It was in August 2013 when my attention was drawn to the cover page of a leading business magazine. Large letters proclaimed “Sabbatical, at last”. The idea of stepping outside our usual routine – at least for some time – obviously must be a desire within many of us. Why else would a profit oriented monthly publication dedicate its main article to it? Anyway, the headline fulfilled its purpose. I bought the magazine and started reading – and dreaming.
Take me to that place!
After 40 hours of transit via Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Manila, having used 4 flights, 3 different airlines and having spent 2 nights in planes and at airports we and our luggage safely reached our first destination: Bacolod on the Philippines. Our planned (and longed for) sleepover on the way in a hotel in Manila unfortunately did not materialize, as one of the flights was delayed by 5 hours. But hey, if this year is going to teach us something, it will be flexibility! Our friends in Bacolod, however, where totally on time to pick us up and make us feel welcome! And yes, the shower and the bed in our hotel room also made us feel welcome (I am sure the people around us also appreciated us having a shower :-)!
Summer Camp in Negros Occidental
A first highlight was the Summer Camp for young folks hosted by our church at the Granada Ecopark near Bacolod in the province of Negros Occidental. April is still the dry season (more or less) and on top of that school vacation time in the Philippines. We had the wonderful chance to spend a whole week with the young ladies and gentlemen of our Filipino Congregation. Activities amongst others included water sports, cricket, photography, leather craft, giving small presentations, horse riding, roughing it in an adventure park, shooting with bow and arrow and more. We were very much inspired by the desire and passion of these teenagers to learn, grow and become better. And by the fun it was to be around them. Simply a very special bunch!
Mambukal Mountain Resort
Tucked away in the mountains is this beautiful mountain resort. Driving time from Bacolod varies between 40 and 90 minutes depending on the chosen mode of transport (e.g. private car vs. regional bus, that stops whenever there is a slight chance for letting one more passenger hop on board or onto the roof). We had a private car going up – thank you Mario!! – and the regional bus coming down). While “Mountain Resort” sounds tranquil and peaceful, it also attracts many young people, who are looking for a nice place to hang out, barbecue and party. So there is something for everyone! We opted for the magnificent hike to the 7 waterfalls (approx. 3 hrs incl. return). A b s o l u t e l y b e a u t i f u l ! And afterwards a dip in the hot sulfur springs to relax and unwind!
We had heard quite a bit about the Philippines from good friends, but nothing beats first hand experience. For example when it comes to local means of transportation. Let´s start with the Jeepneys. Based on old Willys Jeeps, which were left by the Americans after WW2 a whole mode of transportation has evolved since. Just attach a couple of metres to a regular Jeep front (or any modern equivalent), equip it with 2 long benches et voilà – you have a Jeepney that can transport a whole basketball team including cheerleaders. Only catch: they are not very high, which I (or more respectively my head) learned the hard way. Equally innovative are the tricycles, which pretty much turn a motorbike into a very versatile transportation capsule. You even get the Mercedes-version of that, which we took from the airport in Puerto Princesa to our accomodation today. It nicely fitted us (3 passengers), 2 large Samsonite suitcases, all our hand luggage and of course the (very friendly) driver!
The Puerto Princesa Underground River. Rated as one of the new 7 wonders of Nature and also an UNESCO world heritage site. What´s nice to know is, that the locals very much appreciate this magnificent site, too! According to our tourguide approx. 60% of all visitors are Filipinos! But first you need to get there. We opted for the convenience package: Van transfer with aircon (2h one way from PP), lunch including 1 bottle of coke, boat transfer to the entry point, boat tour into the cave with tourguide and VAT all inclusive for 1.500PHP/person (approx. 30€). The cave itself is surrounded by pristine tropical rainforest and the wildlife that goes with it. Sharing a boat with 8 people, we ventured into the spectacular cave, which is a complete ecosystem in itself. Bats, snakes, crabs, insects, etc. in a “spectatular limestone karst landscape” (UNESCO). And tons of stone formations, on which you can go wild with your creativity to come up with what these might look like. On some of the walls we discovered crosses, which early explorers had drawn for their protection as they believed demons to live in the cave. We also saw an inscription dating back to 1937 made by two American officers during an expedition.
Laundry wisdom :-)
Question: How do you find out, if a laundry service is good or not? Answer: Take your clothes there and if they come back with more marks then when you originally handed them over and previously white Polo- and T-shirts suddenly have a touch of grey you intuitively might be able to guess the correct answer. So what´s the best thing to do? Take it easy and keep smiling!!
