NZ Fiordland quick update

Just a quick update (more detailed one to follow):

We've spent the last week in the Fiordland area, amidst some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen. Apparentlly it's one of the Southern Hemisphere's premier wilderness areas and has been recognised as a World Heritage Area (WHA).

We went to Milford Sound and saw seals and penguins playing around – spending a night in the tranquility of the sound was awesome. No sooner did we return to land than we booked ourselves on one of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Kepler Track. It's a 4 day hike taking in the full range of the scenery in the WHA, from almost a full day above the tree line on a still snowy alpine ridge path to days walking through native bush with plants that have survived almost unchanged since Gondwana. (Gondwana is a much harked about time when all the southern continents (Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, etc) were joined in one land mass over 100 million years ago).

The hike is probably a highlight of my trip so far and we'll post photos soon. After recovering from the walk we drove to Christchurch where we went to see Muse play and unfortunately we're having to say good bye to Vicki now, who is heading home in time for Christmas. Sharon and I are continuing North from here, to the only page in our NZ road atlas that we've not been to yet, Able Tasman/Nelson/Murchison area, but we've planning the rest of our trips, moving our flights to their proper dates and booking some tours in Australia, India and Nepal…

Te Anau

As we drove up the Southern Scenic Tourist route's final leg, to Te Anau, the clouds lifted and the sun lit up the surrounding mountains. This was the first sun we'd seen in days. The rest of our trip from Christchurch to Dunedin and on to Invercargill has been wet, cold and made us doubt the existence of summer this far south. We've stood, rain-lashed on the South Island's most southerly point and could visualise the air blowing straight off the Antarctic ice and through our clothes. The animals either don't mind, or have got used to it: the ubiquitous lambs and calves have never been too far away, and we've also managed to get pretty close to some less usual wildlife, yellow eyed penguins; nesting pied shags with their chicks as well as a colony of NZ Fur seals. Watching from a Department of Conservation approved hiding area, it was harrowing to wait for the penguins' return after a day catching food for the young – a stoat had found and emptied a couple of nests while the parents were absent. There was nothing we could do from our vantage point but hope for the swift return of some of the penguins. We saw one arrive and waddle up the beach, pausing to stretch and dry out in the wind – he seemed to pose for the gathered crowd. Being so close and seeing the world's rarest penguins in the wild was an awe inspiring experience, this penguin's fragile existence only underlined by the presence of the predators that man unleashed.

The penguin wasn't the only endangered animal we've seen. Not far from Christchurch, an extinct, collapsed and now flooded volcano cone forms the harbour for the small and surprisingly French town of Akaroa. It's the site of the attempted French settlement of South Island – this failed when they were 4 days slower than the English frigate that raced them from the North Island – but more pertinently it is the current feeding ground for the smallest and rarest of the world's marine dolphins, the Hectors. The boat tour of the harbour took us up close to these extremely cute animals.

The area's natural wonders were unconcerned by the elements – the smooth rock orbs of the Moeraki boulders are still lying where they fell when the cliffs around them eroded away and the fossilised remains of an ancient forest still lies in the same rock it did 180 million years ago. The long gone trees have left embedded in the rock wood grain so perfectly detailed that you need to touch it to be convinced it isn't wood. It really isn't hard to imagine the stumps and logs being trees in a great forest.

We've left the coast behind us and headed into the Fiordland, an area of mountains and lakes. Tomorrow we will visit the famous Milford Sound (named after Milford Haven in Wales, but with a reputation for being much more beautiful!), to fully appreciate the area we're booked on an overnight tour and will sleep aboard the sight-seeing sailing ship. From there, the west coast will be our playground.

Operation Hammock

Our week long tour of the some of the smaller islands in Fiji took us to picture perfect tropical islands, where we ejoyed 'Fiji time'.

I'm writing this sat on a beach on a small mountainous island connected to a neighbouring island by a sandbar only exposed at low tide. It was across this sandbar that the resort staff walked at midnight last night to the next village, where they have a TV that was showing the all important rugby world cup. We didn't see the match since we were already asleep in our woven walled, thatched roof 'Bure' (traditional house) under a mosquito net after a hard day of sitting in hammocks doing nothing.

