there was Petra waiting with our “big cold surprise” which we hoped was an ice block but turned out somewhat strangely to be a cold cloth and two orange quarters!
We drove back to the town and the arts centre where we were given time to explore the shop. Andrew and I were keen to buy something by Gabriel and decided on a painting of a Royal spoonbill. The shop manager asked us if we wanted a photo with Gabriel and duly went and fetched him. He appeared shy and slightly embarrassed but secretly happy with the attention and our purchase!
We drove back the way we came on the same rutted and rough road, crossed the river ford after a face off with a semi – he seemed to want us to reverse back across the ford to allow him to pass – we won. Saw a croc in the river as we crossed the ford at the same time.
After we were dropped off at the entrance we almost ran to the Kea and headed in to Jabiru.
We booked into the Kakadu Lodge Caravan park – a very good powered site. Three of the other passengers on the tour were young twenty somethings who worked in Jabiru, 2 from Germany and one from England, and they recommended it. We met a lot of 20 somethings doing a gap year in the NT, a great place for young adventurers. We cooled off in the really nice pool and decided to treat ourselves with dinner at their bistro – wild caught barramundi and chips and salad. Excellent. We both felt a bit strange and disconnected after our day in what felt like another time and country – being back in this western world of bars, restaurants and pools.
Tuesday 21st June Kakadu
We decided we’d have a half day exploring and half getting chores done. We drove to Nourlangie to see the Anbangbang billabong and Nowurlandja Lookout. Stunning vistas, a truly beautiful billabong, alive with birds including whistling ducks, magpie geese and various wading birds, egrets etc. We were cautious about doing the walk around the billabong due to warning signs of crocs – and evidence of wild pigs digging in the mud along the shoreline.
So we brewed a nice cuppa and enjoyed the view.
Stayed the night at Kakadu Lodge caravan park.
At 7.30 there was a ranger talk by the swimming pool delivered by Christian who we met up with the next day. Half way through as if right on cue a young bandicoot ran through the crowd, we thought it was a huge rat!
Day Eleven Wednesday 22nd June, Kakadu
This morning we packed up and headed out of the camper city – the pool and bistro were the centre – and headed back to the same area as yesterday for a ranger guided talk and tour of Nourlangie rock art site with National Parks officer, Christian Diddams, which was excellent. It was a three part tour, we stayed for the trifecta. He explained at the start that the three talks were being videoed and the DVD was going to be sent to Canberra as apparently a lot of fantastic feedback about his talks had been sent to the Nat Park and Wildlife service and they were going to be used for training.
We found out why, he was a great communicator and really knew his stuff – giving an excellent, accessible insight into Aboriginal law, customs, language and song, how they all are inextricably bound together and reflect both the subtle knowledge of how to live and survive in this land but also how the people’s complex kinship systems regulate and govern their social relationships and behaviour.
The funniest and most curious moment was during his third talk when he was standing in front of a cave that had been continuously occupied for more than 20,000 years and showing some of the tools and artefacts that had been excavated there when an elderly man and his wife moved through the crowd. Christian stopped the talk and said they were very welcome to stay and listen but they said they weren’t interested as they were “creationists”. Bizarre. Why were they there then??
The talks had started at 9.30 but by the time they’d finished our heads were spinning with so much information, not to mention the heat and humidity of the near midday sun.
We drove on to Cooinda and booked into the camping ground for the Yellow Water cruise the next day. We went for a swim in the pool, luckily all these places seem to have swimming pools – and for good reason – it’s hot and you can’t swim in the water holes! Because of the crocs! We watched a bit of the news of the big screen TV – very weird to see capital city news up here, cooked dinner and went to bed.
Kakadu to Katherine
Day Twelve, Thursday 23rd June Cooinda to Katherine
We had to be up very early this morning as it was a breakfast cruise. We set the alarm for 5.45am. Great time to be awake as cool and quiet. We had to meet at the bus stop just at the back of where we were parked. At about 6am people began arriving, by 6.30am it was as it was like early morning rush hour in the big city.
Bus after bus arrived to transport us to the four waiting boats – flat bottomed with a metal roof, we found out breakfast was after the cruise and back at the bistro.
We decided we had the easy going kid’s guide – not much information but a nice guy. However, we did see a lot of different birds with the highlight being a jabiru. Seeing the sun rise was another bonus and the river come to life in the early morning. No one knows why this river is known as the Yellow River, it may be due to some yellow colouration at times in the water due to algae or tanin. Saw the odd croc with the guide warning us for every one you see there are ten underwater!
Back to the bistro for breakfast, which was badly set up for this many tourists. We decided to pop into the Aboriginal culture centre as it was only just down the road, then head for our destination of Katherine. We said goodbye to Kakadu, driving out of the southern entrance/exit and re-joining the Stuart Highway.
We made one detour along the way to see the Elsie or Edith Falls. We had a refreshing swim and an ice cream at the rustic hippy café but then resumed our travels. As with so much of the Northern Territory you have to travel a long way for a landmark or a change of scene and often those landmarks come with a downside – mosquitoes or too many others cramped into a tiny place wanting to experience the remoteness and wilderness of the NT.
We had been given a recommendation for where to stay in Katherine which was a Big 4 caravan park on the outskirts of the town. It was very slickly run with huge parklands and trees as you drove in, the reception appeared to be in a house and then you had to drive past all that before you came to the sardine can city hidden from view. As soon as we found our spot, it was put the jug on and time for tea, hot dry and thirsty but not humid. We decided to give the bistro and swimming pool a miss, although we noticed quite a few of the elderly “tin camper can” occupants walking along dressed up for a big night out.
Katherine to Dunmarra
Day Thirteen Friday 24th June, Katherine to Dunmarra
We had to drive 30 kms to get to the gorge. We arrived in what we thought was heaps of time only to find out we were parked in the wrong spot. No matter, the boats were on NT time so we ended up with plenty of time to walk the 400 metres to the wharf. We waited under trees full of bats making a huge din, a magnificent kookaburra sat on a branch just above us munching on a grasshopper. The kookaburra smashed it on the branch then gulped it down.
The boat cruise was a 3 gorge trip, 9.30am to 1pm. The gorges were each truly magnificent, and the commentary was good, though a bit tired. The watermarks down the rocks were evidence of the amount of water that comes down in the wet season as were the high tide marks. We had a swim in the second gorge, though the rocks were extremely slippery. We were impressed by the fact that the local Aboriginal people owned 100% of the boat operation, many worked on the boats and served in the café.
It was excessively hot by the time we finished the tour, there was a viewing platform we could have walked to from the café but the boat guide recommended it be done in the morning or evening as at 1-2pm the temperature would be around 50 degrees centigrade !!
We had a bite to eat and a coffee in the café – amazing how you can get cappuccinos almost anywhere these days – and headed back to the Stuart Highway with our next major destination being Alice Springs – but that was a day and half of driving away. We wanted to get as far as we could but we also wanted to see the pub at Daly Waters, having seen it featured in “Last Cab to Darwin”, a recent Australian movie we’d watched in Wanaka. It was not far off sunset when we turned off the highway and drove the 2 kms to the pub. Kangaroos were nibbling at the side of the road and making us nervous as we didn’t want to hit anything in our campervan but we decided to risk it. The pub was exactly as it was in the movie but we decided not to stay – too many grey nomads and 20 somethings packed in the pub and the beer garden for us. The bras hanging from the rafters were interesting! We took a few photos and hit the road once more, deciding to drive through the Dunmarra.
The caravan park in Dunmarra had been recommended to us by two Kiwis we’d met in Jabiru. It was attached to the service station/roadhouse/bistro and was to all intents and purposes the ‘town’. It was managed by an old chap by the name of Trevor who spent every day being the manager, gardener, pool maintenance man etc. The guy in the roadhouse radioed him to ask if there was a free powered site and you could hear the joy in his voice confirming that yes, he could squeeze us in. The swimming pool was a tiny oasis in the desert and dogs were allowed to stay. Trevor guided us on foot to the site which was between trees and backed on to a huge dirt area that turned out to be where everyone walked their dogs in the morning to do their do dos. Brilliant red sunset in the west.
Dunmarra to Alice Springs
Day Fourteen, Saturday 25th June, Dunmarra to Alice Springs
Kerrie overheard two 60 something women on their way to the swimming pool telling Trevor “what a treasure he is and what a paradise Dunmarra was!”
Big day of driving – we set off at 7.30 am. We took photos of road trains and the vast open plains – the distances are mind boggling with not much change in the terrain – and some of the many, many termite mounds along the edge of the road, some that had been quirkily dressed in adult or children’s clothing.
It was almost a straight road the entire way, so driving the Kea was easy thanks to cruise control but it would have helped to pass the time if the CD player was in the dashboard rather than located at the back of the ‘bus’ in the media centre above the microwave (we’d bought book tapes especially for the trip). We managed to get ABC radio near the towns and caught two brilliant programmes about famous artists we’d never heard of which was a bonus. A reminder of how important the ABC is to national discussion and awareness. At some point the dirt became redder and the terrain scrubbier.
Drove straight through Tennant Creek – a sad and desolate looking place.
We’d been recommended to see a rock formation on the way called the Devil’s Marbles – quite extraordinary and you can see how they got their name. Both a natural feature and part of the Aboriginal creation story for the region. Thankfully the customary owners had finally been granted possession and had prevented a railway line from going through the middle!
We stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn for a photo. This was not only a stop commemorating the Tropic of Capricorn it was also a free place to stay overnight. We passed several of these along the Stuart Highway but at this one (right beside the highway so road trains, trucks and traffic were a constant noise factor) we saw quite a few caravans including one that looked like they were there for a week with their awning up and their canvas chairs set up with the woman knitting and her husband in his singlet and shorts sitting beside her reading a book and swatting the flies. Eight hundred and sixty three kilometres after leaving Dunmarra, we arrived in Alice Springs at sunset. It felt strange to arrive in a city after so long in the wilderness.
Sunday 26th June, Alice Springs
We had to take the campervan in for repairs: from the moment we’d picked it up and for the entire 2,800 kms or so we had driven so far we had had a beeping sound and a warning sign in German light up on the dashboard every ten minutes saying we were overdue for a service, plus the flyscreen needed repairing, and finally a significant piece of plumbing came off when we last emptied the grey water!
While the van was being fixed, we went to the Beanie festival, world famous apparently, featuring knitted beanies from around Australia.
Alice Springs to Yulara
Monday 27th June Alice Springs to Yulara
We drove to Uluru, 500 kms away, stopping on the way for a view of Mt Conner – known colloquially as Fool-uru as it’s often mistaken for Uluru. We’d never heard of it before but it was impressive with sloping sides and flat as a pancake on top. We stopped for fuel and a cappuccino at Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. Owned and run by the Imanpa Community, Mt Ebenezer is an outlet for the artwork produced by members of Imanpa community. The art gallery makes more money than the garage they used to operate.
Strangely enough, the manager was … a Kiwi.
It was a breath-taking moment when Uluru finally appeared on the horizon.
This was the start of the Australian school holidays so we arrived at Yulara resort to find the camping ground packed and a queue of motor homes, caravans and cars waiting to check in. Andrew stood for an hour and a half in the queue waiting to get our allocated space. NT bureaucracy is SO SLOW.
The most infuriating part was that we actually thought we had a confirmed 3 night stay but when we rang up to check the day before they had no record of our booking. So, they put us in the coach bay for the night – we were surrounded by teenagers in tents – but we did have our own covered eating area.
Sunset was approaching so we ran to the nearest viewing point to watch the sun go down on Uluru.
After negotiating the Kea into our designated spot, we christened the fold out BBQ by cooking kangaroo steaks and kangaroo sausages. Talking to one of teenagers as we did the dishes, she said she almost had an emergency situation as she’d come away without makeup but thank goodness she managed to buy some foundation and mascara at the Yularu pharmacy! Such are 15 year olds!
Tuesday 28th June, Yulara,NT
Tuesday – Uluru sunrise. We set the alarm and in the darkness navigated our way out of Yulara, and drove to the entrance to the park. Already there was a queue of cars waiting to get into the park. At 6.30am the line for purchased entry passes started moving; we didn’t have a pass so we were in a different queue and our line moved at the typical and immensely frustrating snail pace we have come to expect in the NT.
It was still dark by the time we finally got to the head of the queue and got our 3 day pass, but we knew sunrise was not far away. We then missed the extremely poorly signposted turn off to the designated sunrise viewing area and only realised we had gone too far when we passed people driving the opposite direction. We turned back, found the signpost and the turn-off, drove to the car park and ran to the sunrise viewing platform. It was so jam packed with tourists and their cameras it looked like the paparazzi waiting for royalty. We found a spot on the fence line and waited along with everyone else for the magic moment when the first rays hit the great monolith. It was absolutely freezing, around 5-6 degrees and we had underdressed for the desert winter temperatures! What a contrast to Kakadu’s 34 degrees!
Due to the bureaucratic bungling with our campsite booking we had to get a new powered space for the night, so Andrew wanted to get to the office before the queues began. Our next site was on the outer perimeter of the ground with red earth dunes behind it, but with a caravan six feet away on one side – Kerrie described it as like living in suburbia, or ‘tenturbia’.
We walked around the base of the rock – distance 10.5 kms, all on the flat. We saw petroglyphs, concentric rings just at the water level of a pool, incredibly ancient, predating the time of the local Aboriginal custodians people. Apparently these engravings in the rock are mostly concealed beneath the current waterline.
It took about 2 and a half hours with stops to marvel at the different formations in the rock, eat, drink and look at the flowers that had appeared after the heavy rains from the previous week. The rock itself had been closed to ascent due to instability after the rains but had re-opened to climbing by the time we completed the circuit. We were disappointed to see people climbing the rock when we returned to the carpark – despite large clear signs at the base asking people not to, as it’s both dangerous and disrespectful to the Aboriginal owners. Clearly the only way to stop people going up is to close it altogether. This is being considered. Extraordinary that it hasn’t been already, given around 5 people a year die either in the attempt or afterwards of heart attack or other complications. Afterwards we visited the cultural centre. We were too tired to watch the classic Uluru sunset this evening and cooked up dinner back at our site.