Honda Bay island hopping
Expect a 45 minute ride from Puerto Princesa – and while there are lots of tour operators offering day packages, this one is reasonable to self-organize! We were in the lucky position to enjoy a private “Jeepney” ride there and back with friends. But you can also take a regular Jeepney or tricycle. Just ask a local what a fair rate is for either transport device. Arriving early (not later than 7:30AM) is key to charter a boat for the day (1.500PHP for 6 pax – which is approx. 30EUR – with each additional pax costing 250PHP). Also don´t forget the environmental fee (40PHP/person) and the entrance fees for the individual islands (per person): Cowrie Island 75PHP, Pandan Island 800PHP, Starfish Island 50PHP, Luli Island 60PHP, Pambato Reef 50PHP. We enjoyed a nice lunch buffet for 200PHP/person at Cowrie Island. Some of the islands we found more suitable for beach fun and just being in the water (Cowrie and Luli), others better for snorkeling (Starfish, Pambato). Pandan we skipped, as we were not sure if the 10-fold entry fee was worthwhile or not. And make sure you have enough sun screen and drinking water available!!
Firefly magic at the Iwahig River
It was one of those beautiful moments that create a lifelong memory. A pleasantly warm and almost windstill evening. Being together with your loved ones in a paddle boat out on the Iwahig river, away from all lights of civilisation. Surrounded by mangrove forests. The only sounds to be heard: the sound of water as it gently laps against the boat and the humming of what must be thousands of crickets. Above in the sky the never ending beauty of the stars with a clearly visible Milky Way, the Southern Cross, Orion and many other star constellations. Below, in the water, bioluminescent plankton. And in the mangrove trees flashing fireflies.
The mango dilemma
Ok dear Philippines. That´s not funny. You have the BEST MANGOS that we have ever tasted!! That´s probably why it´s your national fruit. Problem is, we can´t go back to eating any mango at home now (they just don´t taste the same) and we can´t fly to the Philippines everytime we want to eat a mango!! So now what??
“It´s more fun in the Philippines!”
That´s the official marketing slogan of the Philippines. So was it true for us? Yes, we certainly had wonderful experiences and loads of fun. Fantastic people and breathtaking natural beauty are the two main contributing factors. 4 weeks felt like only a couple of days and there are many excuses to hopefully return one day!! So what comes to our minds upon second thought? By no means complete or in any order:
Just the beginning
After our 4 weeks in the Philippines, it is a good moment for a short reflection. This is, where we usually would have taken a flight home to return to work the next day. But instead of boarding an aeroplane bound to take us back to our usual rhythm of life, we felt strange and happy at the same time to go to the Qantas check-in counter in Manila to fly on to Sydney and from there further on to Auckland. We started to realize: This is just the beginning!
What??? You are not going to New Zealand?!?
When we shared our plans for the year off some time ago with a dear friend, he was in complete shock. How could we possibly NOT put New Zealand onto our trip schedule, while planning to stay for an extended period in Australia? That didn´t make any sense to him at all. And he had no problem stating that very clearly, either.
New Zealand is captivating. And confusing. Especially in autumn. In the most beautiful way, though. It almost does not seem to make any sense. On the one hand there is the full array of fall colours: yellow, orange and red in all imaginable shades. But on the other hand there are green palm trees and the freshest and brightest green grass you have ever seen in your life!
Bay of Islands
A magical day on a sailing boat. Perfect weather. Dolphins. Nice crew. Nice fellow travellers. Snorkeling. Kayaking. Setting foot on an uninhabited island for a small exploration. Can someone please pinch me? We seem to have been thrown into a dream. Thankfully a very nice one.
And by the way, whoever came up with the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side” obviously has never been to New Zealand. Their grass is greener – always!! There is no other side!!
Walking amongst the giants
After having cut across Northland from the Bay of Islands towards the west coast, we have arrived at the Trounson Kauri Park. At night several possums were visible right at the campsite. They are cute but not indigenous and have developed into a real plague in New Zealand. Started the new day with a 2 hour walk amongst giant Kauri trees. One of them is 1.200 years old! But like the Kiwi bird, Kauri trees are threatened – in case of the Kauris by a mysterious disease, which scientists still research to gain a better understanding.