We're on the island of Waya, our 6th day and 5th beautiful island on our tour of the Yasawa group. The Yasawas are a group of islands towards the Western edge of Fiji, they're only a small part of the 333 islands that make up Fiji, but it's here that most tourists seem to spend their time. Transport between the islands and Viti Levu (the main island with Suva, the capital, and Nadi, the airport) is aboard the Yasawa Flyer, a large yellow catamaran with a purple starfish and 'Awesome Adventures' painted on the side. Awesome Adventures run package trips and sell multi-use passes allowing you to create your own itinerary and hop at will among the islands, which is what we're doing. As the Flyer passes each island a host of smaller boats come out to meet it, pick up supplies and ferry passengers to and from the resorts. Most of the resorts are owned and run by the villages on the islands which is a great boost for the economy of villages that would probably struggle otherwise, but it does mean that the standards vary considerably between resorts. The one common theme between all the resorts we stayed at, even more than the 'Fiji time' concept and the friendly staff, has been the hammocks.

Placed in the shade of coconut palms and often suspended above a white sand beach, the large double hammocks are great – I've finished four books in the last few days as a result of sitting in one. It's been idyllic – lying there listening to the lapping waves and singing birds, rocking gently in the breeze. 'Fiji time' is a concept where you take your time about everything, where you relax rather than rush – I'm sure in a less laid-back country this would be labelled 'faff', but here it's embraced. Everything seems relaxed here, quite a contrast to the 'mainland' as Viti Levu is called, with the exception of the rugby it seems completely cut off from the rest of the world. The current political turmoil resulting form the latest in a string of military coups in Fiji is largely irrelevant outside of the capital and has apparently not affected life on the the islands very much.

Our first stop in the Yasawas was Coral View resort, where we went for a walk up the mountain, following a sunset trail. We decided not to wait and watch the sunset, since the path was steep, not very well defined and we didn't want to get lost in the jungle. The views from the top were still stunning. That evening we had a great buffet meal and were treated to a local dance by the staff, which was followed by the Haka (the Kiwi war dance) and the very similar Fijian counterpart.

I slept very lightly that night, due to the heat, but it did mean that I got to see an awesome sun rise through the dorm window that over-lookied the beach. Once the sun has fully woken itself, and us, up we had a continental breakfast and went snorkeling. The reef wasn't great and we had to share a mask, but we still saw lots of fish. After snorkeling we showered to try and wash the salt off, but since these small islands generally use well water from sources below sea level, the shower was slightly salty too. Slightly cleaner, we jumped back on the boat and then caught another small boat to Gold Coast, our next resort. We were initially booked in there for two nights, but after the staff ignored us and we didn't sleep well, we quickly changed that and headed off to Long Beach as soon as we'd visited the Blue Lagoon.

Long Beach was great and we stayed here two nights. Afternoon tea was run by a lady in the village who baked fresh cakes daily, she had some crazy kids and a equally crazy dog. The dog followed everyone, it walked with us when we walked the length of the long beach and also followed us to church. We were planning on a village visit, but the whole of Fiji has taken to Christianity very well, so everything stops on Sunday and we weren't allowed to go to the village. We were allowed to sit in on their church service (complete with four christenings). It was very similar to a normal church service at home, except it was in Fijian and we couldn't understand it. The singing was great and we were taken around the school after. Despite the fact that the Fijians used their native tongue in church and their daily life, the schooling is in English. It was also interesting to note that the school, along with lots of others, is helped by EU funding.

As we were waiting to leave Long Beach, the weather turned. When we arrived on the islands we tried to hide form the sun but now the tables had turned and the sun was hiding from us.

(Written in the morning of the 24th Sept.)

While I was writing the first part of this update, a local woman was massaging Sharon's back and we were sitting in the shade of coconut palm trees, but soon after that it started raining and continued raining on and off until nightfall, when it started raining on and on.