Wednesday 29th June Yulara, NT
We set off into the Park to meet for breakfast near a permanent water hole at the base of Uluru on the south side. We went on a guided walk and talk explaining the origin and formation of the waterhole and shape of the rock carved out by a giant serpent. The waterhole used to be a guaranteed source of fresh drinking water to local people but is now contaminated by climbers of the rock who relieve themselves on top! Tragic. We visited the local Aboriginal community – to witness the living conditions of the customary owners, the village tourists never see as the conditions are a disgrace, a marked contrast to Yulara. Nothing has changed in twenty years. Back to the camping ground to register for next night’s spot – this time an unpowered site crammed in between a Maui and an Apollo.
After coffee at the resort shopping centre facing town square, we drove to the Olgas – now known as Kata Tjuta. We walked up the spectacular Walpa gorge, almost to the end with a view behind looking back to Western Australia on the horizon. Afterwards, we returned to the Kea campervan – had a cuppa tea and biccie, then headed back to see Uluru at sunset.
By the time we got there it was packed, many eating and drinking and creating quite an occasion out of it with tables set up, cups of tea, wine and cheese etc! We managed to find a space and it was worth it. Uluru changed from moment to moment through a cascade of colours to a final fiery orangey red with Kata Tjuta behind us in shadow.
Yulara – Alice Springs
Thursday 30th June, Yulara – Alice Springs
Kerrie took last photos of Uluru signs, before we hit the road back to Alice Springs, filling up with gas at Mt Ebenezer on the way – the cheapest place before Alice.
We reached Alice around 1:30. Topped up with fuel and gas before dropping off our van at Maui – Kerrie registered our unhappiness at problems we’d had with the van and asked for a refund of the drop-off fee, which they agreed to the next day.
Alice Springs to Cairns
Friday July 1st. Alice Springs to Cairns
We walked through the state heritage reserve to get to the old Post and Telegraph station, which we’d been told was an important historic site. We had to bush bash our way and duck through three fences. But it was all worthwhile – after refreshment at the coffee shop we paid to enter the reserve – which was incredibly interesting and informative. Extraordinary that they built a trans-continental telegraph line from South Australia to Darwin in 1872, that connected to a submarine cable from Indonesia, connecting Australia to the rest of the world, enabling communications to take just 48 hours instead of 3-6 months.
We flew to Cairns and checked in at the Rydges Hotel on the Esplanade.
Good location, on the waterfront but the room was the furthest room from the lifts that we have ever experienced, almost needed a map to find it and refreshments along the way.
Saturday July 2nd. Cairns to Townsville
Had booked a water view room which we got but the water view was behind the building site immediately below us and we woke to building noise! Our flight to Townsville wasn’t until 3.30pm so we went for a swim in the swimming pool and a walk along the sea front before we went shopping for gifts
Cairns was very hot and humid which we hadn’t expected given that it’s winter but it’s surrounded by undeveloped lush green hinterland and mangroves. The sea front is mostly mudflats so not so appealing but there were lots of free exercise machines to use along the walkway and was a popular walking exercise route. On our shopping expedition we saw lots of empty shops and old Queensland pubs desperate for patronage but we walked past them and straight to the air conditioned shopping centre where I’m guessing three quarters of the population of Cairns were, too.
Flew to Townsville and found the Islington apartments where we had booked a one-bedroom unit and discovered the street address was now a car park and where the train line once used to run. The old train station had been kept and was off to one side as it had historical significance dating to the times of WW1 – but the tracks were concreted over. The units were directly behind a half empty massive office block and surprise, surprise, our unit was not located in the picture that was on the website. Think housing commission towers and you’re close. We had to go through a locked wire gate to get to the lift and then walk along an exposed concrete path to get to our unit which faced another block of units. We did have a view of a vacant block of land to one side and the river was in the distance.
The unit had mod cons but the air conditioner in the main room emitted an annoying whine and the bedroom had a corridor light immediately outside the window that made you think it was daylight 24/7.
Monday July 4th – Townsville
Visited the Reef Aquarium which was new to us – built since we’d left. Great for families, informative and with life shows, feeding fish and sharks, Q and A sessions etc. Watched ABC TV – Australian Story had a fascinating doco about a cameraman who worked with Central Australian Aborigines and helped set up CAAMA, the Aboriginal radio and broadcasting service; then we watched Four Corners on the future of work and jobs – interesting and confronting in terms of which professions may disappear or where jobs for humans are likely to be replaced by robots (eg truck drivers, lawyers). We soaked up the intelligent and informative viewing – like finding a waterhole in a desert after the appalling lack of quality TV in New Zealand. This is why you do need a public broadcaster – because it tackles difficult issues, isn’t afraid to be intelligent and reveals what’s going on and what the future holds!
Tuesday July 5th – Townsville
Today we visited the art gallery and the museum. First we went to the Perc Tucker Memorial gallery which was showing a portrait exhibition – a biennial competition for artists from around the country. There were some excellent works there including people we recognised – and many we didn’t. Sixteen years away from Australia and 36 years since we left Townsville is a long time!! Perc Tucker was the Mayor when we worked here – now a distant memory for us, but kept alive thanks to the gallery.
The museum (another attraction which wasn’t here when we were working here) was wonderful, dedicated to the story of the HMS Pandora, a ship tasked with capturing the mutineers of the Bounty and taking them back to England for trial. They captured around 15-20 and were on their way back but foundered on the Great Barrier Reef trying to find a passage through. A fascinating story really well told, made more so by a documentary on the marine archaeology within the exhibition.
Wednesday July 6th – Townsville
Nostalgia day! We first met in Townsville, back in 1980 and have many happy memories, one of which was a visit to Magnetic Island. So we decided to go on a trip down memory lane and caught the ferry across to Magnetic Island for the day. Bought the ferry +bus pass which allowed us to take the bus around to the Horseshoe Bay turn off. We wanted to go on a walk – always the best way of “seeing” a place and this is where the 4-5 km trail to the old WWII forts starts. Lovely walk through forest with great views over Arthur and Florence Bays. Fascinating history of how two 10 ton guns were hauled up and installed and the life of the garrison there to man them (including women). The guns never fired a shot except in practice and disappeared mysteriously at the end of the war – probably removed by US forces and dropped in the ocean as they did with war surplus in the Pacific islands.
Townsville was attacked by the Japanese which is why the guns were brought in to protect the city and the sailing passage inside the reef – Cleveland Bay. Great views from the two forts perched on hilltops overlooking the northern passage towards Palm Island. We saw a koala fast asleep in the crook of a tree, oblivious to walkers and photographers on our way back down. We carried on walking to Horseshoe Bay, had lunch, lounged on the beach and caught the bus back to ferry via Picnic Bay – we stayed on for the ride.
Thursday July 7th – Townsville
We headed off to the Billabong Sanctuary, down the Bruce Highway. Nicely set up place with animal feeding – koalas, cassowaries, turtles and tame kangaroos lolloping around. Lots of crocs – including one biggish saltie with one eye that had been captured on the beach in front of the Strand ! We had been surprised to see signs along the Strand warning of crocodiles and hadn’t remembered that being a problem back in the 70s/80s. Stingers yes – but crocs? Maybe their numbers and range have increased since they’ve been protected? There had been the tragic case of a NZ woman taken while swimming in the sea (unwisely) near the Daintree, north of Cairns only a few months ago. In the evening, we ate at the Rockpool fish restaurant at 6pm for dinner. Good food and a nice outlook over Cleveland Bay.
Saturday July 9th – Brisbane
We caught the city cat at Teneriffe wharf for a trip up the river, through the heart of the city and on to University of Queensland where the ferry turned around and went back. We couldn’t help noticing huge numbers of apartments and development along the river – wondering who was buying and living in them – retirees/young professionals? On our return we hopped off at the South Bank, decided against going into a French festival (as Kerrie said – we were going to the ‘vrai’ thing next month!) and went on to visit the art gallery. An interesting mix of artworks – some great classics, some superb Aboriginal art – including a major retrospective of the work of Sally Gabori (Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda) an elderly woman who had taken up painting late in life. Her artwork was bold and colourful – if somewhat basic – importantly capturing the stories of the artist’s father and family from Bentinck Island in Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria.
Sunday July 10th – Brisbane
We walked along the river to New Farm – about half an hour along an excellent boardwalk/pathway for both walkers/runner and cyclists, who had to ring their bell on approach, most sensibly. On the way we saw various groups performing tai chi and other forms of movement exercise – which looked really good – especially in light of the British program on how to stay young featuring Angela Rippon, aged 72. Apparently dancing is much better for you than working out in a gym. We found a cute looking café at the wharf and stopped for breakfast before walking back.
Monday July 11th – Brisbane
We caught the ferry into the city and picked up our hire car from Hertz in the city centre – again, thanks to Stephanie at Brooker Travel everything was arranged and no last minute hassles over insurance etc. Kerrie drove us out of town on the freeway adjusting to very different traffic conditions compared to the Northern Territory and even Townsville, as we entered into the world of four lane traffic in each direction, trucks pushing up behind you in their hurry to make time and the inevitable congestion due to an accident that slowed everything down to a crawl for at least half an hour. We were headed towards the Gold Coast and Coolangatta.
We decided to wander down the coast road for a while – which was really disappointing. We went through Burleigh Heads which felt like a transplant from America – endless strips of stores, businesses, shops with neon signs – a mish-mash of consumption on a stick, ugly to look at and not a great entry point to the coast and Palm Beach. It didn’t get much better as we went south. Saved by a nice café in Currumbin where we had a haloumi and roasted vegetable salad and a free coffee – a courtesy to compensate for the rudeness of a regular customer who’d pushed her way in to place her order ahead of Andrew! We walked along the beach as the day faded, then drove south to Coolangatta. We stopped at a newsagent to buy a birthday card and Andrew bought a copy of Archaeological Diggings, a magazine put out by the Seventh Day Adventists! Surprisingly good – with a fascinating cover story of a marine archaeologist’s discovery of two ancient cities off the coast of Egypt – source perhaps of the story of the lost city of Atlantis (we later visited an exhibition featuring some of the extraordinary findings at the British Museum in London). As it turned out, sadly this was the last edition as the magazine is not making enough money.
Wednesday July 13th – Brisbane/Coffs Harbour
We packed up and set off for NSW and progressively cooler temperatures. Kerrie drove again – we listened to the storybook about the history and life on Australian cattle stations. Interesting in parts (the history) but dull and pedestrian in its descriptions of today’s world.
We looked for a coffee stop – picking the wrong one! We turned off at Brunswick Heads – a sad and sorry town that looked tired, neglected and woebegone. No sign here of the exciting technological vision of the future here envisioned by PM Malcolm Turnbull! We grabbed a take-away coffee and pressed on, passing through other settlements and towns on the Pacific Highway that didn’t look a great deal more prosperous. We saw sugar cane fields and the only impressive thing was Mt Warning on the horizon. We made it around dusk to the Opal Cove Resort – a rather grand name for what it was! Still the room was clean and spacious. We ate in the restaurant, busy as the resort was booked out being school holidays.
The one disappointment – other than not having an ocean view – was that we had a connecting room and they’d put a young family next door who made a racket till about 10:30 and then the youngest started up again at 5:30am. Argh. Kerrie lodged a formal complaint the next day but the response was to ask if we had requested a “quiet room”! We also discovered that the ‘amazing deal’ we got through Agoda turned out to be the rack rate and that if we’d dealt with the resort directly they’d have given us another ten dollars off. Hmmm – we’re getting increasingly suspicious of the value of these online booking agencies. Our travel agent, Brooker is looking very good by comparison.
Friday July 15th – Port Macquarie
Visited the Sea Acres rainforest centre and walked around the 1.3 km boardwalk. It had been funded under a Hawke/Richardson federal Labor initiative and we reflected on how the days when governments had the vision to implement these kinds of projects to preserve native forest and provide a facility for public benefit seem to be sadly a thing of the past. Now if it doesn’t make money or benefit a private company it doesn’t make the grade. Yet one of the things that makes Port Macquarie such an attractive town (apparently the fastest growing one in NSW) is that it is buffered north and south by native forest (Sea Acres is the last patch of coastal rainforest in the State) which prevent the awful ribbon development we’d seen around the Queensland border. Beauty and aesthetics – which don’t feature on neo-conservative’s spreadsheets or list of important things to consider or fund in life – do add value, do create centres of excellence and are attractors for people who do want more out of life than shopping centres, high rise apartment blocks and fast food outlets! This town is a clear example of that.
An afternoon seeing parts of the town and learning about its convict history; you can see why Port Macquarie is so popular – it’s tastefully laid out and the town centre has a heart. That night we were guests at the Thai Glass House restaurant – a sumptuous feast of curry, prawns, squid and sizzling chicken!
Saturday July 16th – Port Macquarie
A slightly overcast and drizzly day – but we decided to go ahead with our plan to do the coastal walk that starts at the old lighthouse on a headland to the south of PM and follows beaches and coast through to the town. A really wonderful walk with views up and down the coast, historical insights about Aboriginal use and occupation, naming of three hills as Three Brothers – in a remarkable co-incidence when Cook sailed by charting the coast in the 1770s he also named the three hills ‘three brothers’ – and later European settlement.
Part of the walk went along the beach bordering the Sea Acres rainforest. We stopped for our sandwich lunch at a look out – at one point a sign told how people were stationed to signal to ships whether it was safe to try and enter the river mouth and dock as the sand bar was very shallow and the passage was treacherous.
The last part of the walk took us along the breakwater beside the river with some of the rocks colourfully painted with signs. All up a delightful 9 km walk.