Otorohanga @ the Kiwi house. Learning about the Kiwi. The adorable national bird of New Zealand is threatened by extinction. Amongst other factors, many non-indigenous predators (e.g. possums) reduce the numbers of this adorable bird – either by killing it or eating its eggs. If it only would fight against them as bravely as it does against the caretakers at the Kiwi House. Every day, when they visit the sanctuary to put down a gourmet mix of worms and insects, the Kiwi bravely defends its territory. It runs towards the intruder, rams its beak into the (protective) pants and while holding onto the pants with its beak, kicks frantically with its legs. If they only applied the same technique against their other enemies out there…
Glowing in the dark
Just 20 minutes from the Kiwis, the next highlight is waiting: The Waitomo Glowworm Caves. And it seems that we somehow keep ending up on underground rivers. This time with the added benefit of thousands of glowworms (arachnocampa luminosa) being there to create an unique ambiance. They create their source of light in an entirely different way than fireflies, but are by no means less fascinating creatures. Examined during bright light conditions, they are maybe not love at first sight, but switch the lights off, and…wow!
Tongariro National Park
Dual Unesco World Heritage Site. Home to active volcano Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe. The world-famous alpine crossing hike unfortunately was closed due to severe weather conditions. Thankfully there is no shortage of hiking opportunities. Went for a short 4hr hike to the Taranaki Falls. Fresh air, exercise and beautiful sights guaranteed!
Lake Taupo region. Short drive from campsite and then a 10min walk to Huka Falls. My family is very patient with my photography. Thank you.
A 2 hour drive north from Taupo. Beautiful Waihi Beach! Campsite in walking distance. Why are we never getting tired of taking a walk along the beach?
Goldmine (but not mine)
On our drive to Withianga we stopped at the Karangahake goldmines. “In their heyday (1883-1933) the Karangahake mines were among the largest of their type in New Zealand. Together (…) they produced 4.000.000 oz of gold bullion.” (Source: information table at Karangahake). Now it´s a historic adventure site, where you can explore the leftovers: remaining foundations, tunnels, kilns, tramways and more.
Hot Water Beach
Only in New Zealand, only at Hot Water Beach: Build your own hot water pool with a small shovel. But not every spot works. We had dug a beautiful little pool for ourselves, it just wasn´t hot. So we retried a couple of meters to the left and voilà! Our own little spa. Oh, and make sure you come during low-tide, otherwise you can´t reach the hot spots. And be there early enough, too, otherwise all the good spots are taken!
Hahei Beach, the Coromandel Coast and Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove is a landmark and must-visit on the Coromandel Peninsula. Go to Hahei (just a couple of kilometers north from Hot Water Beach), hike from Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove and be mesmerized, all the way through by the coastline. And then of course Cathedral Cove: Water, wind and erosion have done their work and have left us with some awesome beauty there!
Daytrip to Te Puke from Tauranga. Famous for its Kiwi plantations (this time the fruit!), but also home of Comvita. A company specialised in making special Manuka Honey and other bee-related products (ever heard of Propolis or Royal Jelly?). Also a great place to learn about the bees and their amazing way of doing things. Just a small selection: When they have found a good spot with flowers, they come back to the hive and give direction to the other bees by dancing a navigational pattern. And did you know they have 5 eyes?
Rotorua: Lakes, geysers, Maori culture and ice-cream
Stunning day trip with Heather´s uncle Paul and family including Leo, the dog! First a brief stop at the green and blue lake, then on to the geothermal valley in Rotorua with the Pohutu Geysir and many background infos on the Maori culture. An extra-spoil for the kids: ice-cream, yeah. When we were back home, we not only had gone once around Lake Rotorua, we still had enough energy to climb up Mt Manganui in Tauranga to witness a sublime sunset. Suggest you look at the pictures! Not enough however, the evening was closed by a great fish babotie and excellent wines. Thanks Paul, Lisa, Lydia, Eden and Leo! Not to mention your hospitality of hosting us for a couple of nights at your wonderful home!
Farewell visit at Auckland Sky Tower
Our little roadtrip of the North Island is coming to an end. New Zealand is definitely a country to come back to! But you will never see it all! One of the last “High”lights of this leg of the trip was a visit to the Auckland Sky Tower. Magnificent views!
