Happy Australia Day

January 26th is Australia Day – it's a big day for Aussies: a sense of national pride and celebration for their country fills the public holiday. It's a bit like America's July 4th celebrations, but without the anti-British sentiments. On July 4th, we avoided the crowds, yesterday we didn't, we were in Sydney along with thousands of other people.

The reason we decided to hang around Sydney was the number of free events going on – in The Rocks (Sydney's oldest neighbourhood) there were 5 stages each filled with bands all day – there were dozens of busker stages, a stage in Hyde Park and one in Darling Harbour. We hadn't realised there would also be boat races (of the non alcoholic variety) with ferries and tall ships racing. As we arrived, there was a huge boat parade from the Opera house under the bridge with an almost unimaginable number of boats, from P&O's ocean going cruise liner to small boats with outboard motors & hundreds of sail powered yachts, all vying for space along side the official vessels and attempting to out do each other in displaying copious national flags and decorated in the national colours of green and gold for the 'best dressed boat' competition.

Along the road between the Opera House and Hyde Park were hundreds of classic and vintage cars, all polished and proudly displayed by their owners. There was even a display of pedal powered cars, caravans from the early C20 – complete with authentic paraphernalia and vintage bus routes carring passengers around town. We saw lots of music acts, from popular indie groups and folk singers, to brass bands and an awe-inspiring organ recital in one of the City's old churches

The questionable weather of the last week was hiding and the sun shone all day causing us all to packing into the little pockets of shade there were. As the sun went down, the evening culminated in a dazzling firework display over Darling Harbour.

A thoroughly good day was had by all that we saw and it was only later that we found out about the resentment that some people feel about the celebration of the 'invasion' of Australia – we spent all day wondering why the skywriters spelled out 'Sorry' in the skys above the harbour, finding out this morning that it was an unofficial apology to the aboriginals.

Today we're heading into the Blue Mountains and then we're off to the olympic whitewater course for a bit of a paddle, before returning to the coast and starting our road trip to Cairns.

Kangaroos, Koalas and Canberra

Guess what we did today?! We not only saw kangaroos and koalas, but also cuddled them! Smile Today we went to an animal park near Sydney and saw loads of indigenous animals, such as Tasmanian devils, soft-baked enchilladas (aka short-beaked enchidnas, but we like our name better) and wombats. We took loads of photos and shall try to post them soon. Yesterday we were in the capital – Canberra. Like the US capital it was designed when the states got together and wanted somewhere independant to hide the government. Also like Washington DC, it has lots of long wide streets joining monuments and huge ornamental buildings. The parliment building was stunningly decorated inside, with all the materials and colours symbolic of something Aussie & the war memorial was so poignant it almost brought tears to our eyes.

Tomorrow (Friday), we're back in Sydney to pick up our Indian visas (although we're not sure we want to go to Mumbai at the moment) and then get ready for the Australia day party on Saturday.

G'day mates

The white clouds touched the horizon in every direction as Qantas flight 46 began its descent into Sydney's Kingford Smith airport. The roar of the jets were momentarily muffled as we passed into the layer of cloud that had been below us since Christchurch. Less than 3 hours earlier we had bee saying farewell to the country we'd called home for the last 3 and a half months. Soon we'd be arriving in a city larger than any we'd been to since leaving North America in September.

The engine roar returned and the pilot began banking as we emerged from the clouds. Below us lay Sydney, in all her glory. Underneath our left wing, the unmistakeable sails of the Opera house appeared, followed by the iconic bridge and then the skyscrapers that could denote any large city's CBD. We were in Australia, except the forecast was for rain and we couldn't see any kangaroos through the oval window…

Last few days in NZ

Having watched the Disney film Below Eight (a great film to watch), we resisted the urge to thumb a lift down south, and decided to stick to the original plan of returning to Christchurch for our flight on to Sydney.

After our last paddling session in Queenstown with a fellow Brit called Rich whose hospitality was amazing and whose house had some of the most beautiful views you could imagine, we started the drive back to Christchurch where we'd soon be leaving wonderful New Zealand. One of the sights we stopped en route to see was the majestic Mount Cook, where Sir Edmund Hillary famously trained for the first successful ascent of Mount Everest. The sun was out and the blue colour of the lakes nearby was quite extraordinary. Coincidently while on one of the dirt tracks in the area, we saw Gemma (an Aussie from my kayak course) and her boyfriend who had just paddled the rather cold looking glacial Waipora. The night before we watched a beautiful sunset with the only pain being the insistent sandflies. We decided against climbing the mountain – its somewhat of a serious endeavour with a tragedy happening to an experienced mountain guide in the last month – however I could definitely see the appeal of reaching the summit of such a magnificent peak, maybe something to add to the to do list for next time…

Instead of pushing on to Christchurch that night, we stopped in Geraldine and continued on the next day. This enabled us to visit the Tin Shed which had a small collection of farm animals including a tiny piglet that reminded me of the one we'd seen at the farm in Taupo and I wondered how big he would've grown to – a sign of the length of time we'd spent in New Zealand. We made what was our third visit to a campsite in Christchurch, apart from this time it'd be us saying goodbye to NZ rather than to our visitors. We joined the many other people who were washing their vans ready for departure, and Kimi looked beautiful.