Monday July 18th – Port Macquarie
We drove to Laurieton and walked up North Brother Mountain in Dooragan National Park, one of the ‘three brothers’ (the three mountains at the heart of Aboriginal stories here), 880 steps – this is a training walk for the Himalaya! A beautiful, very peaceful forest, with the reward of stunning views of the coast north from the top.
Friday July 22nd – Sydney
A beautiful day – sunshine and windy! We went to Palm Beach – playground of the rich and infamous.
Walked up the peninsula towards Barrenjoey Headland and the lighthouse. En route we stopped to take some shots of Home and Away location, Summer Bay (for our daughter, a fan apparently). A good steep climb to the top, made somewhat easier by a paved track. The lighthouse and associated buildings, built with Sydney sandstone had been restored and looked beautiful. A bushfire had swept through a few years before – so there was a fair amount of regeneration happening. We walked on past the lighthouse for a better view of the Pacific – and a hoped for a sighting of passing whales. It’s the season when they track up the Eastern Australian coastline on their way north to their breeding grounds off the North Queensland coast. We didn’t expect to see anything – but struck lucky. We saw several “blows” and whales surfacing – about half a kilometre away. Most likely Humpbacks. We walked back down the smugglers path, took the dogs to a park where they can run around off the leash – then back home for lunch. Kerrie went to the shops and saw Australian actor Richard Roxburgh (very excited about that!!). We went out to dinner at the Avalon Surf Livesavers Club – a balmy evening so we sat by the open window overlooking the ocean and had ginger mojito cocktails. Food was good – seafood mostly – although some dishes a little ‘light on content’. Delightful last evening at the Northern beaches!
Saturday July 23rd –Sydney
We caught the train into town to visit the NSW art gallery to view the Archibald portrait exhibition. Some striking and impressive works (eg of Australian actor Gary McDonald and Deng Thiak Adut, a former Sudanese child soldier).
Some weird stuff inevitably. The winning portrait of Barry Humphries was excellent, the use of light and shade especially good. Also we viewed the Wynne and Sulman exhibitions; interestingly, the winner of the Wynne prize for landscape was by a collective of five sisters (the Ken family) from the Aboriginal community of Amata in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in the far north-west of South Australia who had produced a vast double canvas depicting the story of the seven sisters – which we’re sure is the same story that is part of the Uluru and Kata Tjuta songline/story.
Sunday July 24th –Sydney
Woke to a fine, sunny winter’s morning and went on an 8km hike around the Paramatta River/Rozelle Bay foreshore, taking us past the historic Callan Park Hospital for the Insane – still standing, strangely silent amongst the trees. Somewhat eerie – but better than development! Just past the buildings are Aboriginal rock carvings which depict a ship and European figure, clearly from post contact times. After crossing the Iron Cove Bridge, we circled back along the Paramatta River, stopping for coffee and cake on the way.
Monday July 25th –Sydney
A great day – we drove to Cronulla – an old stamping ground of the Kerrie’s when growing up. We walked along the beach and coastline overlooking sandy bays, large swells, groups of surfers and swimmers braving the chilly waters. After a coffee, we drove around to Cape Solander a National Park at the end of the Kurnell peninsula where Cooke first landed. The oil refinery now just stores oil, next to a billion-dollar desalination plant that is moth-balled until the next water shortage crisis. Many houses under canvas and being repaired after being hammered by a terrible storm 7 months ago with winds over 200 kms an hour, the strongest winds recorded on the mainland and hailstones the size of tennis balls!
We drove to the point overlooking the Pacific where a whale-spotting station was counting whales on their migration north – some 2280 so far. We walked along the headland, loosely following a trail under construction, sometimes just a few metres from the edge of the sandstone cliffs. White cockatoos screeched and wheeled as we gazed out to sea in search of the elusive mammals. We walked some 3-5 kilometres, and only when we returned to the car were we rewarded with sightings. Borrowing the whale watcher’s binoculars, we saw humpbacks blowing and breaching, slapping the water with their fins. Fantastic! Fish and chips and lentil burgers appeased our hunger at a quirky café looking out over Botany Bay.
Tuesday July 26th –Sydney
A must when visiting Sydney, we went into the city for a Lebanese lunch at Abdul’s restaurant on the corner of Elizabeth and Cleveland streets. Superb food – we gorged ourselves on hummus, baba ghanoush, lamb and chicken kebabs and cabbage leaf rolls, washed down with fresh lemon drink and Lebanese coffee. Ah – wonderful.
Wednesday July 27th –Sydney- Melbourne
Arrived in a noticeably chilly Melbourne, and caught the shuttle into town. That evening, we went to the Queen Victoria winter markets for dinner – by good fortune, only on a Wednesday night!! Got there early which meant we got our food without having to waiting in long queues. Went for Moroccan lamb and veggie stew with couscous, washed down with mulled wine. We shared our table with a Kiwi who does tourist tours of the markets and she said it was the most popular tourist destination in Melbourne! Lots of stalls – a mixture of food and clothing, plus live music and cinema showing short films; all very atmospheric, especially as night fell and all the lights made it feel very Christmassy! Delightful evening.
Thursday July 28th –Melbourne
Visited the Edgar Degas exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, opposite the Botanical Gardens.
A very comprehensive exhibition, with many (but not all) of Degas’ celebrated works, featuring ballerinas and the Paris demi-monde, an artist committed to portraying lives of ordinary people. His life covered an incredible period of France’s history including the rebellion of the communards in 1871 (Degas was a sympathiser) and the Dreyfus affair (Degas was convinced of his guilt).
We also took in two New Zealand exhibitions – quite original animated and photographic interpretations of Maori life and the voyage to Aotearoa. The latter involved light box photos of a group of Samoans re-enacting the classical painting, the Raft of Medusa by Géricault, challenging Goldie and Steele’s painting with its portrayal of starving, emaciated Polynesian voyagers.
We walked 20 mins along riverfront to factory stores in a huge three storey building. Bought icebreaker gear at vastly discounted prices, much cheaper than NZ. Dinner in Chinatown – we were seated right in front of the kitchen so could we watched them making their specialty – dumplings -before ordering two very different types plus a delicious minced pork and eggplant dish. Food was very fresh and flavoured with interesting spices. We wandered back in the direction of our hotel before going in search of gelato on the fourth floor of an extremely expensive and upmarket arcade nearby. Before finding gelato, we stopped at very expensive tea ‘shoppe’ to view hilarious anthropomorphic teapots and the amazing variety of teas.
Melbourne – Ireland
Monday 1st August –Melbourne – Ireland
HALF WAY!!! At midday – we are exactly half way through our trip, 50.5 days.
Dinner in Lygon at Ti amo – an Italian restaurant – a lovely meal (calamari).
We checked in to the Qantas A380, absolutely chokka flight. Luckily Kerrie had an empty seat next to her (one of very few). What wasn’t so good was that three toilets were out of order! Which meant there were only four available for the entire economy section downstairs – roughly calculated to hold 300-340 people!! This was appalling and a near disaster as queues formed rapidly and the toilets soon became very messy. Yuk! We asked why they hadn’t been fixed and were told they’d known they were out of order but decided to take off anyway to stay on time. Worse still, we were told it was most unlikely they’d be fixed in Dubai during the two hour stopover – and of course we were continuing on the same flight to Heathrow!
However we survived, managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep – watched The Man from Uncle which was schlock but fun, slickly directed and wisely self-parodying. Also finally got to watch the documentary, Racing Extinction which was excellent – and disturbing. The images of rare and endangered wildlife on sale, being prepared and eaten were horrifying (mostly in Hong Kong and China). The take away message: “do one thing”, ie don’t feel it’s all too big a problem and that there’s nothing you can do. You can! Just find one thing you can do and focus on that.
Tuesday 2nd August –Melbourne – Ireland
Our baggage was checked through to Shannon, Ireland thankfully. So just a transfer at Heathrow – but with 5-6 hour wait between flights. Whiled away our time in a café, using Heathrow wifi to check emails etc.
Wednesday 3rd August Ireland
Our first morning in Ireland, wet and raining but we didn’t care. Walked down to the Killaloe shops along a path that had a gorgeous view over the River Shannon and the surrounding countryside. Visited St Flannan’s Cathedral. An original wooden cathedral stood here from around 800 AD but was destroyed by fire in a war between two Irish tribes. Rebuilt in stone, it has a 12th century doorway, an example of Irish Romanesque stone carving beneath which it is said are buried both an ancient Gaelic and a Viking king.
Also in the cathedral is the Ogham Stone, a standing stone with old Gaelic writing known as Ogham script. Discovered in 1916 this most unusual standing stone dates to about 1000 AD. It’s unusual in that it also bears an inscription in ‘runes’, a Scandinavian script.
Dinner at Flanagans on the Lake, old fashioned dark timbered family pub. Waiters were hilarious.
Thursday 4th August – Ireland
Driving through the Clare country side, history looms at every turn! We stopped to visit Knappogue Castle, built in 1467 which had been privately owned but is now managed by Shannon Heritage and mainly used for medieval banquets. Not open to the public but we were able to look around the Victorian Walled Garden.
From there visited Craggaunowen – The Living Past, near Quin: a ‘theme park’ established to recreate the lifestyle and conditions for people during the pre-historic and early Christian periods. The site features a castle, ringfort, a lake-dwelling, Souterrain or underground passage and the Brendan – the vessel built using traditional materials and sailed in 1976 by Tim Severin from Ireland to Newfoundland via Iceland to demonstrate that an early Irish voyage to the US by St Brendan the Navigator who died in 583 AD, was feasible.
That night we went to the Feakle International Festival of Traditional Irish Music – the 29th since it started.
The venue was Pepper’s Pub, where musicians were playing in the bar, a masterclass being led by a guitarist. At 7pm we gravitated to a marquee behind the pub for the evening’s ‘café style concert’, including food. A wonderful evening of traditional music featuring a range of styles and experience, including a Japanese duo who have taken up Irish music and the famous Tulla Ceili Band who’ve played top venues around the world. A foot-tapping tour de force of precision and passion that had us dazzled with their pace, and matched by dancers that took to the floor for a set. A fantastic evening.
Friday 5th August – Ireland
We around around part of Lough Derg which the River Shannon flows in and out of. The sun shone mostly and we had beautiful views across the lough to the hills the other side and to an island with an ancient round tower which we hope to visit later.
On the way back we stopped off to see the ancient ringfort of Beal Boru dating back over a thousand years.
Back to Feakle for our second night at the music festival. The evening’s entertainment was held in the village church, St Mary’s. The recital featured a range of amazing talents – we were particularly taken with the first band – Re (moon or era in Gaelic) which included two former members of a well-known Irish band, The Hothouse Flowers. They played a magical set of traditional Irish music. So impressed that we bought their CD, a great memento. Afterwards, we capped off a great day with drinks at Bohan’s Pub – where the festivities continued – music in the front bar and a ceili (dance) in the lounge at the back. The energy and steps were truly amazing. What most struck us was how everyone joined in, young and old, men and women – a real sense of a community bonded together through dance and music and culture.
Saturday 6th August – Ireland
The last day of the Feakle Traditional Irish Music Festival.
Poetry and singing in Bohan’s Pub – packed to the rafters with young and old, men and women. Poetry reading featured Joe Noonan, a retired postman with his touching observations on human nature and the passing of life and the old ways, and Cormac Lally, a young dread-locked man who recited rap-like poems sharp with wit and political comment. Both quite different but impressive. We bought a copy of the latter’s book of poems. Following them were a wide variety of singers of all ages, all singing unaccompanied without song sheets – from the heart. Many were sung in Irish (Gaelic), many love songs and some heartfelt ones on emigration and the history of oppression and resistance by Irish patriots. Each singer was plucked from the audience by the master of ceremonies and some featured later in the evening’s closing concert. Everyone received warm applause – a great sense of celebration of Irish culture. Dinner was in a pop up Italian restaurant just up the road, at Loughnane’s Hostel – Guinness Beef and Potatoes on the menu. Good hearty fare!
Afterwards we attended a concert in the community hall. There was a variety of bands and musical styles, including a band featuring Brian Corry our waiter at the pop up restaurant, and friends! The last band was very special. Two accordionists and a concertina player, featuring a father and son, Seamus Begley and Eoin Begley together with Joe Fitzgerald, a 70 year old who had emigrated from a village near Feakle to Australia when he was 17. He had been encouraged to return for the music festival a few years ago – now a regular and restoring the old family home! His accent was as if he’d never left, passionate about Irish culture and language. He played a remarkable mix of Irish and Australian tunes including one by Eric Bogle. Seamus Begley was brilliantly funny – a local farmer from one of Ireland’s most acclaimed musical families with a passion for music and story-telling – and with a wickedly irreverent sense of humour and a master of the one-liner. A great conclusion to the festival.
Monday 8th August – Ireland
Bus Station to Sligo. Express to Galway where we changed onto the ‘slow’ bus to Sligo which stopped off at numerous towns along the way, including Knock with its string of shops all selling religious artefacts and souvenirs. The town was packed with coaches and tourists. Turns out Knock is famous as a place of pilgrimage – with its own international airport, the site of a miraculous apparition in 1879, witnessed by no fewer than 15 people. The countryside was unexceptional until we approached Sligo and could see the mountains. We checked into the Sligo City Hotel in the town centre and went for a wander. An attractive city, with the River Garavogue running through the centre. WB Yeats, the celebrated Irish poet is commemorated everywhere in statues and with a dedicated visitor centre. We bought maps for our walks and a slender volume of Yeats’ poems.
Tuesday 9th August – Ireland
After breakfast at the hotel (full Irish!) we headed off to make the ascent of Ben Bulben, a dramatic escarpment north of Sligo, hoping the unpromising weather would hold off. We mentioned to the hotel reception (Ken) that we were off to do a tough walk and to send out a search party if we weren’t back by dinner. He replied it was his night off – and he’d rather we didn’t wreck it by contacting him!!
