Ridgeway Walk

The White Horse at Uffington lies close to the Ridgway which is the oldest road in the country, and some believe in Europe. Our Lonely Planet guide to Walking in Britain contained a section of the Ridgeway from Avebury to Goring which is 44 miles in length and can be done over three days. Early on, we decided this would be the perfect thing to do to celebrate our sixth anniversary especially as this fell near the first May bank holiday weekend.
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Stratford and Warwick

Well as David says, we’ve been slack updating this recently and we have yet to tell you all about our exciting trip on the Sun Kosi which I promise we’ll do soon! But we’ve not given up on the travelling just because we’ve got back to England. One of the things that we wanted to do on our return was explore our nearer surroundings, and we had the perfect excuse this weekend since we were celebrating five years of being together.

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Varanasi and Orcha

Our trip into India began with a few days in the rather crazy city of Varanasi followed by a seemingly tranquil stay in Orcha.

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world and is one of the most holy for Hindus with its location on the banks of the Ganges. It was described by our tour leader as a place where you could see real India because people don't put on a show here and I think that is certainly true. The ghats by the river see all sorts of activity from bathing, washing clothes and burning the dead – often more close to each than the western mind can comprehend. We saw an evening parayer ceremony which involved lots of bells and bright colours, and we went out on a boat to participate in a flower ceremony, where we floated 251 candles in petals on the water, making a wish with each one. The effect was simply stunning.

We had another boat trip which was slightly longer as we spent two days sailing/rowing down the Ganges and got to see Gangetic dolphins! I thought these were quite a rarity to the point of almost being mythical, but apparently their numbers have increased over the last 2 or 3 years and we saw several escape the water for air. Having seen the water, I'm not surprised they're blind.

A 15 hour train and 45 minute autorickshaw journey brought us to Orcha – a city with more 16th century palaces, temples and various ruins than you could imagine for such a tiny town. We explored several of these magnificent sights, enjoyed a cookery demostration and saw a factory where villagers were making paper from cotton. Orcha is definitely somewhere I'd recommend people visit, the history was incredible and the comparative peace and quiet wonderful. We stayed at a lovely place in air conditioned tents where we did have several visits from geckos who helped keep the mossies under control, and there was even a swimming pool! – a luxury much appreciated when its 35degrees. Photos will be put up at some point as I don't think I can describe the beauty of the buildings effectively.

Sadly the majority of the group didn't get to fully appreciate the area, since illness struck. The most likely candidate seems to be the hummus that they ate as part of a packed lunch on the train. However there was no way to keep it cold and several hours of hot weather have led to a couple of days of misery for some. Three of us haven't been affected and are hoping that this will remain the case! Since David and I ordered food from a different place, we're hoping it was the hummus.

We've arrived in Agra and will see the Taj Mahal soon, then head to Delhi tomoroow. Its not long now at all till we'll be approaching the chaos that is Heathrow and we will be home.

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!

Sharon goes back to school

After some great pointers from a short session with Mick Hopkinson, I signed up for a four day kayaking course, starting the following week. Having had an awesome experience with the Dusky dolphins at Kaikoura, we drove to Murchison and settled into the beautiful lodge at the Kayak School. It was wonderful to be able to relax in a place with a huge kitchen and comfy lounge area, surrounded by other kayakers.

Saturday morning, and the course started at 8am as it would every day – no lie-ins for a few days! There were several people from all over the world – 9 Australians made up the majority of the group, but there was a Californian, a German, a Kiwi and 2 English folk including myself amongst the medley. Three of these were on the beginner course having not done any paddling before, and the rest of us were on the Intermediate. After an introduction to students and staff, and a discussion of what we each wanted from the course, we headed down to the pool. The session began with each of us having our rolls videoed to see just how bad these were, and then we got onto the business of learning new more effective rolls. The verdict for me was that I had a very British roll! Apparently this isn't a particularly good thing… What it meant though was that I had an extra challenge as I needed to unlearn my bad habits and learn what was a much more simpler and effective roll. My main problem was that it took a few days to understand how something so easy could work so well, I'm still learning to trust it!

After the pool session, we went to the pond at the lodge and had some of our strokes videoed. These were all critiqued in a session, and then we headed to the 'Big Eddy' where we practised sweep strokes and learnt how to control the speed of turns effectively. Our last session of the day was a short section of the Buller river, after all the intense learning of the day, I was quite glad it was only a short section! We used the control turning strokes to glide across the river effectively and got to practise our rolls in the current.

Needless to say I was shattered after this first hectic day and ached in more places than I could've imagined. Muscles I've obviously not used paddling much, certainly were having a turn at being used and were definitely feeling it. I was very pleased that David was around to help cook!

