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Simeon (middle aged male, sometimes seen in lycra)

Beyond The Hill is about sharing adventures and writing about what’s good in the world. I wasn’t quite on the planet when Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon, but no matter, I reckon there’s plenty here on Earth to see and appreciate.

Moving from one side of the world to the other as a kid opened my eyes and mind to such great adventures and just a few of the great treasures that can be experienced as we move around the globe. So it was a natural step to start my working life in the travel industry. But after ten years in corporate and retail travel the shine became a bit tarnished, and shock, horror, I actually let my passport expire. To be fair, by then I was raising kids, paying a mortgage and working at re-skilling. With a new career, children old enough to be left on their own for a few weeks, and a wife who was happy to give me free reign in organizing independent trips to anywhere, the time was ripe to get back to the airport and on the way to somewhere, well anywhere actually!

So why am I blogging about this?

  • I reckon that some people are anxious about exploring the world independently, but you don’t need to be
  • With a bit of advice and a decent amount of planning you can stretch your dollar a lot further as an independent traveller
  • I’ve had plenty of people tell me they love my observations and photos from when I’m travelling, so here’s my vehicle to share with you too

Why Beyond The Hill? Well, in age terms I’m already Over The Hill, but that just a label isn’t it? I live in suburbia, on top of a hill, and while I love where I live there’s so much to see, do, experience and contribute in the wider world. That could be just down the bottom of the hill in my own suburb, or it could be a thousand miles away or more. And visually, there’s nothing more intriguing that a pathway that entices you to explore a place that you’ve heard about, or to simple step into the unknown, that place that’s just Beyond The Hill.

So what are you going to find here?

  • Zero advice on what to do with the kids in location XYZ – mine are in their twenties, and we stared leaving them behind a long time ago!
  • Information that is dated as soon as you read it – so if I tell you it cost 20 Krone to get into the castle when I went, it might not cost that much when you get there.
  • Zero official advice of visa and immigration protocols, these rules change all the time, your passport is different to mine, and there are official websites for that.
  • Hopefully lots of tips and suggestions that inspire you to explore, and help make things a bit easier once you get there.

So buckle up, take note of where the exits are (remembering the nearest one might be behind you, just like the best view, the most comfortable bed, and the most delicious meal), breathe normally (even in stressful, remote or high altitude locations), and let’s go explore Beyond The Hill

The Great North Walk 2

Episode 2 – Fullers Bridge to Thornleigh

In keeping with my claim in my first blog on the Great North Walk – that the walk is a really accessible way to get immersed in Sydney’s suburban bush – I decided to give section 2 a go “FPT” : Full Public Transport!!!! So post morning commute time had me on a train from Cardiff to Epping, then on to the Metro to North Ryde and finally the 259 bus down the hill to Fullers Bridge and for the princely sum of $6.44 on my adult Opal card I was essentially ready to walk home!

North Ryde – commerce in the bush!

Hot Tip #1 – once you head off from Fullers Bridge in the direction of Thornleigh you are heading into an urban wilderness, insomuch that there are no facilities on the track between the two for water, food, or ablutions. So be prepared, you’ve got 14 kilometres to sustain and contain yourself, and apart from toilets in the Koonjerie Picnic Area at Fullers Bridge, if you haven’t brought food and water with you at this point, get ready to be hungry and dehydrated!

Hot Tip #2 – having found your first signboard directing you over the weir within the park, now would be a good time to decide whether you’ve chosen the right activity for the right time. The weir will be a bit of a litmus test for what the upper reaches of the path are going to be like in terms of how wet your feet are going to get. There are numerous points where you have to cross the tributaries of the Lane Cove River without the aid of bridges or tarzan-style swings. I went about a week after isolated storms in the area, and so while there was fresh water, the creek levels were very low, and my shoes barely got wet. If it had been raining for some time it could be quite a challenge to complete the trail north of Fiddens Wharf.

The Lane Cove Weir at the start of this section – if this is under water prepare for wet feet or make arrangements to come another time!