Using Great Irish Walks for direction we found our way up a succession of ever narrower roads and tracks into fairly wild and desolate country. We reached the starting point, but taking notice of a No Trespassing sign decided to park a little way back and walk up. The first kilometre took us across boggy land that had been dug up for peat – dozens of plastic bags piled up across the fields – in some cases the peat had been cored and looked like animal manure stacked and drying. We followed a rough path up beside a stream, climbing steadily to the ridge. Colourfully dyed sheep scattered across the landscape – giving us some light entertainment (a curious mix of red and blue fluffy dots on the landscape). Up top, we had stunning views around Sligo, ominously tempered by clouds, with King’s Mountain to our left. We decided we’d do the walk in reverse from this point – head for Ben Bulben’s precipitous rocky bulwarks and circle back to King’s mountain and back the way we’d come. It was sadly not to be. As the book warned, the weather in mountains is forever changeable – and quite suddenly a front scudded in from the west, from the Atlantic. Clouds murkily covered the peaks and a steady rain set in. Visibility dropped to 20 metres. We decided that wisdom was the better part of valour (and safety) and retraced our steps, following sheep trails through the peaty, boggy terrain towards the valley we’d ascended. We found our way to the stream. Once we knew we were on track – we stopped for a warming cuppa, pastry and sausage sandwich. Of course at that point the clouds lifted enough to make us pause and think about going back – but we were wet and cold and decided that it could just as easily change again – so we continued downwards. We made it back to the car safely – a round trip of two and a half hours.
We followed a tourist route around the mountains along narrow roads with barely room for two cars to pass each other – past stunning escarpments back-dropping signs for Yeats Country. Drove out to Mullaghmore Head and stopped for a short walk on a beach with signposts warning of cattle – with ample evidence of their presence to avoid!
Passed a lovely harbour and on around the peninsula, very scenic with a castle perched on a hilltop and dramatic slabs of rock “sliding” into the ocean. Around here some of the ships from the Spanish Armada came aground, 1800 lives lost – some made it to shore.
We made our way to Lissadell House, home of the Gore-Booths – most notably Constance (later) Markievicz and her sister Eva Gore-Booth. Constance was one of the leaders of Ireland’s 1916 Rising, and was the first woman to be elected to Dáil Eireann, where she served as Minister for Labour – the first woman minister in a modern Western European democracy. Yeats visited here and later wrote a poem about the sisters. The visitor centre features extensive artwork by Jack Yeats, immensely talented, the best known Irish painter of the 20th century as it turns out and William’s brother, as well as historic documents and photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. We took a tour of the Gore-Booth’s ancestral home, with more than 70 rooms, very grand, shades of Downton Abbey, now owned by a pair of Dublin barristers. After that we walked down to visit the beautiful Alpine Garden, overlooking Sligo Bay.
On our way back to Sligo we stopped at Drumcliff church and cemetery to see WB Yeats’ grave – he actually died in France and his bones were later repatriated although there’s some doubt the bones are actually his! The cemetery also features an outstanding Celtic cross. Dinner at Donaghy’s pub – plentiful servings.
Wednesday 10th August – Ireland
We checked out of Sligo hotel – miserable wet and cloudy weather. To bolster our spirits, we had breakfast in the awarded Lyons café, just up the road – the best vegetarian breakfast ever! Despite the gloomy outlook, we decided to head to nearby Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery – spotted in the Lonely Planet Guide.
This is the largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Ireland and is also among the country’s oldest, one of the great heartlands of megalithic culture in Western Europe with monuments ranging from five thousand to five thousand eight hundred years old. Archaeologists have recorded over 60 tombs of which 30 are visible – the creation of neolithic peoples. The site contains rock circles, tunnels, tombs and dolmens – mostly assembled using gneiss. We spent two hours going around the site in unceasing rain, becoming totally drenched – much to the admiration of the visitor centre staff!
We drove on to Strandhill on the Western end of the Knocknarea peninsula in search of the famous Mamma Johnston’s Ice Cream Parlour. Our search was successful. Great ice cream, followed by steaming hot pot of tea and hearty cakes – just reward for our archaeological adventures. We headed north then – to our next night’s stop – Ardara in Donegal. Ardara is a delightful town, the centre of the Donegal Tweed manufacturing industry on the Owenea River; we visited the tourist centre and Eddie Doherty’s clothing and weaving shop, with Eddie himself working on the ancient loom. Beautiful material and we just had to buy a little something – hats and socks which we felt we needed to stay warm in this classically wet and windy Irish summer weather.
We walked up a hill behind town for views of the valley. Dinner was at Nancy’s Seafood restaurant – excellent!
Thursday 11th August – Ireland
The weather still awful – low clouds, rain and no prospect of improvement. Still we decided to head south to see if there was any chance of catching a glimpse of Slieve League, Europe’s highest cliffs where we had hoped to do a dramatic walk, had the weather been favourable. No such luck – the clouds stayed stubbornly low. We drove in hope to the westerly end of the peninsula to Malin Bay and down to Trabane Beach. After a walk along the beach, we retired for comfort and warmth to a café which sold good coffee, scones and jam – and seaweed!
We took the back road to Carrick and Teelin, starting point for the Slieve League classic walk. The mountains and cliffs were shrouded in fog, however. Still, we decided to join a motley collection of hopeful tourists and walked the thirty minutes in misty, murky conditions past clumps of healthy looking heather up to the viewing platform. It was at times very strange as ghostly apparitions loomed out from the fog, nodded or looked disconsolately ahead as they passed by and disappeared again. We hung around for 15-20 minutes and were rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of the sea pounding on the rocky cliff base some 175 metres below and, just barely, the rocky outcrops known locally as the Giant’s Desk and Chair. Barely gratified with this minimal view of what should have been a staggering outlook – we retreated to the car and drove to the fishing town of Killybegs, then north and turning west just south of Ardara we went to look at Maghera waterfall – which was suitably impressive, cascading with peaty ferocity, powered by all the rain! A carved wooden Celtic cross guarded the falls and gave hope to the faithful and superstitious – numerous coins stuck in cracks and clefts. We added two more for good measure and with vain prayers to the weather gods for clear skies and sun! Opposite is Maghera Strand – a beautiful estuary with sand banks and dunes. Back to the Nesbitt Arms for hot showers and dinner.
Friday 12th August – Ireland
Despite asking the night before and being told we could have an early continental breakfast, when we turned up the door was locked, guarded by a grumpy waitress saying “she hadn’t been told” we were coming 45 minutes before breakfast is supposed to start. Some good old antipodean charm warmed her up and she let us in – even offering us “freshly brewed” porridge. We’ve found in our travels that nothing much gets going in Ireland before about 10am so we assumed we’d have the roads to ourselves but not in Donegal where their driving is “notorious”. We’d had to stop at a red light set up for road works ahead and were the first car at the head of a queue but a split second after the light turned green a car came screeching up the outside lane, overtaking us and the stream of other waiting cars. Co. Donegal is apparently renowned for its appalling drivers and an incredibly high number of accidents.
Donegal itself was another beautiful Irish town centred round a square. We were expecting to have to wait more than two hours for our bus at 10.40am to Galway but found there was an earlier one at 8.40 am. We managed to connect with buses right the way through, getting an express to Limerick and arriving there at 2.30pm.
Back in Killaloe.
Saturday, 13th August – Ireland
Drove around Lough Derg to Mountshannon village, where the market was setting up, on down to the water’s edge where we caught a boat across to Holy Isle, famous for its three old churches and its history dating back over a thousand years; pilgrims used to visit and even now the locals can choose to be buried there. The round stone tower is intact and the story goes that when the Vikings invaded Ireland, the towers were designed so there were no doors on the ground floor and the monks hid in there, drawing up the ladder behind them when the Vikings came up the river.
Andrew found the bargaining stone where you shook your hands underneath to “seal the deal” and could also renew your vows. We were the first to arrive that morning, so we had the island and its ancient ruins to ourselves which added that special something; two boatloads arrived as we were going and our luck held with the weather with the sun breaking through the clouds from time to time. Our ferryman, Gerard Madden turned out to also be author of several booklets on the Isle and its history – so we bought one as memento and reference, Holy Island, Jewel of the Lough. With typical Irish friendliness and gallantry he heard it was Kerrie’s birthday and gave her another one, Innis Cealtra – Island of the Churches for free.
Had coffee from the Snug.
Later that afternoon, we had a personal tour of St Flannan’s Cathedral – including the bell tower. Bryan Brislane, the organist kindly took us around and told us about the archaeological and historical highlights.
We had to climb a multitude of steps to reach the bell tower but it was worth it.
The views over Killaloe were great and on the way down, Bryan gave us an impromptu carillon performance on the bells – and then gave Andrew a go – can’t say that would gather in the faithful!
Monday 15th August – Ireland
At last – the sun appears!! Blue skies beckon. We drive to The Burren for a two-day, one night mini-break.
First stop – Corrofin – the National Parks and Heritage centre complete with stuffed goat and hare, and a pottery opposite
Second stop – Kilfenora at the Burren Visitor centre. First priority was the shop! Kerrie bought a jacket and scarf and then to the café for coffee and scones. We watched a short film about the Burren, its geological formation 340 million years ago in tropical seas around the equator. Afterwards, we went through a very good exhibition with a visual timeline explaining the evolution and natural history of The Burren and dioramas depicting life in Neolithic times.
From there we drove to Carran to visit the Perfumery – interesting although not our taste, but we had a nice walk in their herb/flower garden. 75% of Ireland’s plant species grow in The Burren – lots of wild flowers.
Back onto the main road through the Burren we found the ring fort of Caherconnell, the largest archaeological monument in the region – dating to the 10th century, with drystone walls 3m tall and 3 m thick. The fort continued in use until the start of the 17th century. The site also includes evidence of occupation dating back to the Bronze Age.
A further 1-2 kms up the road was the megalithic tomb at Poulnabrone, dating to around 3800 yrs BC, the oldest dated megalithic monument in Ireland. This dolmen is a portal tomb.
We walked to the tomb via a series of public information boards. We had a long and distressing conversation with the officer on duty whose job is to monitor and guard the site – a depressing catalogue of disrespect and sheer idiocy: “everyone has rights but no respect”. Defacement, defilement, burning, urinating, defecating, wanting to be photographed naked on top, playing golf shots from on top etc – an unbelievable catalogue of anti-social and disrespectful behaviour – sadly reflecting the narcissistic me-focused culture of today. He blames social media – everyone just wants the selfie – preferably doing something outrageous or unusual. The history and significance of the artefact/monument are lost or completely ignored.
We continued across the Burren – through more dramatically eroded landscape, with bare rocks and glaciated hills and found our B & B – The Waters. Quirky – oldie-worldy style – but actually built in modern times. Owned by Wolfgang – an ex=pat Austrian. We checked in, left our bags and drove on south along the coast to Fanore. Beautiful late afternoon sun shimmered and glittered on the seas looking out towards the Aran Isles where we’re going tomorrow.
Heading back north in search of a restaurant for dinner – we saw one pub with a sign outside “Today – Irish summer”. We had been recommended The Lobster Barn – but being school holidays it was booked solid. We wound up in a village another 10 kms further north called Kinvarra and got a table at the Pier Head Inn– with delightful view over the harbour. Good fish and chips. As sun set and moon rose we drove back to The Waters and bed.
Tuesday 16th August – Ireland
After a night in single beds, Austrian style – we enjoyed an excellent breakfast and headed to Doolin to catch the ferry to the Aran Isles. We arrived just in time – and got our tickets – Kerrie saved the day by spotting that we had to pay parking (5 Euros) – it seemed like thousands queueing for boats – with at least three waiting for the tourist onslaught. Ours was the Tranquility.
We got away about 10am – it took half an hour to get to Inisheer, the smallest of the three islands. A reasonably smooth trip and a beautiful sunny day – the island looked gorgeous with its stone walls and folksy village. The pony and trap operators were out to make as much as they could of the sunshine and the summer tourists and we were bombarded with requests to go on a “jaunty ride”- a 45 min tour of the island.
We chose to go with Tony Costelloe and his horse Maggie (his golden retriever dog running in front all the way) and shared our tour with an elderly Italian woman, an Italian couple and a young Dad from Cork with his four and five year old boys. Tony had spent his entire life on the island, his great grandfather was shipwrecked here and stayed, and he had the hairiest cheek bones, eyebrows and ears we’d ever seen. We couldn’t understand much of what he said but what he did say was hilarious.
We drove past an earthen mound burial site that had contained human bones dated to 1500 BC – remarkable to think humans had found their way to and stayed on this speck in the Atlantic Ocean off the Irish coast 3500 years ago. We carried on past the airport to a rusty hulk of a cargo ship that had run aground in the 1960’s.
We continued on to the residential area, mostly sweet stone houses, but took the opportunity to get off at the next stop, near the ruins of an old castle on the highest part of the island. It’s called O’Brien’s Castle – the surname O’Brien is ‘O’Briain’ in Irish, meaning descendant of Brian Boru; among the ten most frequently found surnames in Ireland, it derives from the 10th century King of Ireland.
We walked up to the castle ruins, thick stone walls surrounding incredibly tiny rooms and grassy surrounds with views of pastures enclosed by dry stone fences – some sheltering small herds of cud-chewing cattle. We were disappointed to see some people climbing on the crumbling walls of the historic 700 year old monument, apparently to sunbathe – and to take the inevitable selfie. No signs or penalties however to warn them off.
Our boat departed on the return journey on time and we had three upper deck seats with fantastic views of Inisheer, the Irish coast and the cliffs of Moher before we docked.
