Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, so here, with no rhyme or reason, is a spontaneous wee post about the last time I went anywhere – New Zealand, via Italy, last December. This trip home was my first since August 2017, and my first time enjoying the Kiwi summer in five years. Even though it had been on the cards for a long time, as usually seems to be the case, it suddenly crept up on me with the mad rush that is the end of the year. Here, interspersed with plenty of pictures, are the highlights:
First stop on the long road home was 24 hours in Palermo, Sicily, for our annual work convention. Flying to an island in the middle of the mediterranean five days before Christmas was not exactly ideal, let alone with my onward travel plans (which were in the works first). But I hadn’t been able to go to the convention the previous year, so it was important to make the effort to be there with the team.
We left work around 3pm, and by the time we got to our hotel in Palermo after a stop in Rome and a delayed second flight, it was nearly 1am. I had to leave again at 4am the following day, so it was really a whirlwind. As you can imagine, I unfortunately, I had very little time to explore Palermo itself. Drew and I forced ourselves up at the crack of dawn to make the most of the half day we had free to see as much as possible. The highlight for me was an unsuspecting little lane we turned town, which turned out to be full of amazing street art. Second place was the roof of the cathedral which we had to ourselves, although it was very hazy, so we couldn’t see much. Apart from that, we just kind of wandered around, looked at things, ate arancini, and got told off by an Italian grandpa for playing on the kids’ playground. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn anything at all about the history of Sicily, which seems to be quite interesting. From what I saw though, I can’t say I can see myself heading back there. Of course, visiting in summer without the extenuating circumstances would be entirely different. If anyone has spent time in Sicily in general, let me know your thoughts!
The convention itself took place in the afternoon, in the Teatro Politeama, which was quite spectacular to behold. It was mostly presentations about what had happened in the network over the previous year, projects in store for the new year, and video presentations of new schools that had opened. After a somewhat lavish tea break, and slightly disastrous attempt at a 450-person kahoot quiz, things wrapped up with the long-teased prizes…in which we won ‘best teaching and learning team’!
Despite me being in a foul mood the whole time due to exhaustion and stress about my upcoming flights (sorry everyone), I was really pleased to have gone and experienced it with the whole team. I’m definitely looking forward to the next one and being able to totally enjoy the experience with the gang. Despite it being shortlived, and my mind being elsewhere, I was nonetheless conscious of how cool it was that we were all on a field trip of sorts together. Plans for #organisedfun are being continually scuppered, but hopefully, one way or another, we get some more team adventures in this year…
Palermo all happened in a bit of a blur, and at last, when I was finally on board from Milan to Singapore, I could relax. I was so exhausted from barely sleeping over the previous week that I was thankfully able to sleep for the better part of the long haul flights. I had a quick one hour turnover in Singapore and was onto the next plane for more of the same. Overall, a pleasant experience, a welcome relief after all my stress (and the added bonus of mild food poisoning from Palermo airport arancini, which I feel would be remiss to leave out). Or so I thought. Just when I thought I was in the clear, it took me nearly an hour to retrieve my bag and get through arrivals in Auckland. I’m positive someone had mistakenly take it thinking it was theirs (as there were several similar-looking ones), and sneakily put it back while I was despairingly talking to the people at the desk, who were trying to reassure me it had been scanned both onto the flight and as arrived. All’s well that ends well though, as I made it through at last, with no dramas with my items to declare (including my tramping boots which I had scrubbed to within an inch of their life), and finally met my cousins, who I was staying with overnight! My flight options ex-Palermo had been very limited, and almost all had an 8 or 12-hour stopover in Singapore. This one miraculously had 8 hours in Auckland instead, and worked out perfectly. Even though it was a shame not to be able to spend more time with my family there, the few hours that we had to catch up, and for me to have a shower and sleep in a real bed, were very welcome! What a difference it made to make myself up as a civilised human being rather than bedraggled traveller for that final flight home. The sun was shining, and even the wind was behaving: home at last!