Hot Tip #3 – unless I was simply overcome with the joy of being out and about in nature on a fine December day, and therefore distracted by cuteness of Moorhen chicks and whispering Sheoak trees, there was a staggering inconsistency with signage at critical points along the walk. So do have your online maps at the ready to ascertain whether you’ve managed to navigate the numerous forks and decoys of the path. Getting out of Fullers Bridge requires you to follow Max Allen Road up to the edge of the Uniting Venues site, and then veer off to the right on to the Naamaroo Trail, which is of fire trail proportions.

Dusky Moorhen and chick at Lane Cove Weir

Hot Tip #4 – it was as I finally got underway that I assessed my accoutrements in light of the trail ahead. Hat – tick – although it’s all forest, the canopy is sparse in many places, so there’s plenty of direct sun beating down through the trees. Insect repellent – no tick – but in light of limited rainfall I found no mosquitoes (other weather conditions – other experiences no doubt). Good walking shoes – tick – my faithful Eccos provide a thick sole and good support, well needed in the final third of the trail. Protective socks – no tick – and this is where my anxiety level was somewhat heightened. Being warm and dry, with the path quite narrow at times, I quickly wished I’d worn more than ankle socks. It’s usually the case that the things you don’t see on a walk in the Australian bush are the things you should be most worried about. I didn’t see funnel-web spiders and I didn’t see any snakes, I did however hear that urgent rustling sound of smallish creatures dashing for cover amongst the undergrowth, oh, probably every fifty metres. I wished I had longer and thicker socks!

Enough Hot Tips – just get out there and enjoy yourself! After twenty minutes I was wondering whether I was going to see anyone else on this walk (it was a workday Monday), when the soft padding of a jogger approached from behind on one of the wider, flatter stretches of the path. On the question of snakes she was quick to proffer stories of the huge King Brown she’d encountered in Canberra the weekend before, but seemed ambivalent to their presence in the current locale.

The Great North Walk, one of the narrower parts of the path

I will offer one more Hot Tip here though : #5 – don’t wear your body mesh muscle T or loose weave cardi on this walk, they will be shredded and you’ll feel like a human pincushion after the fiftieth grass tree you brush past on the trail. Save them for Oxford Street! This tip is more an assumption than an actual experience, for the record!

An abundance of Xanthorrhoea or Grasstrees

The gentle curves and quiet waters of the Lane Cove River on this early stage of the walk really are refreshing for the soul. Unlike Episode 1 of my GNW experience, there were virtually no aircraft overhead, and the limited connection points with the adjoining suburbs are very quiet and unobtrusive. Instead, there was a perpetual chorus of small song birds high in the trees or deep in the undergrowth, with the occasional raucous interjection from a cockatoo. And when I say perpetual, it really was. It is reassuring in the centre of Australia’s largest city that there is still a vast stretch of habitat for small birds that haven’t been pushed out by those species better able to adapt to urban life. The endless playlist of natural peeps, tweets and twitters was sweeter and more uplifting than any modern soundtrack or manufactured commentary.

Beside still waters, restoring my soul.
Don’t blame the council for random accumulation of debris along the path. This is the nest of the Brushturkey, with the parent keeping a close eye from the adjacent bush!

So really, just enjoy the walk. It’s that classic Hawkesbury Sandstone landscape with boulder shelves looking out over the valley, caverns hewn by wind, water and time, a jumbled palette of gum trees, grass trees, banksias and sheoaks. While the NSW bush is never a carpet of wildflowers there were dustings of flannel flowers, grevillea, pea, and a whole lot more for which I have to do some identification homework!!! And, the Holy Grail, one confirmed sighting of a Waratah, albeit without an actual flower onboard.

Nature’s gifts
One of many sandstone overhangs
Flannel flowers

The only point where the outside world comes crashing through is at De Burghs Bridge, where Lane Cove Road sweeps across the valley, high above the river. Apart from appreciating the brutalist concrete engineering of the 1960s structure, there’s nothing much to see here, in fact you don’t even get a full view of the 30 metre void between the river level and the bridge deck due to the encroaching vegetation. Just east of the bridge is the area known as Blue Pools – a poetic name if ever I heard one! Slimy green and definitely of dubious water quality in light of the current drought, but nevertheless a vital oasis for yet more tiny birds. Also a good place to stop in the shelter of the surrounding rock walls, protected from the noise of nearby Lane Cove Road, and reflect on the gems of the first third of the walk. By this stage you will have worked out whether you’ll have wet or dry shoes for the rest of the walk!

this little fella (Eastern Water Dragon) just didn’t want to move off the path. Most of the others scurried away in a flash!
Happy to give the much larger Lace Monitor (goanna) a bit more space!

