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Week 27/28/29: Queenstown and Dunedin

27-Sept-08 :: We motored into Queenstown on a Friday afternoon and quickly found our rental house — very comfortable interior with a great view of the Remarkables! As soon as the car was unloaded, Daniel went to bed, leaving me and the kids to deal with the shopping and the dinner. We also picked up some medicine. Basically, he spent the entire weekend in bed with a terrible case of the flu. In fact, with the exception of a visit to the doctor, who assured me that there was no chest infection, Daniel did not leave the house for a week. The kids were very good about spending some time on school work while we waited for Daniel to recover. The house also had a very good internet connection so we all enjoyed catching up on baseball and football, as well as having the opportunity to plan some of our activities for the rest of the year.

During that time the kids and I also got to know Queenstown quite well. We spent the weekend and part of Monday finding ski jackets and pants, as well as arranging ski and snowboard equipment to rent, hoping that Daniel would make a quick recovery and that we'd all be on the slopes before long. We found three local supermarkets and joined the video rental store. We also purchased quite a few new DVDs, since watching TV was about all Daniel could manage for awhile. By Wednesday, the kids were getting antsy so he suggested that I take the older ones to the nearest ski hill, called Coronet Peak — we spent the afternoon on the mountain and the kids each had a 2-hour lesson.

By the weekend, Daniel was feeling well enough to leave the house, so we all drove to another ski hill, called the Remarkables. The kids found the ski hill much nicer, but the shock was the drive up there — 13km on a narrow gravel road with steep drop-offs and no guard rail! Daniel was coughing a bit too much to drive, so I had to make the nerve-wracking ascent. Again, the older kids got afternoon lift tickets and a 2-hour lesson, while Daniel and I hung out in the lodge with the little one. Making the ascent for the second time, the next day, was a bit easier since I knew what to expect. Still, I couldn't help thinking about what it would be like to drive up there in the height of winter!

So most of our planned activities in Queenstown never materialized, but we enjoyed slowing down our pace and waiting for Daniel to recover. Knowing that we'd be back in Queenstown again made it easier — we will have to get back to our usual pace in order to cover all the activities on the list! The ski season will basically be finished when we return, so we've finished with that. The kids also managed to get in some mini-golf and bungy trampoline. And we took the gondola to the top of the hill in Queenstown where the kids had several turns riding a luge down the track. Miranda also got Daniel to take her horse riding toward the end of our stay, when he was feeling better. The remaining activities on the list are jet boating, sky diving and cycling. We'd also like to visit some of the neighboring towns and local areas where the "Lord of the Rings" was filmed. Only a few more days until we return!

Meanwhile, we have to get our rental car back to Christchurch, which is also where we are meeting Nina, Gregg and Gunnar. They arrive on Thursday, so we left Queenstown on Monday and stopped off for 2 nights along the way. We're staying on the Otago Peninsula, which is near Dunedin, on the south east coast of New Zealand. The drive here was very pretty, through hills and valleys, past dozens of sheep farms! Since it is spring, the lambs are being born and they are so cute. Everyone has been taking more photos of lambs than we really need. A local sheep farmer here offers a guided tour of his property, which includes a beach with sea lions resting on it, as well as rare yellow-eyed penguins nesting. The walk was not very difficult, but there were a few steep slopes to climb. The sea lions were amazing — absolutely huge! We then found little blue penguins nesting in boxes that had been specially created for them. They are so tiny and cute! We then walked along the beach and uphill, past some fur seals basking on the rocks, and up to where the yellow-eyed penguins nest. We also saw many of them leaving the sea to head back to their nests after a day of feeding out in the deep water. None of the nests contained eggs yet, but they should be laying them quite soon. And the whole while we were walking around the property, there were ewes and lambs everywhere!

Our last stop on the way back to Christchurch was Larnoch Castle, built in the late 1800s by an Australian banker who moved to the area with his family. It was a lovely building, very well preserved, with beautiful gardens and a fantastic view. After that we hit the road and reached our hotel near Christchurch airport by 6pm, ready to meet our visitors and start on a new adventure!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Queenstown and Dunedin.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 25/26: Northern Australia to New Zealand

06-Sept-08 :: After an uneventful flight from Brisbane to Darwin, in the Northern Territories, we were initially pleased to arrive in hotter weather. A taxi took us from the main air terminal to the general aviation section of the airport, where a small plane was waiting to take us to Bullo River Station. Kevin from Air Frontier loaded us up in the 8-seater and started to taxi to the runway. It didn't take long before we were roasting, and I noticed that the windows had no curtains or shades. In a relatively big airport like Darwin, we had to wait a good 15 minutes for our take-off slot — in that heat it felt more like an hour! And once we were airborne it began to cool off, but the passengers on the side with the sun shining in remained hot. Fortunately the flight was only a bit over an hour, and we were relieved to disembark. We received a warm welcome from the staff at Bullo River Station — Ruth made certain that our luggage reached our rooms and offered us a welcome cup of tea. The girls were immediately in love with the dogs in residence, one of whom was just 6 months old and had very puppy-like behavior! Daniel took the older kids off fishing almost immediately with Greg, one of the resident experts, while I stayed behind and dipped my feet in the pool.