(Written in the evening of the 24th Sept.)

The next morning, with clear skies, we headed out on a boat ride for some reef snorkeling, this was the highlight of the Yasawas trip. One of the first things we saw after jumping in was a white tipped reef shark – these small sharks are safe to swim with an were fed by the guides. The best fish find came on a deep coral wall we swam along side, there were huge shoals of fish: zebra patterned, bright blue and yellow, large and small, all swimming along happily amongst the sharks and large coral.

We've now arrived back on the mainland and are planning the next few days travel, trying to fend of 'help' from the guys running the hostel who are all independently trying to sell us the tours that make them personally the most commission. We're spending tonight (our 4 year, 5 month anniversary) in some posh accommodation and then we're off to see the rest of the island.

(Written in the evening of the 25th Sept.)


We thought we couldn't really go to BC without visiting the capital, Victoria, which turned out to be a great city.
Vancouver Island is larger than you might expect. I thought it was a small island just off of the city of Vancouver. It turns out that the island is the size of a small country (e.g. England) and probably has about the same population as Reading.

We arrived in Victoria early evening, just in time to go for a lovely walk along the pebble beach and catch the last film in their Free-B film festival. Every Saturday during August they show a free 'B' movie in an open air arena. We saw Little Shop of Horrors – apparently filmed in one weekend on a bet – it was quite funny and good to see since I've worked the stage version.

The next morning we headed back in to town found a great free parking space for Macy overlooking the Harbor and watched the ferries dancing. The ferries were probably large enough for about 6 people, there were 5 of them and a PA system was playing the Blue Danube and they were dancing in circles. It was quite impressive, but a little overshadowed by the harbor seal that was swimming lengths along the shore.

After the ferries had settled down, we took a guided tour around the Parliament buildings and were surprised by how strong they consider their ties to the English monarchy – I knew they used the Queen's head on their currency, but I didn't know they also refer to public lands as being owned by the Crown. Perhaps British Columbia feels stronger ties than the rest of Canada – apparently their provincial coat of arms was initially rejected by the queen for being too British; they had a lion and a crown and roses, thistles, leaks and shamrocks, but no native Canadian imagery.

After seeing this, we wandered around the shops in town, seeing the old (by North American standards) houses and squares and the market. The British theme continued with one of their newish shopping centre having a clock with many faces, each face showing the time in an ex-colony around the globe.

(In other news, I just found out that Fiji used to be a British colony, meaning that every country we're visiting on our round the world trip was at some point ruled by the English crown, with the exception of Nepal…)

Returning early the next day we visited the Royal BC Museum and spent ages queueing for admission. They had a large, very well done, Titanic exhibit and several not quite as well done other exhibits. The 'Last Century' exhibit made me feel quite old though when I saw toys I was playing with as a kid in one of the display cases. Our entrance included a trip to the National Geographic IMAX movie theatre with it's huge screen showing a film about diving on Titanic.

We were hoping to find rivers to paddle on the rest of the island, but the info we'd got from the locals said that only two rivers were likely to still be running – they weren't, so we went and saw the floating village at Telegraph cove, had a nice meal to celebrate our 52 month anniversary but didn't see much in the way of wild life. Luckily the next few days were to change that…

Tourist attraction, faff and big water

In this installment of our exciting travels we become a tourist attraction, lose Gina and Conrad, find Bristol Uni Canoe Club, some large volume rivers and another canyon to climb out of. After finding really cute squirrels at the forbidden put in on the Maligne, we headed downstream until we got to a point where the Harlequin ducks wouldn't notice or mind our presence – the Maligne Canyon. This is a tourist attraction and is marked on the map as such – it's also a good quality section of whitewater and is marked in the guidebook as such. It's a very short section – about half a mile and there's no road access to the top, so Conrad, Gav and I had to carry our boats up the tourist trail along side it – becoming tourist attractions in the process: people stopped to take our photos, ask us questions, tell us we were mad and all eagerly gathered along the banks waiting for our run.