Heading northwest the next third is definitely more of sandstone plateau than a riverside walk, but this is where the wildflowers truly come to the fore. It’s also where the traffic on the path seems to peak, as middle aged men undertake their best efforts at heart attacks and sprained ankles, by engaging in lunchtime jogging excursions on the rough trails from the nearby although unseen employment facilities. Best to ignore them, and the background drone of the distant M2 traffic that accompanies this central section of the trail. The water dragons are behind us, the path is wider and generally flatter, so you can up the pace a little.

A lot of the path follows electricity or sewer easements, but it’s great to be able to multi-purpose these spaces

As the trail passes below South Turramurra there’s a bit of a maze of intersecting tracks, and an invitation to diverge on to the STEP track set up by the local suburban conservation group. They’re encouraging you to take a diversion, slow down, listen to the birds, appreciate the environment. All good, and well intentioned, but if you’re doing 14 kilometres today, just stick to the main path (the signage is actually pretty good through this section). The birds are just as proximate, and you’ve still got creeks to cross, and the most uncomfortable part of the path to go!

There’s a peculiarity I had read about in one of the reviews of the path, referring to a collection of bras hanging off a branch at a point along the path. Well, it was there, not sure what the significance is, and being down below the Canoon Cliff Lookout, it’s hardly an easily accessible part of the trail. And for what it’s worth, they seem like they’ve seen a bit of weather, so maybe there was a spontaneous liberation ceremony one day amongst the PLC Walkers Club some time back!!?? Well, whatever gets people into the great outdoors, I don’t think it will achieve “shrine” status any time soon.

Nearly at the end, and before the final ascent, there’s a nasty stretch of loose cobble stones to traverse. For those who have walked the challenging streets of Tallinn or Lisbon you’ll know what to expect, except, devoid of the mortar keeping the cobbles in place, and surrounded by the architecture of nature rather than medieval craftsmen. But it leads you soon enough to some puffing and panting and emerging suddenly into the suburbs, and few short blocks to Thornleigh railway station. And yes, it seems to come to a sudden and abrupt end. So if you’ve time, linger and have a coffee at the Curl and Whisker Cafe on the eastern side, or the Monday Morning Cafe on the western side of the station. Both were pretty quiet at 2.30pm on a Monday! And from there it was homeward bound before the afternoon rush hit the trains.

In case you weren’t sure whether you’d come to the right place!

I found this website helpful in planning out the walk:

https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/walking-tracks/great-north-walk-lane-cove-national-park

To see my previous blog on the Fullers Bridge to Sydney section: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/beyondthehill.blog/57

The Great North Walk

Episode 1 – Lane Cove to Sydney

Thirty odd years after James Cook claimed Australia for England some ambitious chap determined there must be a land based alternative to the coastal shipping trade between Sydney and the Hunter River, and thus the Old Northern Road wound a circuitous course through Wisemans Ferry and Cessnock to Newcastle. It was one hundred years before the two cities were linked by the first Hawkesbury River railway bridge. But it was two hundred years, and part of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations, that saw a reversal of the speed race and the inauguration of The Great North Walk.

While nothing like the pilgrimage trails of Europe, it certainly covers some ground, in fact around 260 kilometres from Sydney Harbour to Newcastle Harbour, through some of coastal New South Wales’ most inspiring landscapes. Needless to say, it’s not a weekend affair! But that’s the beauty of it. If you want to load up your supplies and hit the track for one epic trek, by all means – go right ahead! I however collected a car load of moderately able bodied 40 to 60 year olds and determined to do just a small section from Lane Cove into the city of Sydney – bite sized, achievable and accessible.

A smokey but mild November Saturday found us limbering up, with water and snacks on board, at Fullers Bridge. It’s easy enough to get to by bus from Chatswood or Macquarie if that’s your thing, but plenty of parking around the area too. While strictly suburban for the first few hundred metres, the locals were quick to encourage expedition and assure us that before too long we’d be in the bush.