We drove on to visit the Cliffs of Moher – along with what felt like several thousand other tourists! At least a dozen coaches parked up and throngs walking up and along the cliffs. No wonder it’s the most visited natural site in Ireland. The views are stunning, with cliffs rising dramatically 214 metres out of the ocean and certainly worth the visit – spoiled only by the behaviour of people walking outside the fence along the edge of the cliffs, ignoring the warning signs and either oblivious to or unconcerned about the danger of plunging to their deaths. Parents with children, teenagers, even joggers diced with death. Candidates for the Darwin awards, surely! There’s a memorial to the people who’ve lost their lives here – some suicides but also accidents.
Thursday 18th August – Ireland-UK
Our last day in Ireland and true to form it was rainy, wet and humid. Hard to say goodbye as we’d had such a great time.
Flying with Ryan air to Gatwick was “interesting”. Fortunately, we had paid for booked seats so we boarded first. We experienced our first ever aborted landing as we came in to land at Gatwick. We’d had to wait on the tarmac at Shannon airport for 20 minutes due to traffic congestion at Gatwick and as we were making our final approach, wheels down ready to land, the engines suddenly roared, the pilot pulled up and the plane headed abruptly back up into the air. One of the stewards quickly announced that the pilot had had to abort the landing and he would soon reveal why but not to worry! Apparently, another plane had not vacated the runway in time.
Saturday 20th August – UK
Went to the British Museum to see the Sunken Treasures exhibition of ancient Egyptian carvings, statues and artefacts from the lost cities of Thonis/Heracleion and Canopus which thrived on the north western edge of the Nile delta from around 650BC. They disappeared around 700AD – most likely due to a massive earthquake that caused liquefaction since the city was built on silt and sand. They sank beneath the waters of Abukir Bay, lost for over a thousand years.
Monday 22nd August – UK
‘Exhibitionism’, an exhibition celebrating the life and times of The Rolling Stones
at the Saatchi Gallery. A remarkable collection of memorabilia with interactive
audio-visual media including the opportunity to remix some of their classic tracks
and watch a 3D movie of them performing an extended version of Can’t Get No
Tuesday 23rd August – UK-Paris
From St Pancras, a smooth ride to Gare du Nord. Found the Metro and used our Paris card for access – not far to Odéon station and after a slight battle with the inevitable steps (no lift – Andrew got to try out the Kathmandu backpack feature on his case – worked well!), we found our way to Hotel Odéon in St Germain. Cosy and quirky with stone walls and wooden beams – with nice touch of free soft drinks in the foyer and mini bar.
Decided to make the most of our two and a half days in Paris. Took the metro to the Seine by Tour d’Eiffel and booked ourselves onto a river cruise using the Paris Pass. Just missed the 7pm, so went for the next one at 8pm. Very relaxing and delightful hour trip along the River Seine – warm weather and blue skies brought out the crowds, many picnicking along the shore; in one spot there were 3-4 groups dancing to Latin music . Very Parisian! The architecture and character of Paris is so gracious and grand, gold topped monuments glinting in the late day sun. The 8pm ride proved to be a good choice, effectively the sunset tour, dusk setting in on the home run and as if on cue, the Eiffel Tower lit up with flickering lights as we docked. We decided to walk back a way along the river towards our hotel – and took the metro from Les Invalides where hundreds of people were picnicking on the grass – with their salads and bread and bottles of wine. Wonderful! We took a different exit from the Odéon metro and found ourselves in the Latin quarter, and as happens so delightfully in Paris, we rounded a corner to find ourselves in a small square with a pair of restaurants in the centre. Picked one and had dinner, still busy at 10 pm. Superb end to a great day.
Wednesday 24th August – Paris
Breakfast at nearby café – café au lait and croissant, a fine start to a Parisian day! Took the metro to the Louvre where the Paris Pass got us in without fuss or queues. We decided we’d head to the Italian masters – and of course the popular drawcard – Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Even though we arrived not long after the museum opened, the galleries were thronging with people from around the world. Inevitably a large crowd gathered in front of Da Vinci’s enigmatic masterpiece. Sadly, most were focused on getting a photo and a selfie, few seemed to actually look carefully at or admire the painting itself. This turned out to be the pattern of behaviour we saw everywhere. It’s ‘here’s ME! and Da Vinci/Caravaggio/Titian’, etc. On the plus side, it was great to see so many fantastic, classic works of art – almost in profusion – and to see so many people keen to be there. And of course the palace itself is a work of architectural art. We slowly made our way along the gallery, taking in masterpieces from Italy, France and Spain – from the 13th to 17th centuries. Downstairs was a collection of more ‘modern’ British painters – including Constable, Turner, Fuseli and Gainsborough.
After immersing ourselves in the stunning display of European art for 2-3 hours, we exited into the Tuileries Gardens and the scorching temperatures of a Paris heatwave – 35 degrees as we found out, unusual apparently. Armed with our Sunday Afternoon broad-brimmed hats and lathered in sunscreen, we sauntered through the Gardens enjoying the classical beauty, the shade, the trees and the fountains watching other tourists and French sitting under trees or sunbathing beside a fountain. We noticed a distinct absence of rubbish anywhere – quite a contrast to England and Eire. Lunched at an open-air restaurant under the shade of an umbrella before continuing to the Place de la Concorde. We could see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance and somewhat courageously given the heat, decided we’d walk all the way along the Champs Elysées and past the Grand Palais. Using our Paris Pass, we fast-tracked our way past the inevitable queue and marched up a seemingly endless circular staircase to the top where we surfaced boiling hot but triumphant! It was worth the effort – the views across the whole of Paris were stunning – laid out before us the city plan was a satisfying blend of geometry and aesthetics.
Back down we went and deciding we’d pushed ourselves far enough in this heat – we jumped onto the Big Bus (another Paris Pass inclusion) and did the complete tour of Paris at a leisurely pace – the bus was hot and we bought bottles of water for 2 euros each from a guy who jumped aboard with a bucket of bottled water on ice only to find the next guy who jumped aboard was selling it for one euro each! C’est la vie!
Arrived eventually at Notre Dame cathedral. From here we walked – finding by happy chance the “Shakespeare and Company” bookshop we’d read about many months ago. Winding our way through the backstreets, quite touristy because of proximity to Notre Dame, we returned to our Hotel Odéon and took full advantage of the free cold drinks, tea and nibbles, and reading the International New York Times to catch up on world events. After a snooze and shower we headed out to find a restaurant. By serendipity – we came to the same square where we’d eaten the night before. As it turns out, it’s called the Place Saint André des Arts. Most appropriate! We ate at the restaurant adjacent to the one the previous evening – Andrew deciding to sample classic French fare – snails in their shells, followed by salad of hot goat’s cheese, washed down with a Ricard. Parfait!!
Thursday 25th August – Paris
The heatwave continues, today even hotter reaching 37 degrees. Our room had a bath and faced the sun so we easily kept up with our laundry (a banal and never-ending struggle for travellers!). Everything we hung on the inside of the window and in the bathroom big or small dried in a few hours, fortunately we had air conditioning but even on a setting of 16 degrees the room was about 20 degrees.
We had a late start so had a quick cup of tea in the room before walking to Notre Dame where the queue for the cathedral was fast moving and we were inside before we knew it. We stayed with the flow of the crowd going up the right hand side and down the other taking in paintings and each private chapel and confessional along the way. There are so many aspects of this building to marvel at from the gothic vaulted ceilings to the timber frescoes that were damaged during the French revolution and repaired in the 1960s, to the abundant and extraordinary stained glass windows; and then there are the exterior and the intricate carvings and features from the roof down.
We had intended to go up the towers and down to the crypt but the queue was more than fifty metres long, standing in full sun and not moving. Given the rising temperatures we decided it can be for another visit to Paris and walked to Shakespeare and Company for a look around (wonderful bookshop with an eclectic and eccentric history, the first place to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in its entirety), a French breakfast sitting in the shade at a café at next door – where even the waitress was worried about how she was going to work the rest of the day in the hot and muggy conditions.
Caught the metro to the Musée d’ Orsay which was once a train station then an expensive hotel and finally a Museum which Francois Mitterrand opened in 1986. It was a wise choice as its largely open air design and high ceilings meant it was relatively cool and it was very well ordered with paintings in the many rooms or salons around the sides and sculptures in the corridors and central plaza to look at while sitting on benches when you needed a break.
The Impressionists were our first choice and what a wealth of artists and art to see – so many famous paintings and sculptures including many of Degas we hadn’t seen in Melbourne. The building was so big that just when you thought you’d finished a section you found there were more exhibits around the corner.
We came across the pushy “selfie person”, of course, shoving their sticks up in the air and nearly knocking you out or shoving their iPads in front of you as you’re looking at a painting. The more famous the artist and the painting, the more frequent the selfie. Our categorisation of these as “selfie narcissists” held true as we kept seeing the ‘Me and Cezanne’ or ‘Me and Van Gogh’ visitors, doubtless the tag most likely used on their Facebook page. Tucked away on the 5th floor was the huge, elaborately decorated reception room of the former hotel plus treasures from the Third Republic. WOW is the only way to describe it.
A short walk to the Musée de l’Orangerie which originally had been built to protect the trees and then subsequently converted into an art gallery to house the two sets of Nympheas or Water Lilies panel paintings by Claude Monet. The two oval paintings of a pond representing a 24-hour period -from sunrise to sunset and back are designed to make you tranquil, calm and relaxed. However, the “me and Monet” selfie and self-promoters were there in force, one blonde “older” woman posed in front of the painting, tossing her hair about, her boyfriend snapping away; another ageing male walked right in front of Andrew as he was sitting looking at one of the panels to take a photo of his girlfriend, playing it back and discussing it with her – all still in front of Andrew and the Monet panel. Really?
Paintings owned by a famous Paris collector in the 20s and 30s were bequeathed to France by his wife and were displayed on the lower floor together with the paintings owned by her second husband. Yet another wonderful variety of artists from Renoir to Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and Soutine – whose strange paintings represented the upheaval of his early life in Russia.
For dinner we chose La Jacobine, a restaurant near our hotel that advertised amazing salads. We weren’t disappointed – starting with pate de fois gras on gingerbread, we each followed with a different themed salad. Cosy, intimate and delicious food.
Friday 26th August – Paris/Lourdes
We took a taxi to Gare Montparnasse for our train to Lourdes. To confuse us there were two trains leaving platform 8! Turned out they were joined as far as Bordeaux but then separating and we had to find the right end of the train.
Arrived Lourdes on time at 5:30, checked in to hotel Best Western Beauséjour, conveniently on the corner opposite the station. Not bad at all. We decided to eat at the hotel – out on the terrace with views towards the west as the sun set over the mountains. Marinated cockerel à la Basque and a tender steak washed down with a glass of local white!
Saturday 27th August – Lourdes/Barèges
Caught the 2:50pm bus to Barèges, changing at Pierrette. We checked in – met our hosts and were shown our room – very nice, Scandinavian style with en suite. At dinner we met the other guests. That evening we met Mountainbug owner and our guide for the walks, Rob Mason. He gave us a rundown on the walks we’d be doing – two one-day walks in the mountains around Barèges and the three-day trek into the Haute Pyrenées. We also met our two co-walkers, just four of us altogether.
Sunday 28th August –Barèges
Our first walk in the area took us straight out of the village and up the mountain on one side of the valley. Rob lead us at a calm but steady pace – as we discovered later, this was to check out our fitness for the “big one” later in the week. It was a beautiful day – blue skies, perfect for walking. It was steady going uphill for a good 2-3 hours, Rob stopping at intervals to tell us about local culture, farming and history as well as wildlife. Avalanches are a major problem so farms and barns all have immensely thick walls – up to 30 feet, shaped like the prow of a ship facing uphill to shield the building and break the force of the avalanche.
Beautiful range of wild flowers including sun thistles which close at night and open when hit by the sun’s rays. Also some exquisite, brightly coloured moths called ‘seven spots’. There were also wild raspberries and strawberries and bilberries – a diminutive form of blueberries, called locally myrtleberries. All very tasty.
We stopped for our packed lunch at the great vantage point overlooking the valley below. Heading down took another hour or so, and we opted to go via a café/crêperie overlooking the village where we ordered crêpes and coffee. The late afternoon clouds were rolling in and as the temperature dropped, we headed back to Barèges, about 40 minutes away.
Monday 29th August –Barèges
Today’s walk involved a short drive to a valley which leads to a famous geological feature – Le Cirque de Gavarnie, a vast glacially carved bowl in the limestone with France’s highest waterfall. Sadly we weren’t destined to see much as the weather was overcast and misty, low cloud hugging the mountains. But in the Haute Pyrenees, you have to expect that some days. And of course it doesn’t stop the hiking. We headed up hill on the left hand side of the valley. Murky and misty, it was cooler and quite atmospheric, passing through moss laden woods and surprising small herds of cows and their calves on the upper pastures. As we circled around we started walking along rocky cliffs, the pathway carved out of the walls, passing under overhangs/caves. In winter the water flows over and freezes, there were hooks on the rocky roofs for ice climbers to reach the frozen walls of ice.
After a while it looked like the weather might clear, the sun broke through and the clouds lifted enough for us to see the massive limestone cliffs that formed the vast bowl – with walls up to 1700 metres high and a circumference of 14 kilometres. The structure was formed over millions of years as the pressure from continental drift forced the Spanish plate north into the French plate – producing the Pyrenees. As softer limestone met harder rock to the north it was gouged out by giant glaciers producing this massive ice cauldron. Unfortunately the clouds rolled back in, concealing the famous waterfall, so we started our return journey along the other side of the valley – through pretty water meadows. This was where Victor Hugo walked, a sign with a quote from the famous French writer extolling the grandeur of La Gavarnie. Hugo described it as an “impossible and extraordinary object”, a “colosseum of nature”. The region is rich in history, where the Cathars were based, persecuted and killed and how the Knights Templar set themselves up as bankers to the rich who were making the great pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the route runs through this valley. They met their fate at the hands of the French king, Philippe IV who felt threatened by them and wanted their money. Apparently a lot of Templar treasure as well as household caches of money and valuables were buried in the area up to and including the time of WW 1. Recently excavations in a building in the nearby town of Luz Saint-Sauveur uncovered € 300,000 worth of treasure!