The second day started with a pool session again, and it was with some shock that I found out that it was only 10am when we got back to the lodge. Another feedback session from the video taken was followed by a slalom session on the river. I'd been put in a different boat (a RPM) to help learn the turning strokes but it felt very different to what I was used to. I was struggling a little to understand some of the purposes of the strokes I was doing and so the slalom was a little frustrating for me, having to put aside what I'd learnt before and learn new techniques was pretty challenging. However Jess, my coach, was sympathetic to my cause thankfully! Comments about how British paddlers may not have the best technical skills (we don't have the rivers to really put them to use often) but are often the most determined and enthusiastic about boating despite some of the conditions they have to regularly deal with (cold, lack of water – this is usually the norm honest!) seemed to ring quite true. The time in the afternoon was spent on the Doctors Creek section of the Buller, using strokes to work across currents, rather than heading straight downstream – this effectively gives you more options when running rivers.

The third day, I got to return to using my Mamba again, I was surprised how weird it was to get back in my own boat! The pool session had an additional element today – the boats were attached to two ropes which were then dragged along by two volunteers, creating a current into which we could practise our rolling. This is something I've managed to avoid when our club plays this game at home, and I was a little – the difference though was that I had finally got a roll on both sides, even if they were still a little sketchy at the moment. Watching these performances on video in the feedback session was very enlightening and very entertaining. Some of the guys had been particularly mean to each other, but there were some pretty good rolling efforts. We headed straight out to the Earthquake section of the Buller after this, we had been usually going out after lunch and David had anticipated meeting me for food. So he'd headed out, unfortunately with my nice, dry, warm kit with him. Luckily Shannon (one of the boat slaves) helped kit me out with some spare thermals, and so it was to the river. We even passed David, but it was too late to beep at him, so I had to watch Kim go by with my kit. It may have been a blessing in disguise since I would've normally worn shorts but had borrowed some thermal trousers. The advantage of these was that they covered more of my legs leaving only my ankles to the mercy of the millions of sandflies in the area, which means I have a ring of extremely itchy red bits now.

The river was pretty high volume compared to some of the other stuff I'd paddled over here, and had some nice play waves – admittedly I didn't make too much use of these but did have a go at one wave. There was one rapid with some particularly large waves – the sort you only really appreciate when you're at the bottom of one looking up at the next. It was a lovely river with some interesting swirlies characteristic of a gorged run. My distinctly non dry top didn't mean I got out of rolling practise, but I was very glad of the many thermals Shannon had lent me!

This was the third night of the course, and so a barbecue was organised. David and Abi (the girlfriend of Sam who was on the beginner course) had made use of the lovely kitchen and spent the afternoon baking so we were treated to yummy banoffi pie, fudge brownies and rocky road for dessert. It was a great evening, with Ben Jackson (one of the coaches) showing a presentation on his recent trip to India. This was followed by some video of paddling in first California, then Washington. This was a great reminder of the places we'd been ourselves earlier this year. We recognised one of the guys on Ben's video as a guy we'd met in BC and paddled with on the Ashlu called David – to us he was Cal David. It was another reminder of how small the paddling community can be sometimes, even internationally it would seem.

Tuesday was the last day of the course, and again it started with a pool session. At one point when I was resting at the side, Mick came over and told me to practise bending back my wrists. He then jumped into the pool to help coach my roll and it finally struck me where I was losing the last little bit of elegance in the roll. Its not an especially easy thing to explain in a blog but its effects have been striking to me! Later he explained the others were going off to 'dice with death' but that he felt for the long term future of my paddling, it would be best if he and I headed to another easier section to practise what I'd been learning. I'm not one to turn down some one to one coaching, so I quite happily agreed. As it was, Lisa decided she would get more out of practising with us than joining the others, and so it was the three of us on the Middle Matakitaki. Its a beautiful river, with a gorge section and is snow melt fed so is freezing cold. However we worked the river hard making all the hard to catch eddies and such like, so we soon warmed up. Then it would be time to practise the rolls to cool down again! Instead of video feedback, Mick would demonstrate what I had done and why this meant the roll wasn't working effectively – its great to be able to see that since I'm someone who can get confused as to what went wrong why. This warming up and cooling down was repeated several times and by the time we'd got to the flat section, I felt we had really made the most of the river and was looking forward to heading back there with David.

All in all it was a fantastic course – I don't think any of us wanted to leave the lodge so we ended up staying there again after heading to the pub! It was very refreshing to be told that some of my strokes could be improved and shown how, particularly with my roll. I'm so pleased I can finally roll both sides! Its great to have learnt so much and feel now that I can head out to the rivers to put this to practise. Another great thing is that I can go along to pool sessions to ensure my roll isn't reverting to my old habits. Its such a great place to learn to kayak or improve, since there are so many intermediate rivers in the area, and I was so impressed with the coaching. Definitely a place to recommend to anyone heading out here! I think we're already planning more courses when we return…

David would like to say: We're slowly starting to organise the logistics for the rest of our trip. We've just booked on this trip from Kathmandu to Delhi , and we've set our flight home for the last possible date we could use on our tickets – on the 2nd May at about 1300 hours we'll be arriving into Heathrow. But we don't need to think about that yet. Still need to book our Aussie trips, plan our Nepalese itinerary and see if we can get a spaceship to take us from Sydney to Cairns. We'll update our calendar when we've got these things booked.