The proximity of the bush to the centre of Sydney really is a blessing, but in some ways a curse. As I mentioned, the air was smokey, with significant bushfires burning on the metropolitan fringe, and some of the leafy suburbs of the North Shore are highly vulnerable. Today we were far enough away from danger to forge on, with our walk taking us along the broadening curves of the Lane Cove River as it sweeps down to Sydney Harbour.

The sound of the suburbs quickly faded away, with one distinct exception. The days entire trail basically follows the flight path for inbound aircraft approaching Sydney Airport from the North. It wasn’t long before we had it pegged at a roughly 90 second intervals between planes, and while I love planes, the noise must take some adjustment for the locals! Mid-cycle the whine of jet engines was replaced by the ruckus of Wattlebirds, the peeps of Thornbills, and the purposeful caroling of Currawongs. It had been very dry, so the chorus wasn’t attended by the high pitch buzz of mosquitoes, but I’m sure under the right circumstances there’d be plenty.

Lane Cove River with accompanying aircraft!
Watch your head on the Great North Walk

Evidently Fairyland used to be the place to go for social gatherings and family outings, initially by boat back in the day. Now all that’s left seems to be a few faded information boards and strangely out of place date palms. The unmistakable sounds of children’s laughter and adult’s chatter not ghostly echoes of bygone activity but raucous sound carried on the wind from playing fields across the river. The path is lined with beautiful Blueberry Ash, grass trees and miniature Flannel Flowers, but no amount of looking yielded a hoped for Waratah, despite it being prime habitat.

Keep an eye out for water dragons, goannas, and probably snakes – they’re certainly watching you! And just when you think you’re in the most remote and unspoiled section, be ready for the walls of glass and concrete looming out of the trees – there’s probably a few bored workers gazing out from there too, wishing they were out with you.

Always something watching

Emerging quickly from the bush you’re under then M2 near the entrance to the Lane Cove Tunnel, where the aircraft noise is replaced by the din of traffic and industry. At the Magdala Park sporting fields you might score a sausage sandwich on the right day, or at least take advantage of the public conveniences. Beyond this point is a verdant catalogue of every noxious weed and rampant garden runaway Australia is home to.

Before too long the mangroves creep in, the bush becomes more natural, and a sense of balance returns. There’s a really beautiful and peaceful section running parallel to Pittwater Road where you traverse the mangrove forest on raised boardwalks, under which things plop and wriggle and writhe. I expect it’s inspired a few children’s nightmares in it’s time, and is probably a summer holiday destination for the Jabberwocky. The boardwalks continue and link up with beautiful rock platforms, affording charming views over the river.

Crossing the Lane Cove Mangrove Walkway
Beware the Jabberwocky!
Classic Banksia and sandstone

Eventually the bush transitions into the leafy back blocks of Hunters Hill. While the trail becomes a footpath, don’t despair and discount the rest of the walk. Although the signage is dubious at times, once you’ve crossed under the Burns Bay Road Bridge all roads eventually lead to Woolwich Point and the Valentia Street wharf. Admire heritage listed houses and their stone walls, beautiful gardens, any number of coffee shops, or a refreshing ale at the Woolwich Pier Hotel (if you feel appropriately attired in your hiking gear!) Finally take a load off your weary soles as you sit back and enjoy the ferry ride past the harbourside suburbs of Birchgrove and Balmain, under the iconic Harbour Bridge and into Circular Quay.

Hunters Hill

The actual walk was just over 14 kilometres, the ferry approximately 25 minutes, and the Uber XL back to Fullers Bridge just over $50. For the able bodied but moderately unfit the walk was quite manageable. There are a few places with rough hewn steps in the rocks, but only in short bursts. Ryde Council could attempt a little more maintenance on the central part of the trail, but it was never dangerous. Limited facilities in the first half of this section, but an abundance once you reach Hunters Hill. Visit http://www.thegreatnorthwalk.com/ for all the official details of the walk, end to end.

About as tough as the Great North Walk trail becomes in this section

Another stage another day!