We detoured to walk briefly along the pilgrimage trail, and visited the local church, a must for travellers, who demanded the protection of the Virgin of the Good Pass before taking the road to Spain. Gavarnie is the birthplace of the Pyrenean Mountaineering and home to some of the most well-known French mountaineers, which is why the church cemetery has uniquely an area dedicated just for mountain guides. Inside a small wooden cupboard perched inconspicuously on a wall were 3-4 skulls, supposedly belonging to Knights Templars.
After a good five hours of walking, we returned to our lodge via Luz Saint-Sauveur, to see Victor Hugo’s holiday house and opposite, an ancient fortified church with thick stone walls. Saint-André church, was built in the 12th century then fortified in the 14th century by the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. This striking fortress-style building is flanked by two towers and has a crenellated, surrounding wall.
Tuesday 30th August –Barèges
Our day off from walking, so a slower start. We decided to try hiring electrically assisted bicycles from the local shop in Barèges. Unfortunately they were all taken – but the guy kindly offered to see if there were bikes available in Luz, the village seven kms further down the valley. We were in luck – so we took our chances at hitching down the valley (there were no buses soon enough as we had to pick up the bikes by 1:30pm)- something neither of had done for several decades! And lady luck stayed with us – a retired Frenchman who’d been employed in the Public Works dept in Lourdes gave us a lift. Best quote on retirement – ‘la retraite, c’est le mieux metier’ (retirement is the best occupation).
Got our bikes – and headed back up the valley. Our plan was to travel the route followed by the Tour de France – to the Col du Tourmalet. The disadvantage was that we now had an extra 10 kms to cycle. In France you’re not allowed to have non-assisted electric bikes – which means you always have to pedal – with a greater or lesser amount of battery powered support. But if you use too much battery power, it could run out before you get to the top! It took us about forty minutes to get back up to Barèges, not bad we thought. Kerrie battled a bit as her bike was a shade too big, with a higher crossbar and a panier at the back. Picked up some fruit and water from the lodge and continued – all uphill needless to say. It became tougher as we reached the bottom of the big climb to the col. The real cyclists were overtaking us – but we still felt we were doing well. We saw a number of vultures – Griffons it later transpired – and a marmot right beside the road, which then scampered downhill. Quite large with dark tail and paws. By now the altitude was kicking in and we were slowing down. We decided to walk the bikes up the last 4-5 hundred metres, but considering we’d covered a total of 20 kms and that the altitude at the col is 2115 metres – we felt we’d done very well. We wolfed down lunch up top, took photos and cycled back down to Luz. Got back in time to return the bikes but we found we’d missed the last bus back! So we decided to hitch once more and luck was with us again – two rides got us back. Packed up for the big three day hike starting tomorrow!
Barèges/ Haute Pyrenees/Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle
Wednesday 31st August –Barèges/ Haute Pyrenees/Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle
We set off at 9am – Rob driving the minivan to our start point at Pont de la Gaubie, elevation 1538 metres.
Headed up a valley along a 4 wheel track for a few kms, then the real uphill climb began. Classic zigzag up the mountain – finally reaching the Col Hourquette d’ Aubert at 2488 metres. Looking back to where we’d come from gave us a great sense of achievement! As we headed further up and into the wilderness we passed several beautiful mountain lakes fed by springs.
The rugged rocky mountains looked precipitous and almost impassable. Yet it was through these mountains that resistance fighters and refugees made their desperate way to Spain some 20 kms south to escape the Nazis in WWII. Finally, we came to a downward section – aiming for a trail between two lakes – Aubert and Aumar. When we reached them, we took time to refresh and soothe our feet in the cool waters.
We had another 1-2 hours to go, mostly across rocks and boulders to finally reach our first night’s stop the Refuge d’ Orédon, altitude 1856 metres. We were shown to our dormitory – but when Kerrie and I heard there were “married quarters” available – ie a room to ourselves, we grabbed it. Just as well as apparently the men in the dorm formed a trio of snoring tenors! A hearty meal of bean and vegetable soup, and chicken a la tomatoes and pasta – then to bed, feeling exhausted, pleased we’d made it through the day – hiking some 17 kms, but apprehensive about the two days to come! Kerrie woke up in the middle of the night and took the opportunity to go and look at the night sky – one of the clearest here in Europe – stunning views of the Milky Way and shooting stars – hopefully auguring well for the rest of the walk!
Thursday 1st September – Haute Pyrenees/Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle
Woken at 5:30 by an enthusiastic cyclist packing up for the day! Those guys really are committed! After a modest ‘refuge style’ breakfast (bread and jam and coffee), we hit the trail. Straight up for a grinding stretch of climbing over rocks and tree roots, muscles, joints and sinews complaining vigorously!
The 400 metre ascent took us to Col d’Estoudou at 2260 metres. Rob had presented us with three route choices; we chose the longest but most interesting as it traversed the mountain, contouring around Soum de Monelat through pine filled meadows and woodland, strewn with giant boulders. Stunningly beautiful and a real sense of being in true wilderness. We didn’t see another soul – except for a flock of mountain sheep, bells a-jangling. Used to humans they took a curious but passing interest and moved on…. but one seemed to take a special interest in Kerrie, something about the smell perhaps??
After a chocolate and biccie break we pressed on to reach the Estibere Valley. We stopped for lunch on a rocky knoll overlooking the valley – ravenously consuming paté, salami, locally made cheese and tinned tuna salad. Food never tasted so good!
Then descended to a series of lakes – the first was Lac de L’Ile – heading towards the imposing Pic de Bastan – called by Rob the “Paramount Movie” mountain as it closely resembled the movie studio’s classic icon. And to set it off beautifully – the gorgeous Lac du Gourguet in the valley below. On our way down we saw a large flock of sheep – even though this is a nature reserve, traditional farmers retain grazing rights. A couple of shepherds were relaxing by the lake – while their Pyrenean Mountain Dogs kept watch. These are massive – well able to protect their woolly charges against predators – and came over to check us out and make sure we weren’t sheep rustlers!
We’d done about five hours hiking – but still had three to go, our next night’s refuge sneakily hiding behind ridges and down valleys! We had a final ascent and descent around 5pm, going past the intensely blue tinted Lac de Bastanet and finally made it to Refuge Bastan, altitude 2215 metres. This refuge was very basic compared to the previous one which had hot showers, toilets, cappuccinos and a terrace overlooking the lake. Bastan consisted of an A frame lodge with dining room and kitchen below and sleeping quarters above, via a vertical stepladder, separate fixed tent sleeping quarters with bunks…and lastly a steel container mounted on two metal beams, with four bunks, perched precariously on a ledge looking down towards a lake below! The team kindly allocated this to Kerrie and myself.
There were no showers and one toilet (long drop) shared between however many were staying – up to 30 hard core hikers. The refuge was run by a couple with children who live up here all summer and descend for winter – when snow is up to 5 metres deep! Supplies are choppered in twice in the season, anything else is backpacked in – rubbish is backbacked out. Rob suggested a swim in the lake – supposedly 20 degrees. Andrew dived in and swam 50-100 metres out and actually it wasn’t too bad – certainly refreshing after a long day’s mountain hike (around 13 kms). Kerrie ducked in for a quick paddle but too cold for her! Dinner was surprisingly good – pea soup and pork and olive stew. Hearty fare.
Friday 2nd September – Haute Pyrenees/Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle
Sunrise over the mountains across the lake from our “mountain hut” was gorgeous. But not much time to linger and admire the scene; after breakfast, we packed up and off on the last day of our hike. Another steady climb – to Col de Bastan, 2507 metres, below the mighty mountain peak, Pic de Bastan.
There was an option to make a detoured ascent, but we decided to leave that to the hard core team of French hikers coming up behind us. Luckily we got to see a lammergeier vulture – one of the largest in the world with a 3 metre wingspan, strong enough to lift a cow’s thigh bone and carry it aloft, so it can drop it onto rocks and break it open to access the marrow. We had a long day ahead of us and admiring the views behind and ahead – descended into a rock and boulder strewn valley, echoing to the high-pitched calls of the marmots. We pressed on to Hourquette de Caderolles. We passed Lac du Bastan and then up again to Hourquette de Nere at 2465 metres. We could look back at the string of lakes down the valley below, the same ones we’d seen the day before but from another perspective – as we circled around the Neouvielle park. Stunning and awe-inspiring! Looking down the valley stretching ahead of us, the scenery was wild, jagged and gave us a real sense of being in one of Europe’s last remaining wild refuges. Amazing! Further down, the harsher rocky surrounds gave way to grassy meadows and picturesque lakes and streams. It felt like we were on the home straight – but we still had a good two hours to go! Finally, we rejoined the four wheel drive track we’d set out on the Grand Randonée 10, one of France’s national hiking routes – and covered the last few kilometres back to our van – and the welcome trip back to our lodge in Barèges.
This was our last night at Mountainbug’s lodge – tomorrow we would collect our hire car and set off on the journey through France. But first we had to decide where we were going (after some research in the good ol’ Lonely Planet and some humming and ha-ing we plumped for Albi) and book a place to stay!
Saturday, 3rd September Barèges/Albi
We had to catch the 9.20am bus to Lourdes as the next bus wasn’t until after 12.30pm – we didn’t want to spend the morning hanging around Barèges as we had seen pretty much everything there was to see in this tiny mountain village except for the inside of the thermal baths. In the days before antibiotics a soak in a sulphur bath in Barèges was a cure for just about everything, It was noticed that the sulphurous pools in the valley could heal cattle with cut or damaged limbs and so Louis XIV despatched some of his wounded soldiers to soak up the sulphur (not the most enticing odour!). The thermal pools of Barèges proved a big success and in 1860 Napoleon III built a sanatorium for French military heroes.
Even today the baths are considered therapeutic with a three-week course prescribed and paid for by the French Health services for people with TB, rheumatism and other ailments.
We got on our bus and set off down the mountain with numerous stops and delays for cyclists racing or just out for a Saturday ride – a very French weekend activity. We had to change buses and drivers at Pierrette once more.
At Lourdes station, we deposited our bags in a dusty bar that had seen better days ( 2 euros per bag to have them stored under the stairs), then set off to find the famous grotto where the apparition had happened, turning the town into a major Christian pilgrimage site. We walked down the narrow streets with one shop after another jam-packed with religious artefacts, icons and souvenirs – not all in the best of taste, it must be said. The nearer we got to the grotto the more crowded the streets became, many hoping for a cure or to visit the holy grotto. It was hot and we were too tired to queue to go into the grotto, so found a coffee shop to have a welcome break and watch humanity go past.
Back to station where we retrieved our bags from the still empty bar and caught a taxi to the airport to pick up our hire car. Of course, we totally forgot about the French two-hour lunch break and arrived at 12.30pm – Europcar offices closed, no-one to be seen. It was too hot to do anything but wait in the terminal – which was completely devoid of people, as if deserted or contaminated. Weird, we were the only ones there except for a security guard who wandered past once or twice. We caught up on our blog and at 2pm returned to Europcar to pick up our hirecar, 30 mins of bureaucracy before we finally got the key.
After needing more assistance to sort out the GPS which was in French and as so often with digital technology, not intuitive, and a few moments to orientate ourselves to driving on the other side of the road, we were on our way towards Albi with the air con on full blast. The Pyrenees were on the horizon to our right as we headed north east giving us a last glimpse of the Pic du Midi observatory and the ‘Paramount’ mountain where we had hiked. They were both the highest summits on the skyline – that was where we’d been hiking just days before! Amazing.
Ah – don’t you just love French motorways. Easy to follow with a speed limit of up to 130kms – and with our dulcet toned digital companion, “Julie” guiding us to our destination – the city of Albi. All went well till we reached the outskirts when a combination of a double barrelled road name, unclear instructions from Madame Maryanne and a confused Julie had us going round in circles. Eventually our B & B hosts, Maryanne and Bernard came and found us and led us to the apartment – as it happened not more than half a km away! Lovely old place – right in the centre of town as promised. We were on the third floor with a view over the garden. Having settled in – we sauntered off to the old town centre – not really knowing what to expect. It was absolutely stunning – a medieval city dating back over a thousand years, with narrow streets, gabled houses, a remarkable towering brick cathedral and abbey – and a bridge dating to c. 1040.
The bishop commissioned the bridge turning the town into a major trading centre. We wandered up and down the streets and up a set of stone steps dating back to the 13th century.
The heatwave continued even as the sun went down but it was time to eat. We’d had a recommendation for a restaurant but it was booked out so ended up eating in a square behind one of the churches. Very French and atmospheric – slow service but reasonable food, with a jazz saxophonist serenading diners (and who then came around for donations). As three men lit up their cigars, we toddled off back to our chambre for a well-earned night’s rest.
Albi – Figeac
Sunday, 4th September Albi
After a leisurely and ample breakfast served in the lovely garden, we decided we would go to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum – in honour of the great artist, since this was where he came from, one of the attractions of Albi that came to light during our research.
The museum turned out to be an absolute treasure house of his works – gathered together by friends and family – with a large bequest from his mother. Henri was the product of a marriage between two first cousins, that plus two accidents in his early years when he broke each of his legs, combined with a heavy drinking habit led to a very short life. He died at 37. The gallery/museum contained many early works, sketches, drawings etc but also a large selection of his mature works as well as original posters he designed and painted for famous entertainers and dramatists in Paris. All housed in an ancient brick abbey, Palais de la Berbie.
Absolutely extraordinary and wonderful.