Travelling backwards through time
I always have been fascinated with the concept of time-travelling. Now it has become a reality. We left Auckland on May 26 (Thursday) and arrived on the Cook Islands on May 25 (Wednesday). Thanks to the eastward crossing of the dateline – how cool is that? Readers of “Around the World in 80 days” will be familiar with the concept.
A childhood dream location
Books like Robert Louis Stevenson´s “Treasure Island” and having grown up with a South Sea picture on the wall of my bedroom in teenage years are likely to have influenced me on this one. Visiting Polynesia (“many islands”) is the fulfilment of a childhood dream. As Polynesia has many destinations to offer, we had to pick one and went for the Cook Islands. The B777 we landed in seemed higher than the control tower. We immediately liked the Cook Islands.
Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga
There are two main operators, that offer cruises to the beautiful Muri Lagoon: Captain Tama´s and Koka´s. Both seem ok, so no worries. The Lagoon itself is located to the South East of Rarotonga. The tours offer an entertaining and educational mix about the local culture, coconuts, sarongs (there are 374 ways to wear them) – and of course you can snorkel to your hearts content. Food is superb (fresh tuna steaks) and there is always the happy tune of Cook Island music. Just don´t be bothered to be sharing a glass bottom boat with 20+ people.
Pa´s cross-island hike
Famous 6km-cross-island (or cross-mountain) trek, preferably done with Pa´s Treks, which is something like an institution on Rarotonga. It takes approx. 3hrs and will take you from the North to the South. Rewards? Learning about the local Flora and Fauna as well as getting spoiled by beautiful nature and views from “The Needle” – a high pointy rock in the middle of the island.
Rarotonga bus services – you can´t get it wrong
The bus schedule is explained easily. There are two buses, one drives clockwise, the other counter-clockwise. So if in doubt, just hop on, you will always arrive at your destination! It takes approx. 1 hour to get around the island. The fare system is similarly easy: you always pay 5 NZD per ride – or get a slightly cheaper multi-trip ticket.
From the doorstep of our accommodation, we took the canoes out to Motutapu, a sand island in Muri Lagoon, where palm trees and beautiful sandbanks seemed like an attractive destination. After our little excursion we found out that this quaint little island is also called Mosquito Island. Needless to say that by then we already knew why.
Flying as it was meant to be
Taking a domestic flight on Air Rarotonga is a good reminder, what flying was supposed to be like. No security checks, no restrictions on liquid, no baggage tags, just give them your luggage, get on and enjoy the flight. It´s a short 45min hop to Aitutaki, but you arrive in a different world. If Rarotonga already offers a different rhythm, the one on Aitutaki is even more relaxed.
Mountaineers we are…
…not really. Even if we now can claim that we made it up to the highest point on Aitutaki: Maunga Pu Summit (124m above sea level). Most TV towers around the world are higher – but they certainly do not offer a comparable view!
188 years ago!
In 1828. That´s when the oldest church on the Cook Islands was built! We got a free ride with the cook of our accommodation to Arutanga, where this church is located. As it was renovated in 2010 it doesn´t look its age! Arutanga by the way is also the largest village on Aitutaki and also has a shop, an ATM and a police-station.
A treasure in the South Pacific
“Aitutaki´s stunning lagoon, brimming with marine life and ringed by 15 palm-covered islands, is one of the treasures of the South Pacific” (Excerpt from the Lonely Planet Travel Guide). We agree. My wife and I rated it as one of the most beautiful places we have experienced.
A hidden gem: Atiu
Approx. 120.000 visitors come to the Cook Islands, approx. 25.000 fly on to Aitutaki during their stay, yet only 1.200 visitors a year make it to Atiu. That´s a little more than 20 people on a weekly basis. Want something truly off the beaten track? Go to Atiu! A geological adventure place, a bird haven and local coffee are three good reasons to visit!
Anatakitaki caves is a must see, when you are on Atiu. Embedded in tropical rainforest, this limestone cave with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites is untouched by any human infrastructure or safety measures. It also contains an underground pool, in which you can take a candlelit swim and is home to an absolutely unique bird (please go to the next blog entry).
Visual and sonar based navigation
Unique to Atiu, unique in its features: the Kopeka (Atiu swiftlet). This little bird, not weighing more than 13 grams, has some serious technical features. While it´s got perfect sight to find its way when there is light, it also is equipped with sonar. It lives in the Anatakitaki cave – where it is mostly dark – and navigates by issuing click-sounds, which reflect of the cave walls and structures. And please remember, we are talking about a bird here, not a bat!