All up, having left Lyon on the afternoon of 18/12, I finally made it 100% home on the morning of 22/12. The next five days were a combo of some indulgent, doing-nothing time at long last, while also getting my A into G to prepare for the next week’s adventure. In the middle of all that was Christmas, my first at home since 2014!
Queen Charlotte Track
The pièce de la résistance of my trip home was five days tramping (‘hiking’, for my non-Kiwi friends) the Queen Charlotte Track. As I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t been in NZ in summertime since 2014/15. My last trip back in August 2017 was actually fine in terms of weather, but as it was winter, everyone was working, so I essentially spent three weeks in Wellington meeting up with people for lunch and dinner. This time I really wanted to make the most of Aotearoa’s great outdoors, and boy was I not disappointed!
The Queen Charlotte Track is located in the north of New Zealand’s South Island, in the Marlborough Sounds. It’s a mix of public and private land, with both campsites and luxury lodge accommodation. To walk it, you must buy a track pass, which is NZ$12 for one day, or $25 for up to five days. It’s 71km in total, and normally takes between 3-5 days to complete, depending on your pace and how you split your days. Many people also visit just to walk or bike a small section. It’s one of the most popular walks in NZ, as it is pretty accessible, and most importantly – mostly flat (a rarity). We did the whole thing, from Ship Cove at the top to Anakiwa at the bottom, over five days. Like true blue trampers, we did it the authentic way: camping, and cooking all our food on gas stoves. Unlike true blue trampers, we paid to have our big packs watertaxied to our destination each day. A fair compromise, we thought, both cost- and convenience-wise.
Like in all national parks in New Zealand, there are no bins, and certainly no shops to buy supplies. This meant we not only had to carefully think about what food we would need for the whole trip, but also what waste it would generate. Even if we weren’t carrying it on our backs every day, space was still at a premium. We still had to set up and pack down our tents first thing every day, constantly pack and repack everything, think about what we needed in the daypacks until the big packs were delivered, etc. The campsites would have basic facilities: some kind of a shelter with a tap and sink, and that was all we could really assume. No phone reception, no showers, and a real toilet if we were lucky.
Our itinerary was as follows:
- Day 0: Catherine, Grace, Logan and I ferried from Wellington to Picton, where we met Michelle and Reinhardt who joined us from Nelson
- Day 1: joined by Ben, watertaxied bright and early to Ship Cove, our starting point, from where we walked 15km/6 hours to Endeavour Inlet, where we stayed at Miner’s Camp (private campsite)
- Day 2: Endeavour Inlet to Camp Bay (Department of Conservation site) – 12km/4h
- Day 3: Camp bay to Cowshed Bay (DOC site) – 24km/8h
- Day 4: Cowshed Bay to Mistletoe Bay (private campsite) – 8km/4h
- Day 5: Mistletoe Bay to Anakiwa – 12.5km/4h – watertaxi to Picton, ferry to Wellington
Our itinerary was determined by what accommodation was available, and the bays serviced by the bag drop boat, which is what made the eight-hour day inevitable. Otherwise, most had about 4-5 hours of walking, which allowed us to go at a nice leisurely pace. It was quite a weird experience actually having half a day of walking, and then an afternoon to relax and make the most of the surroundings (even if we did have to put the damn tent up first off). I haven’t been properly tramping in a long time, and when I have, it’s usually been one or two days of hard slog, where you spend all day walking, arrive at the hut and crash for the night, then rinse and repeat the next day. Instead, we had time to relax, read, swim (for the brave), play cards, have a snooze. As we were dependent on the light (and the water taxis), it was early to bed, early to rise every day. We all cooked together but had divvied up into factions to manage the food. Catherine and I dined exclusively on Back Country freeze dried meals, which were bloody delicious, and nutritious! Definitely worth the money. The thai chicken curry had such a bite to it that it was embarrassingly too much for my Frenchified palate to handle!