Marine Mammal Encounters

After a recommendation from Gina and Conrad, we went swimming with the seals in Kaikoura. The experince was so good, we decided to head out and try our luck again with the dolphins. I think these have been two of the highlights of our trip so far.

Swimming with the seals was one of those trips that doesn't generate the same publicity as swimming with dolphins, but it was a fantastic experience. We were lucky enough to have timed our trip with a spring tide, which meant we got a whole hour swimming with young male seals. This was because seals are very territorial, and the high tides mean a lot of that territory is under water. The older, more aggressive seals 'own' the other higher, drier rock area and so the young'uns have to swim around until their ground is uncovered again, rather than risk a fight.

Kitted out in super thick wetsuits, we headed out on a boat to the area where the seal colony is found. Nearby was a young giant petrel bird whose beak we all tried to avoid. Apparently he had been there a day or two, and some people noticed he was missing an eye, which suggested he wasn't finding it easy to leave. He was rather magnificent, photos will be put up at some point, so the size of the bird can be appreciated.

The seals themselves were very inquisitive and liked to swim to the side of you, watch you and then swim off. They would often put their heads up out of the water and take a 360 degree look around. Sometimes I would turn around to find a seal who'd be watching me from behind and we would both surprise each other. The most memorable things I'm thinking of at the moment, was the size of their eyes, which were like deep brown saucers, and their teeth which I didn't want to investigate too much!

Unfortunately during this time, the waterproof camera David had bought, turned out to be not so waterproof and died. We've spoken to Pentax about this, and trying to work out if this is a warranty issue or an insurance claim.

We had so much fun with the seals and the fish, that I was convinced we should try again with the dusky dolphins that we hadn't got to swim with when we were in Kaikoura with my mum. The chance arose after we headed to Murchison to start our paddling stint strangely. While here I toyed with the idea of getting some instruction from the New Zealand Kayak School, and after some pointers from Mick Hopkinson I quickly signed up for a course a week later. We left with the advice that I shouldn't paddle till the course(!) so that I wasn't practising my paddling bad habits. So after a fwe days on the West Coast which I'm sure David will write about soon, we headed back to Kaikoura, via Christchuch to drop off the damaged camera, and Nelson which means we have been to every page on our road atlas!

I was trying not to get my hopes up after the disappointment of last time, but David was convinced the extra chocolate in our advent calendar was a good omen! We had to be at the centre at half 8 (we didn't fancy the half 5 trip they run!) and again kitted out in extra thick wetsuits. Again we headed out on the boat, and were lucky enough to see more massive sea birds. This time there were giant petrels and albatrosses with their 3.5m wingspan. They were being fed as part of an “Albatross Encounter” and so we stopped closeby to get some photos of these impressive birds.

Pretty soon, we were being told to kit up and sit on the back of the boat ready to jump in. As we nervously sat on the back, we started to see dusky dolphins jumping in the boat's wake. The pointing and exclamations quickly built up, before the propellor was stopped and we could jump in the water. We'd been recommended to 'entertain' the dolphins which involved us making noises mainly – it was pretty funny to hear everyone sing, hum or squeak in their efforts. However we were rewarded very quickly when dolphins swam by very closely. It is difficult to work out who's more intrigued by who, since the dolphins will be clearly watching you as they swim, and that eye to eye contact is an incredible experience. The dophins are renowned for a game they like to play, they swim in circles around you with the idea being you swim round too. Then they get faster and faster to see if you can keep up, until they swim off and you feel rather dizzy! Sometimes they'll change direction too, I played this game lots of time, making the swimming with dolphins seem exhausting. The whole time in the water, I was humming my own tune of “Beautiful dolphin, please come and play with me” – I feel it was worthwile, I'm convinced the song worked! We would be called back on to the boat every so often, so that we could keep with the main pod which on that day was 200-300 dolphins in size. No wonder we got to see so many underwater! What really thrilled me was when a dolphin swam by, accompanied by a tiny baby one. There were several mums and calves so this happened on a few occassions much to my delight. One time I was swimming back to the boat, there were so many dolphins, with several circling me – words don't really do this credit, it was an incredible experience. After several sessions of swimming with these amazing creatures, we got changed and took the opportunity to take photos. What a difference from our previous experience! Apparently that time, the dolphins were likely to have been pre-occupied as that was their mating season. No wonder they didn't want to play with us. This time though as we stood there watching the dolphins jump and perform various acrobats, I had the hugest smile. David preferred swimming with the seals, but to me swimming with dolphins was an experience it'd take a lot to beat. However I think we were very lucky to have the opportunity to interact with both of these awesome animals, I'd definitely recommend both!