Destination – Circular Quay

Escapade dans le Pacifique

It’s always been said that the French Overseas Territories are like remote enclaves of France dotted around the world. But it’s not until you go to one that you realise just how true that is. At least it’s certainly true for the region of Noumea on the island of New Caledonia, which is a terribly Scottish pseudonym for Nouvelle-Calédonie. See, at the mere mention of the name you’re already smelling ripe cheese, crusty bread and the strangely distant terroir of a French vineyard. And that’s the point I guess, amongst the mangoes and palm trees there is this pocket of humanity that is without hesitation French, through and through. So I haven’t been to any other far flung FOTs (yet!) to determine whether this is consistent, but I surely now know why all those Year 11 French language classes whipped off to nearby-Noumea rather than particularly-distant-Paris!

I love that Air Calin have doused their aircraft with a tonne of paint to make it seem like you’re joining a garlanded float rather than an A330 to be spirited away to paradise. And a word of advice : if you can book yourself on to this flight from Sydney rather than the considerably smaller, more cramped Qantas codeshare 737 you will arrive in Noumea in a much more relaxed disposition. And yes, all the onboard announcements are in French first, not to mention the food and beverage service immediately putting you in a French frame of mind. Now I take it if you’re hoping to appreciate all this then all’s good, but if you were looking for just another Pacific island resort holiday you’ve probably caught the wrong flight, and you’ve already turned off this blog post! Never mind, your loss!

So let’s get the age old question out of the way first – is Nouvelle-Calédonie expensive? Well, in terms of getting there – no. We took a “2nd person half price deal” and it was good value compared to other Pacific destinations. Our first hotel didn’t include any sort of meal package, so eating out in Anse Vata or Baie des Citrons for three meals a day is moderately expensive, especially breakfast in relative terms. However our second hotel included breakfast and a two-for-one dinner buffet, and so it didn’t seem as much so. However, as always in France, a baguette, some hunks of cheese and a bottle of red from the supermarket (if you can call it that, more like a glorified corner store) and you’re on your way to that classic French travelling dinner, except with a tropical sunset – best of two hemispheres at once I’d say! So the answer, as in most places, is you can set your own budget and make it happen. What I will say though is finding a knife, plate or a wine glass in a hotel in Noumea is a bit of a challenge since the minibar is spartan or non-existent.

So Noumea – it has a reputation for being just a stopover port on the Pacific cruise circuit, and certainly the centre is just a small capital city business district with a scattering of coffee shops and boutique. The City Markets down by the harbour offer meager craft and fruit/vegetable options but nothing to write home about. And back tracking to the coffee issue – just like in France, their milk coffees are made with longlife milk, so they taste like, well, longlife milk. We did however find a tea shop in Rue de Sebastopol called Infinithé that had an eye-popping array of tea options, and while the host was probably an Anglophile on the inside, being a tea devotee, she was distinctly Parisien in her approach to English speaking guests. But to be fair, she was the only person we found to be so in a week in Nouvelle-Calédonie.

Arguably the Number One place to visit is the Aquarium in Anse Vata – go at around 10.30am for feeding time – the commentary is in French, but “humpback” is universal! There’s a great ocean tank with everything from minnows to sharks, and children squealing with delight on the outside – that’s okay when they’re not your own. But prior to that there’s a succession of smaller exhibits taking you from the freshwater mountain habitats down to the mangrove margins and out to the coral reefs. The colours and diversity of aquatic life from around the island are spectacular and well worth the visit.

The other worthwhile attraction is the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. As someone with an architectural bent I loved the authenticity of the building – the Renzo Piano design flaunts it’s exposed details, and just seems to grow out of the landscape on the point at the northern limits of Noumea. The actual exhibitions were a little underwhelming, but still a great cross-section of Pacific art and cultural expression.

The most satisfying halls included extensive audio-visual, written and artistic work around the history of the indigenous Kanak people, the impact of colonialism and the formulation and out working of the Noumea Accord which, to correct my statement at the beginning of this blog, makes Nouvelle-Calédonie a “special collectivity”, not an FOT. Don’t go on a Monday or Public Holiday (it’s closed), but do take the adventure of the No. 40 (N2 line) bus from Place Moselle, and your insect repellent (they do have some at the reception counter). The bus ride is something of a cultural experience in it’s own right, and depending on the age of the bus and the driver, can be quite an alarming tour through the windy roads of Noumea! Buy your prepaid bus tickets at the bleak looking box of a building that looks more like a toilet block than a ticket office, go on, don’t be afraid to open the door, there’s a friendly lady inside!