Gav ran the large rapid at the top – much to his audience's delight, while Conrad and I opted to seal launch in below the sticky hole-filled shoot, again pleasing the crowd with the high seal launches. The rest of the 1/2 mile was great fun with a nice boof drop and some cool rapids through a gorge. At the take out bridge we met the girls and continued down another couple of miles to just above the confluence with the Athabasca. Not long after getting off the river an email arrived from one of our spectators, sent via saying he'd got some good photos of us on our run down.

From there we left the Rockies (but we shall return on a hunt for Dinosaurs) and headed to Clearwater, where Gina and Conrad would head off and the rest of the Bristol contingent would pick up Claire, Gav and Sarah. Before departing, we had one last run with Gina and Conrad down the Clearwater – it's a big volume river (although they'd say medium volume over here) with huge wave trains and swirly, boily eddy lines. While the Bristol guys were doing what uni clubs do best – faffing, this time about a portage around a class 6 rapid, Conrad ad I paddled on down through the lower section of the Clearwater, which was great fun in Creek boats, with even bigger waves and holes than the top section, and would be awesome in playboats if surfing is your thing.

At the take out we said a sad good bye to Gina and Conrad and decided to hang around with the Bristol guys for a bit longer; It's been quite good having a different selection of people to paddle with over here. From meeting up with Simon and Cheryl and then Johnny and Alex as well, to Gina, Conrad, Claire, Sarah and Gav and now all the Bristol guys, we've gone from just the two of us to 11.

Since the Clearwater, we've tagged along with team Bristol and their matching red 4×4 hire vehicles (aka rigs). We've paddled the Adams (not worth doing), Thompson (huge volume) and the Cayoosh creek. We paddled the guide book section yesterday and then attempted to continue downstream into the canyon section, but didn't make it as far as the canyon; there was a horrible rapid where the rocks and river seemed to merge in to a chaotic mess of white and drop a hundred foot in several stages inside a very tight canyon – a mandatory portage if ever I'd seen one. We started to walk around it and the portage soon became an extraction after several landslides blocked the path. The climb to the road wasn't too bad and luckily didn't require and further rope work.

Somehow unperturbed by two difficult walkouts from canyons in recent weeks, as we left camp this morning, team Bristol were planning to head to the Bridge river – which is, according to the guide book, 25km long canyon that is very difficult (the word impossible is used) to get out of and is also very likely to contain wood. I guess they're here for adventure…

Sharon and I are here for fun, so are spending a relaxation day together. I think our plan is to maybe reattempt the Cayoosh canyon tomorrow, putting on lower down and then head towards Whistler, although water levels are still high there, so a concrete plan has yet to be formulated.

It's a long way to Skookumchuck

It'a a long way to Skookumchuck,
it's a long way to go…
It's a long way to Skookumchuck,
To the sweetest wave I know.

Skookumchuck is a tidal rapid, famous world wide for its big fast waves that kayakers flock to, like bees to a honey pot, except plastic and brightly coloured.

So flock we did. The tide tip off we had said it'd be good right before we needed to be in Vancouver to meet Gina and Conrad, and given that 'Skook' isn't far from the City, it worked out well. Simon and Cheryl were heading over with their friend Alex and so we tagged along.

The trip started with an exciting 45 minute ferry from the mainland – it really felt like we were going on holiday. The views from the ferry were great, with mountains rising from the water all around us. A 50 mile drive across the peninsula brought us to a beautiful lake with a good, if a little noisy campsite. The heatwave was still with us, so a cool down swim in the lake was needed and a floating log provided amusement as we tried to balance and walk along it.

Conveniently the tide meat that we didn't have to do anything unti lunchtime, which is about when we started our 10 minute paddle out. At a point around the bay from Egmont the sea channel narrows between the mainland and the island and as it does so, it forms a huge series of standing waves when the tide is flowing fast enough.