Eco-Tour with “Birdman George”
Atiu has a couple of institutions, George Mateariki is one of them! We joined him on a day tour to learn about the islands flora and fauna, specifically the birds. George is an absolute expert in his field and is managing bird life on Atiu. That means making sure the reintroduced Rimatara Lorekeet is doing fine as well as the rare Rarotongan Flycatcher. In September he will share his experience in Hawaii, at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.
Coffee with Mata
Coffee was introduced in the early 19th century to Atiu. The early export success slowly faded and coffee production came to a halt. A German who moved to the island in the 1980s saw the potential and re-established coffee growing and production. Certainly a gift for the island. As he recently passed away, Mata is the only remaining coffee producer on Atiu. She stands in the long tradition of her family making coffee since the 1950s and is very modest about her central role in the Atiuan coffee industry. A special twist to her coffee: the beans get roasted in coconut cream!
Australia. Sydney. What a contrast to Atiu. From a remote island with 400 inhabitants to the largest metropolitan area of Australia! We have scheduled a little more than 2 weeks in the area, but there is not too much time for sightseeing. We need to get organized for our journey through Australia, which includes purchasing a 4WD. But of course we make time for the obligatory. And we have good luck. Vivid Sydney is on. A spectacular light show illuminating the city in creative and beautiful ways.
Friends are priceless
What we were able to organise and get accomplished in Sydney within 2 weeks wouldn´t have been possible without good friends. Thank you Philip and Marylin, Tony and Karen and Gordon! Also thank you Brandon and Maria as well as Michael and Heather and all the others! Your warm welcome, your hospitality and your support is something we appreciate and value a lot! Couldn´t have done it without you!
Stormy night at Diamond Head
Our first stop approx. 4 hours to the North of Sydney is Diamond Head in Crowdy Bay National Park. During the night serious wind gusts of up to 55km/h keep shaking at our tent. First a massive noise builds up in the treetops and 2 seconds later it feels like the tent gets blown away. We don´t get much sleep. As a small compensation we see Kangaroos literally 5m away from the tent when we crawl out in the morning. As it seems, they also didn´t sleep too well.
We have set up camp at Nambucca Heads in the northern part of the state of New South Wales. Not far is the World Heritage site of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. The main information centre is located in Dorrigo National Park. From the coast the road winds itself higher and higher up into the mountainous “Hinterland”. At Dorrigo we enjoy the Skywalk above the tree tops and take the 6.5km long “Wanga-walk”, which takes us through pristine rainforest and past fabulous waterfalls.
Can´t go further east
Cape Byron – the most easterly point of mainland Australia. There´s also a beautiful lighthouse which was build in 1901. Barrie, a volunteer, enthusiastically explained how lighthouses communicated with ships in bygone times and how male whales sing to attract females.
The legacy of the “Croc Hunter”
I remember watching his “Crocfiles” on TV, when I was a bit younger. Do you remember him? He was the “crazy” guy, who always jumped into the picture, waving wildly with his stretched out hands while handling and explaining all sorts of deadly creatures. And crazy in this case is just another word for totally passionate. From what started as a small reptile park, the wildlife enthusiast Steve Irwin, who was killed in September 2006 by a stingray in the Great Barrier Reef, built Australia Zoo. That´s where his wife Terri and their two kids Bindi and Rob continue his legacy.
Setting over to Fraser
We didn´t sleep well tonight. Despite all preparation we feel the excitement of the upcoming adventure of going over to Fraser Island with our car. Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. There are no roads, just beaches and some inland tracks, which mostly consist of soft sand. So getting stuck will not be difficult. And enough people had their cars washed away by the ocean – there are some haunting pictures around. So we are already quite awake when the alarm goes off at 4AM. We pack up and head to Inskip point, from where the barge leaves. The other vehicle on the barge is a towing truck – very reassuring.
Turning our Landcruiser into a Sandcruiser
Fraser Island. One reason for us having taken the first barge at 6AM was to have enough driving time on both sides of low-tide. Being familiar with the tidal times (amongst other things) is crucial, as some beach passages may otherwise be impassable. From Hook Point we drive up the Eastern Beach for approx. 2 hours, get to witness an amazing sunrise, cross several creeks, stop alongside the renowned shipwreck Maheno and safely make it to our campsite (Cathedrals on Fraser).