From Noumea we headed off to the small atoll of Ilôt Maître in the Noumea Lagoon, and the L’Escapade Resort. For accessibility you can’t beat it – a short ferry ride out from Port Moselle. Part of the protected area creating a Marine Park that encircles Nouvelle-Calédonie, the atoll sits just above the surface of the lagoon and is surrounded by wide sand flats that increase it’s area by at least 50% when the tide is out. But whether you’re in a beach bungalow or an over water bure you can be in the water in moments, swimming for hours with an amazing array of colourful fish, urchins, seasnakes and turtles.

Evidently the seasnakes, which curl up in hidey holes on the island (like under your doorstep!), are poisonous, but you’d virtually have to stick your finger down their throat to elicit an aggressive response. For most people the highlight are the turtles, of which there are plenty, but I loved the vast clouds of fish that just parted as you swam through. Our visit in early June had us comfortably swimming in regular swimwear with hired snorkels and flippers for an hour at a time before needing to thaw out in the sun.

An early Sunday morning departure caused some consternation for the breakfast staff, but it’s a decent hike back to La Tontouta Airport, and the ferry only goes back to Noumea four times a day so you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But here’s to sunset cocktails, short haul adventures laced with Saint Nectaire cheese, merlot and perfect baguettes. If you’re hunkering for something sweet in the Anse Vata area don’t miss L’Atelier Gourmand in Route de I’Anse Vata for that perfect pastry or cake, fabled as the best patisserie in Noumea, if not the South Pacific!

Newcastle to Northland

Getting away couldn’t be easier

You know how you get to that time of the year when you’re just hanging out for a quick get away, something different, but low effort? Well that was me, and that was January! It was going to be a long year. So in search of an economical option, with the added bonus of a geographical “achievement”, my answer came in the form of direct Virgin Australia flights from Newcastle-Port Stephens to Auckland. Seasonal thought they are, there’s no better time to visit the North Island than February, so I did.

So if ever there were a sense of a quick escape, it can’t start any easier than this. 7:30pm departure time meant I could do a whole Thursday of work and not even appear to be skiving off early. Airport check-ins don’t come much easier than that time of day at a regional airport, and no sooner were we airborne and the dunes of Stockton Beach were behind us, and the subtle hues of a Tasman sunset were seeping into the cabin. Auckland still seems to do “awake enough” at midnight to offer a no fuss welcome to New Zealand, so it was barely bedtime at home when I was curled up in bed dreaming of the winding roads tomorrow had to bring.

Living in Australia it’s a somewhat herculean effort to reach the farthest flung northern tip of the country. Come to think of it, the same could be said of lots of the worlds significant land masses. But the northern time of NZ – a cinch? Okay, so Cape Reinga bound, it was out into the Auckland suburbs early on a Friday morning, and that’s where the culture shock began (stay with me here for a moment). I had decided to base myself in the tiny town of Waipapa for the next two night, so today’s drive was going to be up the Kaipara Coast Highway, and the West Coast Trail, but like all good Aussies the day need to start with a flat white. So whether it’s an economic thing or a cultural thing, but I could have had a thermal bath, picked blueberries and listened to a whole e-book before I came across a coffee shop that was open for business – eventually a source was found in Helensville.

On then to the rolling, winding and generally traffic free west coast road. First non-coffee related stop was a short detour off the road north of Dargaville to the crystal clear Kai Iwi Lakes. Clearly a favourite with Aucklander families for camping, boating and generally floating around on giant inflatable flamingos, but like most places in New Zealand it seems, take twenty paces to the left and you have the place to yourself. Clear fresh water with pristine white sandy edges – all the benefits of the beach and none of the risks (OK, so let’s assume you can swim, or that you’re only intending to wade knee deep on the edges).

Like most “coast roads” in Australia, this one in New Zealand seemed to offer only the occasional water glimpses, or in fact was nowhere near the coast at all! However, with sculpture parks, ever changing scenery and the lure of the Kauri forest, such definitions are somewhat irrelevant.