We arrived just after the slack water point, and got to see the wave build from nothing – it started off flat and built right up to a wave train of a dozen or so of the largest waves I've seen. As it starts to form the ripples get larger and larger, until they're surfable – at this point the longer, faster boats provide good long surfs and the queues are short. As the wave builds and the pile (white bit) gets bigger, the shorter more playful boats come into their own. We'd obviously chosen a good time to go, since there were probably 20 other paddlers around and about the same number of observers.

When the wave is at it's biggest, the water downstream is an almost indescribable mess of churning and bubbling water with nothing better to do than unseat even the most careful paddler. I got knocked off the far side of the wave and one time didn't manage to quite get back in far enough, I managed to stay upright, but couldn't quite fight the huge boils and spent much longer getting back into the eddy than I would like – the locals call this taking the tour. Cheryl didn't fare as well when she took her tour, the water was higher and faster making it even messier and she was eaten by a whirlpool that sucked her out of her boat and spat her out. Eventually. She was safely reunited with her boat and paddled back to shore, cold but otherwise ok. This marked the end of our first day at Skook.

We'd planned ahead and brought locks so we could leave our boats near where the wave forms and hike back along the trail to the car park. This meant we didn't have to paddle the boats against the tide on the way out both days & it was a popular option – the bushes turned into a storage shed for kayaks and kayak gear. The hike was longer than we expected – somewhere in the region of 3 miles, and we were glad to cool off in the lake at the campsite, washing the salt from our kit as we did.

Friday morning started too early when unexpected thunder rolled in and threatened to dampen our drying kit and stoves that had been left set up form the night before. The meanacing thunder crashes never materalised into the heavy deluge we expected, and soon after we started the hike back in, just after lunch, the sun started shining again.

Our timing was spot on again and we arrived just in time to rest a little before kitting up and jumping on. At first it was just the 5 of us on the water, with Sharon catching almost the first surf of the day and impressing the audience no end. Soon the crowds got on the water and the wait increased, but so did the water. It was quite a high tide, which means the wave gets bigger faster, eventually becoming too big to surf. However, before it got too big and the whirlpools became huge we all got some good rides in and then sat around watching paddlers who either hadn't got up as early as us or clearly had more energy.

I'm glad we saved some energy for the paddle back, we decided the 3 mile hike would be too far with a boat on our shoulder, so paddled back around the bays to our launching point in Egmont. It was a hard paddle against the current – it would have been dark had we waited for the slack water – and took about an hour. But we did get to see Seals playing about during the paddle, as well as purple starfish and what we think was a kingfisher.

Skook is a great all day activity, we turned it into two full days, it's one of the best playspots I've been to and set in awesome scenery, it's well worth a visit and would make an impressive spectacle for the non paddling visitor who chose to walk the trail too. Our tides were maxing out at around 17 knots, which is a little too large for it to be ideal, so I'd probably go on smaller tides next time.

Logistics: Getting there from Vancouver is easy, follow signs to Horseshoe Bay, get on Langdale ferry ($50ish return). Once on the Peninsula drive towards Sechelt, this is the last main town and best bet for picking up groceries and petrol. Camping is good at Klein Lake, not far up the road from Egmont and the Egmont Marina does good food, hot showers and has laundry facilities.

Paddle out on a slack tide, ~ 3hrs before the peak flow. Once on the water, turn right and follow the bays around, past a red house, then a chain link fence with “Skookumchuck Provincial Park” sign and then take out at the next point & watch the wave build, getting on when it looks like fun.

Sharon says: Skook is one of those names in kayaking that has an almost mystical quality about it – its where some of the best moves can be seen since the wave is so big and fast. However turning up in creek boats wasn't such a bad idea since the early stages of the wave forming is when its at its glassiest and greenest and thats when I got my surfs. The water is some of the clearest sea water I've ever seen and while sat on top of this magnificent glassy wave, you can clearly see the rock creating the rapid and seaweed dancing underneath you. My Mamba did me well and treated me to long rides, surrounded by snow topped moutains – it is indeed an awesome place, where the seals play as much as the pro-boaters – definitely a place I'll look forward to returning to (especially when I can throw some of the moves there!)