Sadly though the Christchurch Backpackers Car Market was not like the one in Auckland . When we brought Kimi, the staff had offered advice and been actively trying to sell the vehicles, while the market was renowned throughout Auckland as the place to buy a vehicle. None of these luxuries existed in Christchurch and we were to get rather too well acquainted with the building while waiting hopefully for buyers to turn up. We made posters and stuck them to the noticeboards in all the hostels we could find, but it was only Tuesday that 2 Swiss girls decided to buy Kimi. They paid a little less than we would have liked but they seemed like they would take care of her and love her as much as we did.

With Kimi off on her next Kiwi adventure, we were able to relax and enjoy the city, as we explored the musuem and climbed the Cathedral's spire. The YMCA we stayed at, was convienently located opposite the Arts Centre, and was a very good place to stay. The hostels were pretty full in town, in fact the YHA could only offer us a room on the day of a our flight – 6 days after when we were enquiring! The streets were definitely more full of hustle and bustle as the tourists had come for the sun, and there was a great summery atmosphere. Although we had spent more time trying to sell Kimi than we had anticipated, we were still able to see quite a few sights. Christchurch is a very pretty little city, and its size means that many attractions are within easy walking distance from each other.

Soon after we arrived in Christchurch, we heard the sad news that Sir Edmund Hillary had died. It was pretty striking how much respect he had from his fellow Kiwis. There was quite a lot in the media about how he was the epitome of New Zealandness, and this was clearly a source of pride to many.

With thoughts of travelling lighter in India and Nepal, we sent quite a lot of stuff home – including the laptop so apologies if we don't have so many photos up in the next couple of months – and left some of the camping stuff we'd accumulated with Kimi. It didn't take so long to pack, though my bag is certainly not as light as I would've liked, but at least the kayaks are well within the weight restrictions now! All too soon it was time for us to leave, but one thing's sure and thats we'll be back soon.

First few days in Oz

Australia is renowned for being one of the driest countries in the world (apparently its the driest inhabited continent) and is pretty famous for being hot, so our first few days of rain and wind weren't quite what I expected when experiencing the summer in Oz.

Our entry into the country was probably the easiest yet, with little waiting time for passport control and biosecurity not wanting to check our kayaks. I was a little disappointed not to see any beagles, despite posters telling us they were on duty.

While wandering around Sydney, we've seen the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge, walked around the Rocks and China Town, saw the views from the Sky Tower (depite the low clouds) and found Nemo in the aquarium with (nearly) all his friends. We also found out about opals, saw a replica Endeavour and sipped delicious hot chocolates from a Lindt chocolate cafe.

On Sunday we picked up Nikki, our Hippie Camper van who will be our travelling companion for the next month as we travel up to Cairns. She comes complete with air conditioning, a fridge that works as a freezer if set to the wrong temperature we found out, a toaster, an electric kettle and a whistling hob kettle!

We've yet to see a kangaroo and cuddle a koala, but there's time and I did see my first kangaroo warning sign today!

New Zealand in the New Year

So far in this new year, we've been making the most of the beautiful rivers available for us to paddle in New Zealand – its a hard life!

New Year's Day brought us a (somewhat) delayed paddle down the Earthquake section of the Buller with its bouncy waves and lovely gorge, the decision not to wear a cag may have been a little optimistic but at least it helped clear the head. It was a good start to the year with paddlers from all over the world enjoying the same section and lack of sandflies.

Soon, the campsite at Murchison cleared of paddlers as they headed to the West Coast or back home, but we enjoyed a yummy barbecue prepared and cooked by Sandy and Jason – it seems the Aussies can cook a decent barbecue! We cleaned all our paddling kit ready to head off to other rivers. The plan was to find a heliboat run that wasn't particularly hard core and we had thought of the Mokihinui. However talking to the pilot soon put us off when we found out the price. His suggestion was the Karamea which was closer to where he was based and therefore significantly cheaper. It sounded like a plan and so we drove up to the tiny village of Karamea, picking up a Canadian hitchhiker who wanted to get up to a commune type place up there – goodness knows how she managed to hitch back from there, and she broke one of our beers…

Anyway the next morning saw us at the take out battling with sandflies, when our shiny blue helicopter turned up. I got to video this while David, Andre and Phil helped load boats into the net and then Phil went up to the put in. Pretty soon the helicopter returned and it was our turn to head up the river, trying to look at the rapids as we flew. One thing to remember is that rivers look much smaller from height! The Karamea was a stunning green river with tight technical grade 3 rapids, at least in the low levels we were paddling it. There was a harder rapid called Holy Shit which I decided to walk, having pretty much talked myself out of before we got there – something I need to learn to stop doing! It was a great run, well recommended.

Sadly then we had to say goodbye to Phil and Andre as they had to catch the ferry to the North Island and we started the long drive south to Queenstown. En route we stopped to take a look at Fox Glacier, again a stunning sight especially in the sunshine! We stayed near Haast and had breakfast the following morning at a view point by the sea. Signs told us that dolphins and orcas were sometimes seen here, and I wondered how anyone would see anything from there when the sea was vast. Then, to my surprise and delight, I saw something jumping in the water and we realised we were watching a pod of dolphins – a fantastic start to any day!

We made it to Queenstown after a quick stop in Wanaka for lunch and some puzzles in the Puzzling World, having seen some fabulous scenery in the rather intense heat. Queenstown is a different town in the sunshine and has a lovely atmosphere, especially while you sit by the lake eating fish and chips! I better head out now but will update soon about the river adventures we've had around here.

Hope everyone is having as good a start to 2008 as we are!