We returned to our B&B – packed up, intent on leaving town, but were exhorted by our delightful hosts to visit the cathedral before leaving Albi – a must!! Bernard also gave us tips on which route to take north, which villages to visit. The cathedral was well worth the visit – with a stunningly painted and decorated interior, contrasting with the more austere, less elaborate brickwork façade.
Back to our car and headed north. First stop Cordes sur Ciel. An ancient hilltop fortified village with narrow winding streets and characterful buildings – and lots of tourist shops. Climbed steadily to the top of the village where there were delightful views over the surrounding countryside. We had lunch in the central square, then sauntered down the other side of the village and, taking the advice of Lonely Planet paid to visit Le Jardin des Paradis, quirky privately grown and managed gardens.
With Julie as our guide we took the backroads (slow route) through the French countryside past the Abbaye de Beaulieu to our next “beautiful village of France”: St Cirq Lapopie – perched on cliffs overlooking the Lot river, recommended by Rob Mason. Worryingly the camera suddenly stopped working at this point, inexplicably the button you press to take pictures wouldn’t operate the shutter mechanism. Most frustrating.
From there we wound our way along the river valley – a beautiful drive along limestone cliffs to Figeac, our stop for the night. “Julie” took us through ever narrower streets into a square in the centre of the old town, where it felt like we were trespassing illegally. But it was where our hotel was: Hotel Chompollion, named after the man who helped crack the code of the Rosetta stone and who came from Figeac.
Figeac/Collonges La Rouge
Monday, 5th September Figeac/Collonges La Rouge
We drove north out of Figeac heading for the village of Collonges La Rouge, one of the “most beautiful villages of France”. We’d tried to book a Chambres D’Hote the previous night unsuccessfully. This morning we received a message saying they were closed and we called them to ask for a recommendation which they gave. Our plan was to take in a couple of places on the way and arrive mid late afternoon. Our first stop was Loubressac, another gorgeous medieval village – this one was tiny and we wandered into the local church which was being restored – funded by a mixture of local, regional and state government grants. Stunning stained glass windows.
After getting lost in local roads, misread by “Julie” ( who is only as good as her dataset) – we headed for La Chappelle aux Saints, home to a small museum dedicated to the discovery locally of the first almost complete Neanderthal skeleton, dated to 60,000 yrs ago. It was closed when we arrived (lunch time, of course, this is France), so we headed off to find a place to eat ourselves. But strangely, everywhere seemed to be closed; but we did discover a pretty medieval village – Carennac on the Dordogne. We wandered around in searing heat, taking some photos on the iPhone and admiring the architecture. We also checked in with the Collonges tourist office (open after lunch) who gave us the phone number of La Douce France, the B&B recommended to us. We called and spoke with Guy – and yes he had a room available.
We drove back to La Chappelle and went through the museum. Although the original bones had been removed to the Musée de L’Homme in Paris, they had an excellent reconstruction of how the body was discovered as well as the latest scientific finds/thinking on Neanderthal physiology and neurology, including that they could speak and did have language. We took a short drive up the road to visit the actual site of discovery back in 1908, then headed on to Collonges. Amazingly “Julie” found her way to the rather remote B&B up a country road above the village – delightful red sandstone buildings overlooking farmland and with views across the valley to the south west. We liked the look and feel of the place so much and of Guy our congenial host that we changed our plans and decided to book in for two nights. As we sat in the garden, shaded by a huge tree with home-made lemonade, life felt very good! Later in the evening, we drove down to the village and wandered around, gorgeous red sandstone buildings all cheek by jowl, quirky turrets and rooms over the road. We took Guy’s advice and had dinner at the Hotel St Jacques, a Michelin Guide listed restaurant. We weren’t disappointed, beautiful food served on the terrace. A great day!
Collonges La Rouge
Tuesday, 6th September Collonges La Rouge
A walk before breakfast along the country lanes, bucolic peace and simplicity. Breakfast was served by Guy in the courtyard – delicious. Our priority today – other than enjoying where we were, was to try and get the camera fixed! Guy suggested a shopping centre outside Brive La Gaillarde, the closest major town. We found a camera shop online, called and they said they’d take a look. We drove in and found Photo-Vezère, where a lovely woman Sylvie went through the menu, checked it all out and said she didn’t think it was battery problems, more a technical issue but she couldn’t fix it. We were getting rather worried at this point but then she said to leave the camera with her and she’d ask her colleague who arrived later to take a look. With nothing to lose, we said yes.
With several hours to kill, we decided to check out Guy’s recommendation to visit the nearby town of Turenne, another medieval hill-top village. And another stunner! We had lunch at small café in centre of town, served by an amusing waiter, William who turned out to be an out of work airline steward from Air Mediterranée which had close down. The French government sends the unemployed to retrain and serve as interns for local businesses – so although William was from Paris – his allotted workplace was here in Turenne.
After a very pleasant lunch, we sauntered up through the town in stifling heat – at least 32-34 degrees to the remains of the chateau/fort at the top. We paid to go in but it was worth the cost and effort, with an amazing 360 degree views from the top of the remaining tower and an interesting history – one of the most affluent and powerful regional centres in France at one stage, until it grew too powerful and the king tore it down. We later saw a portrait of the Maréchal of Turenne in the chateau of Chambord.
With some trepidation and not a great deal of confidence, we called the photo shop and amazingly the guy had managed to get the camera working again by going through a complex series of procedures! Phew. So we drove back to the shopping centre and picked up the camera (no charge), bought some food for dinner and headed back to Collonges. A light supper in the garden as the sun set. Stunning.
Collonges La Rouge/Loire Valley
Wednesday, 7th September Collonges La Rouge/Loire Valley
We had a biggish drive ahead of us today to get to the Loire. We had had trouble finding a B&B with rooms available and so had gone for one listed on a French site. Not sure how this was going to pan out! “Julie” took us around the back roads for the first leg – which was to Chalûs – where Richard the Lionheart met his end. Some roads were more interesting than others and sometimes we did wonder if she’d lost the plot! But eventually the roads and scenery improved and quite by accident we found ourselves in another of France’s most beautiful villages – called Segur le Chateau.
We stopped for a wander around, and met a middle aged English woman who’d moved here with her husband a while back, farmers from the Fens who wanted a more restful life in countryside where butterflies and bees and wild flowers till grew. They picked this region as it’s less touristy, well north of the Dordogne – and therefore less expensive. Now of course they were concerned that their UK pension was going to be hard hit by the dropping pound, post-Brexit.
We pressed on to Chalûs – not the most pre-possessing of towns.
We tried to find where Richard the Lionheart died but the closest we could get was an old ruined church and a tower seen up the hill but on private land. We programmed “Julie” to take the fastest route to the Loire valley and our B&B in Chitenay. Cruising at 130 kmh, we zipped along the autoroute, apart from one section which seemed to be a gathering point for trucks – dozens of them all bumper to bumper – heading for Paris we assumed. Eventually we got past them and made good time. As it turned out our B&B was as dowdy as we’d feared, it was like staying with your grandparents, creaky old stairs, gloomy rooms and 1960s furnishings. However, it’s only for two nights and we plan to be out most of the time – and it is cheap!
We tried to find a place for dinner – but the café was closed and the local auberge was a bit stuffy and expensive, so we had fruit and a cuppa tea. The bed was extremely hard – and the room, up in the attic was very hot – so had a fan on full blast all night! Oh and they didn’t really understand what wifi was – so there wasn’t any.
Thursday, 8th September Loire Valley
We get away early – and head for the ‘biggie’ – Chateau Chambord. We arrived not long after 9am, bought ourselves a 4 chateaux pass and headed in. Incredibly grand and impressive – built by François 1st of France – but then he barely spent any time in it as it was too draughty! Most of the records were lost due to the upheavals of the French revolution, so not even the architects are known – it’s hinted but unconfirmed that Leonardo da Vinci may have been involved in the design as he had been offered a substantial pension by François and invited to come and live in France and he did indeed live his last years in the Loire, staying in Amboise.
The renaissance/gothic mix of Chambord is stunning – and the history fascinating – we bought audio guides which did help – although they were frustrating as they operated by either radio or infra-red connection and chopped and changed unexpectedly between sections if you moved around. You had to stay still if you wanted to listen to the whole section before moving to the next room or area.
A highlight of the entrance foyer was a double helix staircase – actually two sets of stairs that never meet, the first of its kind. Everywhere – on carved ceilings and on walls you’d see Francis 1st’s monogram and his emblem – the salamander, a creature mythically associated with fire, with the motto ‘nutrisco et extinguo’: I nourish and I extinguish.
Due to the revolution, there’s very little furniture – so, many rooms are empty and you have to imagine their original glory days. Some have been partly furnished and some pieces restored but overall it’s a glorious but somewhat soulless edifice as a consequence. Not helped by the fact that one wing and the grounds are undergoing restoration. Nevertheless, it was a grand place to see and a great start to the chateaux tour we’d chosen. The forested grounds and lands belonging to Chambord cover the same area as the whole of Paris!
We had a simple lunch in the outdoor café, then headed off to our second chateau of the day – Cheverny. This was very different, a simpler rectangular structure, but still very imposing, set in beautiful grounds. We walked around the grounds for a while then went inside. As it had remained mostly in the original owners’ hands, it was better preserved and was furnished throughout – which gave a much better sense of what life was like. Richly painted walls and ceilings, canopied four poster beds, suits of armour and Flemish tapestries as well as everything from a wonderful collection of 17th century children’s toys to musical instruments and paintings by Italian masters.
We exited, wandered down through the gardens to the Orangery for a pot of tea. A bit more of a garden saunter, took some photos (they had cleverly set up a giant picture frame that you could photograph the chateau through) then to see the hunting hounds (dozens of them – quite large!) and the kitchen garden – most impressive. We didn’t do the optional “Tintin” expo visit as it cost more money and we were tired by now. The connection is that Hergé took Cheverny as his inspiration for the castle featured in the Tintin books.
For dinner, we decided to go to Blois, a city that had suffered severe bombing in WWII and lost most of its ancient buildings, but still boasts a chateau (on our list). After some blundering around, we found a park and wandered around some of the old streets and along the river where we watched a large rat-like creature in the water, apparently chewing on something. We asked a couple what it was – they weren’t sure – perhaps a beaver or a coypu – introduced from South America? Finally, we came to a small square and picked a restaurant for dinner. We had a very good plate of cheese and charcuterie followed by a salad. Somewhat comically a couple of guys were manhandling large paintings down a side street and into the square – eventually to be loaded into a small van, awful paintings but quirkily French scene.
Friday, 9th September Loire Valley
First stop was back to Blois – to visit the third of our four chateaux covered by the pass. This was one recommended by Bernard back in Albi.
Thanks to our venture into Blois the previous day, we found our way to the chateau underground carpark fairly easily and headed in. We chanced our luck with an audio guide again – and these were both simpler and much easier and more effective to use. Blois is characterised by having four quite different architecturally designed and built wings to the classic chateau layout. Surrounding the central court, four wings represent a unique example of the development of French architecture from the 13th through the 17th century. The ‘guide’ talked us through the history of these and then took us inside.
François 1st was again a source of inspiration, funds and love of the renaissance/gothic design for one of the four wings, although part of François’ original chateau was later knocked down by Gaston of Orléans. Never fully completed, the wing was built according to 17th-century tastes in a classical style that prefigures Versailles: columns, pilasters, capitals and pediments that pay tribute to antique Greek architecture. Inside we saw pieces of carved masonry, gargoyles and sculptures that had been rescued from François’ wing.
These were enormous – and gave a great reference for how large the ornamentations are sitting on top of the building.
Although affected by the revolution, Blois also benefits from being partly furnished, with some well restored rooms and in some cases, original wooden panelling. So, like Cheverny, a more rewarding and interesting interior. Some historical characters keep recurring – like François 1, Catherine de Medici and her sons and husband. She was mother to three kings of France and wielded immense power. One grisly event took place here when one of her sons, King Henri III had the Duc de Guise, head of the Catholic League murdered who together with his brother, a Cardinal were driving the internecine bloodshed between the Catholics and the Protestants, the religious wars that ravaged France in the 16th century. Henri, appearing to seek a rapprochement invited the Duc de Guise to Blois only to have him murdered, then incarcerated his brother the Cardinal and had him killed as well. Such is politics. But it did lead to a downscaling of the religious wars.
After touring Blois, we headed south west, driving along the River Loire, eventually crossing it and on to Chenonceau, our fourth chateau.
This was gorgeous and stunning – the best of both worlds – a grand chateau, spanning the river Cher set in glorious grounds and with a wealth of history. As with Cheverny, many of the rooms are furnished and often with original paintings, tapestries and décor. We sauntered down the long avenue leading to the entrance, detoured for lunch at the Orangerie – rather nice salads, then through Catherine de Medici’s gardens beside the river Cher and into the chateau. Originally built in the early 16th century, the chateau has a fascinating history in which the chateau’s enlargement, preservation and success were largely driven by three powerful women – Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici and Louise de Lorraine (who lived in mourning in a black room after her husband Henry III was assassinated by a Domenican monk). An amazing place that straddles the river with a grand ballroom. Lush, grand and richly decorated. You can see why the French revolution happened!
In many ways it’s remarkable how much has survived till today!
Afterwards, we wandered back through the forest, wended our way through the maze and out. From there we drove north to our LoireLife B&B&B, for the cycling holiday. The only glitch was trouble paying the toll on the autoroute – for some reason the machine wouldn’t accept our credit card – despite there having been no problems earlier in the trip. Eventually we had to call over an attendant and pay in cash. Strange and frustrating.
Our Loire Life hosts, Alison and Jon really do live out in the back roads of rural France and it took us a while to find them – but eventually we got there – a lovely spot, we were given a very nice room and en suite (greatly appreciated by Kerrie after the previous two nights!). One English family of five were already there – all very pleasant. Dinner was chez Alison and Jon, sitting outside in their garden – with a glass of wine, a lovely way to end the day.