The first two days were pretty similar, mostly walking in the bush, with occasional breakthroughs. Day three, while long, was pretty easy. After an initial incline, we were walking along the ridge all day. This brought with it the first patchy zones of phone coverage! Day four in contrast was the hardest, with several unrelenting uphill slogs, a combination of ridge, bush and beech forest. Day five was mostly flat, and even took us past farmland as we gradually neared civilisation. Pros of the track: mostly flat, varied terrain, flora and fauna, lots of people walking the same way so some nice camaraderie as we kept running into each other at food/toilet stops. Maybe I’ve been away too long and time has fogged my memory, but I couldn’t believe how many toilets there were on the track. They were long drops, but very clean, and even had toilet paper! Also, the two DOC sites had flushing toilets! What is this luxury! Cons: after day three, the incredible sweeping views of the sounds became a bit same old, same old at every corner we turned. Not that that stopped me taking hundreds of photos, of course. Other cons: even though we were constantly by the water, most of the bays where we stayed were actually pretty exposed, mud and stones, and not very enticing to swim in. That didn’t stop Ben, Grace and Logan braving it every day on principle though. Another con: the DOC sites aren’t possible to book, so it’s first come, first served. This was particularly a concern on our big walking day, and we got to Cowshed Bay just in time to save the last spot (it was particularly competitive as this was by the road, so had many drive-on campers too). That was a bit of stress we could have done without.
Overall though, things couldn’t have turned out better. The seven of us all got along really well and had the same fitness level; everyone was well prepared with the right gear, and the right amount of food, and barring blisters and some mild sunburn, no injuries were sustained. The weather was a perfect 23-25 degrees every day, just right to enjoy the sun without overheating, except for the penultimate day, where it hit 28 just as we were settling in to relax for the afternoon. We definitely did things the right way, with just the right balance of wilderness and comfort, and finished on a total high at Mistletoe Bay. It was our last real day of the trip, beautiful weather, the most stunning location and it also happened to be New Year’s Eve. For the first time, all of us went swimming in the nice sheltered bay, and just chilled out in the sun all afternoon. It was such a nice ambiance with lots of families and everyone just relaxing, on that post-Christmas summer buzz. Also, the facilities were next level. A shop for snacks! A communal kitchen with power outlets, hot water, stoves and fridges! HOT SHOWERS! Also, alpacas. To be honest, we weren’t sure if we were going to make it to midnight, but we did. Our super competitive uno tournament gave way to time’s up, super difficult hand puppet edition. To everyone’s astonishment, Catherine’s long game paid off, with the gin and mixers she’d been carrying for five days finally coming into their own. Grace and Logan brought glowsticks and party blowers, and we saw in the new year (and the new decade) under the milky way. I can’t think of a better way to do it. Special shoutout to Grace, the mastermind behind the logistics that made it all happen!
After that, it was back to Wellington where I suddenly had one week to catch up with as many people as possible before leaving again! Special mention must go to Lucy, who came down form Auckland to see me. Fortunately her visit coincided with the only ‘can’t beat Wellington on a good day’ day of the trip. The rest of the time, I was in jeans, long sleeves and even a puffer jacket most days. 18 degrees just isn’t summer! Anyway, longtime readers of the blog with an eagle eye may remember Lucy from the 2016-17 chapter, when she was in Lyon on a working holiday. Well, 2.5 years later, we not only saw each other again, but for the first time in our actual home country. Which was a weird thought, but at the same time, totally normal. Which was the case with everyone I met up with really – whether it was people I’ve been in regular contact with, or others that I messaged a little out of nowhere, we just picked up where we left off really, which was a relief. I’ll admit, I was’t too sure what to expect from this trip back after being away for so long. Of course, it was a ‘honeymoon’ trip of sorts – being back over the summer, in (mostly) good weather, with everyone on holiday and free to do fun things. The end came around all too quickly, and I can’t say I was too excited about the prospect of heading back to winter, and work, in France. Once back though, it felt like I’d never left, and being a creature of habit I was happy to settle back into my regular routine.
Thankfully, that trip had been my big focus for over a year, so I had absolutely nothing on the cards yet for 2020. I’ll write about everything going on at the moment in a future post, once we’re somewhat out the other side. In the meantime, I hope everyone is keeping well, and enjoyed this wee virtual escape.
Bisous à tous,