New Zealand is rightly doing all they can to protect their old growth Kauri forests, and like lots of ecosystems in the Antipodes they are sensitive and vulnerable. So if they ask you to keep to the path, use the disinfectant foot shoe baths, and take your rubbish with you – well just do it! It’s fascinating how such giants of the botanical world have such delicate root systems, which are so easily impacted by fungal disease. As you walk down a path to what looks like a rock wall, only to discover you’ve come face to face with a single tree trunk, the willingness to participate in this wonder of nature subverts any inconvenience of the 21st Century.

Let’s clear up two things about New Zealand roads at this stage: they know how to do winding; they don’t know how to do overtaking lanes. So car sickness and deadlines are not something you should mix with them. Almost at days end a hot tip from the roadside food van girls in the Kauri forest yielded a $2 dip in some thermal springs. I’m sure there’s an inversely proportional line of diminishing returns between how much you pay, and how much you benefit, from therapeutic practices, but if you’re prepared to put up with the sound of a geothermal power station being constructed behind the hill, surely that’s enough cred for the authenticity of the Ngawha Hot Springs. It’s possibly more sanitary to get changed in the car park, but once in, there’s no denying the soothing properties of plunge pools that range from tepid to “I don’t think I can sit down in this” hot. With Russians, Japanese, Aussies and locals partaking, there must be something in it?

With a night disturbed only by the shrill cries of a close by Kiwi lurking in the undergrowth, the day now arrived to set out for the goal that spurred on this trip. But I have a confession to make: while Cape Reinga was always my states goal, a little further investigation before my departure clarified that this Cape is not in fact the most northerly point in New Zealand after all. It is however the most northerly accessible point for the average traveller. Short of permits, a better than average hire car and a long hike, you’re not going to get to the Surville Cliffs, however you can see them in the distance from Cape Reinga on a clear day. In terms of Maori tradition Reinga holds an important place, with the Meeting of the Seas, and the point on the Te Ara Wairua, or ‘Spirits’ pathway where souls left the mainland on their journey through the underworld to their traditional homeland of  Hawaiki. There is certainly a spiritual sense to the place, but they’ve done a great job of making it accessible but sensitive at the same time. It’s 400 kilometres from Auckland, so there are plenty of day trippers, but the crowds are not overwhelming. What I enjoyed most was descending the track away from the main tourist path, and walking the entire length of Te Werahi Beach.

This is the start/end of the Te Araroa walking trail that stretches 3000km to the Southern end of the country. But, the 10km round trip to the far end of the beach was enough for me this time, and the 200 metre climb back up to the car park at the end certainly helped me work up a sweat! But put seven people on a 3km stretch of sand and you pretty much have your own beach wilderness, with brilliant sand and gentle glassy waves. I guess it’s possible to turn up to the Cape in a howling gale with torrential rain – the awesome sense of the place would not be diminished, although the comfort might take a battering, but isn’t that just the luck of travelling? The day I had offered stunning blue skies, shimmering clear waters, views worth every effort, and gentle breezes to cleanse the mind of all the hubbub of the past weeks.

Sunday’s journey back toward reality was punctuated by increasingly rough seas (but a fourth ocean swim for the weekend was mandatory), squally showers, increasing traffic (surely every M1 the world over is a Sunday afternoon citybound carpark), but an appreciation that another world is only a short distance away. As returns to reality go, being able to step off the plane at Newcastle Airport and be back in my own home in an hour was better than unbelievable. Would I do it again? Well, I’ve already booked for another long weekend beyond Auckland in January 2020 : Coromandel, here we come!

Virgin Australia offer seasonal three day a week services between Newcastle and Auckland….supporting such services is vital to ensuring opportunities for regional areas, and sure beats driving to Sydney! Spoil yourself and bid for an upgrade for a luxe experience. Car hire by Thrifty, accommodation in Waipapa at an AirBnB, a great feed and good NZ wine at the Waipapa Pioneer Bar. And most importantly, the flat white on Day 2 was an equally long wait, but from the Cable Bay Store, enjoyed sitting on the beach over the road!

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.