Saturday, 10th September Loire Valley
We wandered down from our upstairs bedroom in the main home and into the adjacent building (former barn) for sumptuous breakfast. We were very impressed with the way everything had been set up. Great facilities, nicely furnished and appointed and everything good quality and well thought out. We took advantage of the guest laundry before breakfast served by Jon and then after breakfast Jon suggested a route for us to travel before introducing us each to our bike and equipment. All very organised with pannier bags for food and cameras etc and a waterproof envelope to put the route guide and maps in.
The weather was clear blue skies – and hot.
First stop on our “tour de France” was Parcay les Pins, the local village where we bought baguettes from the boulangerie and goat’s cheese, ham and tomatoes from the village minimart. The route took us through back roads and past fields of corn, wheat and grass. The combination of sunhats and cycling helmets was an unusual fashion statement and attracted curious looks as we cycled along!
Eventually our cycle trail took us winding along the northern shores of Lac du Rille, a man-made lake created back in the 70s and now a haven for birds and people alike. We crossed the lake on a road subject to flooding and found a pleasant spot down by the lake for our lunch. Wonderfully quiet and peaceful – no-one else around as school holidays are over and the nearby holiday camp was virtually deserted. We carried on along country roads, often through hushed forests with little sign of life apart from crows, wood pigeons and the occasional bird of prey hovering intently, to Giseux.
It was 1:45pm and our route notes told us that guided tours of the local chateau of Giseux started at 2pm – so we decided to give it a try. We cycled up to the front gate and were told yes – we could get a tour for 9 euros each. Our English speaking guide turned out to be a young African American woman, an intern working for a month at the chateau. Vanessa was very keen and surprisingly knowledgeable after such a short time. She gave us a historical background, took us around the front of the chateau and then inside. Quite different to the larger, more commercially run chateaux we’d visited – and more intimate as we were the only ones being guided and we saw just one other couple inside. Clearly it’s a financial struggle to maintain these historic buildings and there were plenty of signs of the place needing restoration. But they are doing their best.
As we went around, Vanessa explained how some of the interior paintings were in the process of being restored. The most remarkable story was how the main hall’s beautiful 16th century painted friezes had been saved at the time of the French revolution. The woman owner at the time, observing how revolutionaries took everything and sold or destroyed things – asked the villagers for help. They came and covered up the walls and ceiling with false surfaces, concealing the panels behind. It worked and they were saved. Remarkably, they remained covered for two hundred years, in the process totally forgotten until a much later owner rediscovered them after a cat disappeared through a hole. They are thus very well preserved and some of the few original painted panels still to be seen in the chateaux.
After an hour and a half’s personalised tour, we bought ourselves an ice cream and a bottle of locally produced red (Chateau Giseux) and headed home. Got back around 4pm – having cycled 31 kms – tired but happy. After a snooze and shower, refreshed we were ready for dinner at 7:30. Being Saturday night, we decided to treat ourselves and got a reservation in a quality French restaurant in Vernantes about 10kms away, called The Pelican. Turned out to be in a hotel of the same name – excellent food and wine. At Jon’s recommendation we both had foie gras as entrée – excellent choice! Andrew chose a local fish – “sandre” which turned out to be pike – and very nice it was too! Kerrie had another fish “lot”, monkfish, also very good. The deserts were extremely rich!
Sunday,11th September Loire Valley
Drove to the SuperU supermarket to buy food for dinner tonight, fill the tank and get some money out. A more overcast and muggy day. Our route took us through more forested roads and had the focus of lunch at the half way point in the village of Hommes. After about 18 kms cycling, we arrived at the restaurant, Le Bouff’tard just as it started to spit with rain. Kerrie plonked herself down on a seat outdoors only to find the waiter glaring at her, having broken the cardinal rule of waiting to be seated. Andrew said “we’d like to sit outside,” and the waiter responded with “it would seem your wife has already chosen.” Andrew apologised and said his “wife was very tired from cycling”, and the waiter said “well you should have pushed her!”
He was actually very funny and there was a lot more banter before the meal was over. We had the covered outdoor eating area to ourselves as at one point the heavens opened and a huge group sitting nearby got up and went inside much to the waiter’s disgust. He turned to us and shaking his head said, “one drop has dripped on one of the them” and went in after them to find somewhere for them all to sit.
Being Sunday, it was a proper lunch, there was a “formule” menu – you could choose either entrée or dessert and plat or entrée, plat and dessert. We felt we’d deserved a decent meal and opted for the three courses – all very good. Luckily the rain eased off in time for our return journey – via a different set of country roads – a really beautiful ride mostly through forests. We got back about 4pm again – having covered 35 kms today. Most impressive for us. We’d decided to eat in – time for a healthy salad which we’d bought that morning. We ate outside as the sun went down with lively and amusing conversation, cracked the bottle of Chateau Giseux Bourgueil red which was very pleasant.
Monday, 12th September Loire Valley
Another beautiful morning, albeit overcast, with occasional spots of rain. We were a bit saddle sore – but decided we should make the most of our time here and asked Jon for a recommendation for a route of about the same distance, eg 30kms. He picked one out – with another interesting lunch stop! This time a restaurant that does “Dejeuners ouvriers” – a set price lunch for workers and truck drivers. With that gastronomic incentive – we headed off around 10am. The ride had a few more hills (doubtless gentle slopes for the hard core cyclists – but any gradient was a challenge for us!) and more along country farm roads. We had noticed that along the borders of forested sections there were often raised wooden platforms – these are apparently for hunters who stand on them and blaze away at deer and wild boar as they hurtle out of the woods ahead of beaters and hounds. As these are right beside the road we were happy that the hunting season hadn’t started yet!
Our restaurant – Restaurant de la Gare – was two thirds of the way along the route, about 20kms, so we felt we’d earned the hearty repast when we arrived. Very French and very authentic! A room full of identically checked table clothed tables, each with a bottle of water, cider and wine (included). You help yourself to the entrée, a large and very varied selection – charcuterie, salads, terrines and fish. All very good.
Then a choice of chicken and chips or steak and chips. Following that there’s bread and cheese (the brie was superb – soft and strong, just runnily right). Lastly a choice of desserts from the glass fronted chiller, including a rich chocolate mousse. Washed down with coffee. All this for the princely sum of €12.50
Full and refreshed by the cider and the wine – we wobbled off up the road towards La Perrine. We were supposed to take a short cut to avoid the hill – but completely missed it – so laboured heavily up in bottom gear, panting our way to the top but then free-wheeling our way down the other side of the village. Definitely feeling the effects of saddle soreness, we struggled the last km or two but made it back to chez Jon and Ali around 2:30 just as it started to spot with rain. Another 30 kms under our belts.
As the sun set with a pinky glow suffusing the skies, we had dinner outside, finishing off the salad and fruit we’d bought, a lovely way to see out our Loire life holiday and our time in France.
Loire Valley/ Paris – Charles de Gaulle airport
Tuesday, 13th September Loire Valley/Paris
After breakfast, we packed up the car and bade our farewells – punched the destination and address into the GPS and to Julie’s dulcet tones headed north and east. We made good time thanks to the autoroute and not a lot of traffic – at least until we hit the outskirts of Paris. The only hiccup being that once again the péage machine wouldn’t accept our credit card and we had to get a guy over to take the payment in cash. Most annoying. We stopped for a coffee and baguette at a rest stop/restaurant and paid using the credit card to make sure it was ok – and it was. Hmm – strange.
We got to our hotel – Quality Suites in the hotel area in Roissy en France, near Charles de Gaulle airport around 2pm, unloaded the car and asked for instructions on where to fill up with petrol and find our way to the Europcar rental return. Turns out this is unbelievably complicated – of course!! We went round in circles, cursing it all and decided to just go to a Europcar depot we’d seen. It wasn’t the place to return the vehicle (!!!) but an employee very kindly said to follow him to the service station which we’d never have found by ourselves. Filled up – found our way to Terminal 2 for the drop off – which bizarrely is in the centre of a maze of circular roads connecting the terminals. Amazingly found our way in to Europcar. No fuss or bother – handed over the keys and walked away! Caught the shuttle back to the hotel and wound down with a cuppa.
The first room we were given was smoke contaminated so had requested a change – large enough rooms, somewhat the worse for wear but fine for the night. Uploaded photos to our blog, had a shower and headed out to dinner. Amazingly and charmingly, the “zone hotelière” was right next to the old village of Roissy – still with park, village streets and church -and restaurants. Found ourselves one with an outdoor terrace – and had a very good meal. Walked around, back to the hotel and hit the hay, setting the alarm for 6am as we decided we wanted to get to the airport early.
Charles de Gaulle airport – Singapore
Wednesday 14th September Roissy/Singapore
Air travel is generally never as exotic or exciting as the ads make out – it’s shuttles, check in, security checks, queues, more security checks and then (if you’re travelling economy – and of course we are) an exercise in contortionism and bladder control for 6-10 hours.
Our day started prosaically enough with a shuttle to Charles de Gaulle airport, check in was painless with Emirates – our code-share partner with Qantas. Security was tedious – the only amusing moment (kind of) was when Andrew forgot he had a metal water bottle mostly full at the scanner and had to scull it, spilling it over himself in order to catch up with his baggage as it went through. Slightly soggy and dishevelled – and that’s before a single flight – got through security and into the Disneyworld of duty free shopping – a glittering fantasy land of bright lights, forced smiles and brand products that you can’t afford – even duty free (a delusional concept anyway).
When we boarded our A360 double decker aircraft – the mood lifted – this was Emirates, our first experience with the airline and what a difference! Polite and pleasant service, reasonable leg room, good food and a toilet that was clean, didn’t require Houdini like contortions to perform ablutions and actually provided soap and hand cream. Halleluyah – an airline that still operates the way that international airlines used to until the accountants, hungry profiteers and dividend seekers crawled all over them.
Consequently, we perversely felt the flight to Dubai was almost too short! Sadly, the next flight to Singapore was a smaller aircraft and not so roomy.
Thursday 15th September Singapore
We arrived in the morning and took a cab to our hotel, the Plaza ParkRoyal. Very nice too. Our room wasn’t ready so had a coffee, caught up on mail and were able to use the pool and shower facilities on the fourth floor. Excellent! And then they managed to get us into a room at 11:30am, (supposed to be 2pm) – so very happy with that.
In the meantime, we contacted Andrew’s cousin-in-law and arranged to meet for lunch once we’d freshened up. Coffee and sandwich at And All Things Delicious, a smart little bakery on Arab Street almost opposite the hotel. We wandered around a few shops – an interesting pottery/artefact shop specialising in Japanese designs.
After a welcome rest, we ‘re-booted’ and caught a cab to the Imperial Restaurant in what is now the Sheraton for dinner. The celebrated “herbal” restaurant was none other than the one Andrew did a story on some 20 or so years ago for Beyond 2000. Back then it was in a different building and the attraction/selling point was you saw a herbalist specialising in Traditional Chinese medicine who prescribed what herbs and tonics you should have. These then went to the chef who prepared a meal specially for you. I recall eating fried ants and scorpions, washed down with deer penis wine!
Today the Imperial has gone more up-market – and the Chinese herbalist is no longer there – but the food was excellent. The tour de force was a dessert of cooked sweet potato (two varieties) drizzled with molten sugar which you pluck from the dish and dunk in a bowl of iced water – instantly congealing the molten sugar on the sweet potato chunks into a crystal glaze with spidery filaments. The manager – Eddy who has managed the restaurant for over twenty years and must have been with it when I filmed there back in 1995 or so – put on a sparkling performance to demonstrate just how to do all this with flair and panache!
We were lucky getting cabs to and from the restaurant as this was the week of the Formula 1 race in Singapore – with streets closed and thousands of tourists in town for the event which starts tomorrow.
Friday 16th September Singapore
Needless to say we slept in – in our super king size bed – had breakfast at the hotel – which was included, then packed up in leisurely fashion. We had to be out of the room by a civilised 12 noon. We left our luggage with the concierge and went on a fascinating tour of Arab Street, with its rabbit warren of colourful shops selling gorgeously patterned material for clothing, curtains, and shops specialising in sequins and tassels – to a background of calls for prayer from the nearby mosque – it being Friday. This is where Singapore’s multi-cultural magic seems to work – in the back streets – not the shopping malls, or at least most of them!
We caught the metro to the Raffles shopping centre – which is a mixture of up-market, branded luxury buying and great traditional eateries.
Lunch was at the best Chinese restaurant in the centre, Ah Yat Kitchen, one that has very expensive up-market restaurants downtown but a simpler (and cheaper) mall-style café here. Lovely food. Caught a cab back to the hotel, picked up our bags and then went on to the airport.
Our overnight Qantas flight to Melbourne was uneventful.
Saturday 17th September- Melbourne/Auckland
We arrived early in Melbourne – around 5:30am and consequently there was no-one there to man the international transfers section. We queued grumpily for half an hour until eventually the security people showed up and promptly took for ever to process us all, before disgorging us into a run-down transfer lounge. Hmmm!
Our flight to Auckland left on time – it should have been a straight forward short leg – but made most unpleasant by two lots of passengers – one directly in front of us and the other to one side who all had colds/coughs, whatever and made no effort to shield the rest of us from their germy expectorations! Urgh! (and yes Andrew did come down with a cold subsequently).
Monday 19th September Cambridge/Queenstown/Wanaka
The flight to Queenstown was surprisingly only half full. Which meant that Kerrie was able to move seats to the left hand side and enjoy the stunning views as we traversed the southern Alps and tracked down the valley to Frankton airport. Glorious sunny weather showed off the snow-capped mountains to maximum advantage and made us feel like we do live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. We had to wait for an hour for our shuttle – which then went via Cromwell – so we arrived home in the dark at 7:15pm. But at least they did drop us at the front door! Home at last after exactly 100 incredible days!