Dinner was a social occasion, where we met fellow guests Andrew and David from Sydney. That evening the temperature dropped quite a bit after sunset, so after the kids went to bed we enjoyed drinking wine around the fire pit outside and looking up at the stars. I heard someone mention that the Argyle diamond mine was located nearby and expressed a keen interest in visiting. Daniel and Andrew discovered some acquaintances in common, as Andrew had retired from Goldman Sachs a few years ago. And we listened to some of Greg's stories about the station. A very pleasant evening, all in all, and we were still in bed by 10pm!

Tuesday morning we went off to spot crocodiles and fish along the river — the boat wouldn't move very quickly with all of us in it so we split into 2 groups. I counted about 11 crocodiles on our turn! Mostly they were saltwater crocs, but we also saw a few freshwater ones at the furthest point up the river. Fishing from the causeway was fun, but we didn't catch anything. After lunch the boys went off fishing at a different spot for the afternoon and Daniel caught an impressively large Barramundi! Meanwhile, Ruth had heard of my interest in the diamond mine and made some enquiries. In the end she booked me and the boys on an all day trip Thursday, which was our last full day at the station.

So after breakfast the next day we set off in the station plane (a 6-seater Cessna Centurion 210) with Malcolm, the station pilot. He dropped us off at the airfield in Kununurra, which is across the border in West Australia, and we picked up another plane with Slingair. Henry, our guide and pilot, loaded us up in a 10-seater with really comfortable seats (not to mention window shades!) and off we went. First we landed at Argyle, where we ate lunch in the workers' cafeteria. Then we continued in our bus up to a lookout point which gave us a great view of the mine from above. We could see all the diggers and dumpers carrying ore out of the bottom of the mine. It was quite impressive. Then we continued down to the processing plant, where we were able to watch the ore move from one building to another and Henry explained what sorting process was happening in each building. Visitors are not allowed inside the buildings for security reasons. Finally, we had a look in the display room, which is home to the largest diamond ever found in the mine. Apparently it was stuck in the tread of a truck's tire and discovered in the repair bay!

The next segment of the tour involved going back up in the plane to fly over the Bungle Bungles, which can best be described as beehive shaped mounds of rock with visible stripes of different types of rock. They were very impressive from the air, and quite high. We then flew over Lake Argyle and some other cattle stations before returning to Kununurra airport, where Malcolm was waiting to return us to Bullo. What a busy day! The boys asked lots of interesting questions and learned a lot about the process of mining diamonds. But we were all ready for an early night.

Friday morning we drove to the gorge on the Bullo River station property, took a boat ride with Trevor, another resident expert, and got out for a walk when the boat could go no further. The kids loved climbing on the rocks on either side of the river, which is more like a creek upriver at this time of year. Unfortunately, our plane was scheduled to arrive at 1pm, so we had to cut that outing short and return to the lodge. We packed up in a hurry but were still a bit late taking off for Kakadu National Park. This time our pilot was Nathan and the plane had curtains to protect us from the sun's heat! So the flight was much more pleasant. Our guide for Kakadu, Hamish, was waiting for us at the airstrip and dropped us off for a quick but cooling swim at a local hotel's pool before we boarded a large boat for the Yellow River Cruise. The wildlife in the wetlands is just amazing, with countless birds plus the expected crocodiles. The cruise ended just before sunset and we were then whisked off to our campsite for the evening. When we arrived our tents were already assembled and then Hamish cooked some steaks for us over the fire. We all enjoyed our meal and fell into a deep sleep!

Saturday morning we were up at dawn. After a simple breakfast and a shower in the shed, which was a 200m walk, Hamish took us on a long drive to Arnhem Land, an area dedicated to Aboriginals and preserving their traditional lifestyle. Although it is usually closed to the public, this was an open day (somewhat like a small fair) and people were out in big numbers. We arrived near the opening and watched some aboriginal men painting, as well as some ladies weaving baskets. The large paintings were particularly amazing and we could have easily found one we liked sufficiently to purchase, but were puzzled as to how we would transport it anywhere. So we bought a small one which was painted on bark. Perhaps when we see something in a city gallery we will find it easier to have shipped. Since it was hot and dry, we stayed at the open day only until after lunch. We were hoping to catch the yam dance, but the kids were getting restless and it kept being postponed. So we returned to the road and Hamish showed us some rock wall art on the way out of Arnhem land, which the kids really enjoyed. We also stopped at a beautiful billabong with an adjacent wetlands full of birds. The most amazing thing about the whole area is that now (during the dry season) it is all dry land, but during the wet season much of the areas we visited are under water — a 20 foot deep lake! That would be something impressive to see.

After another delicious meal off the campfire (beef burritos!) we all had a great night of sleep. Sunday morning we awoke at dawn again to the smell of bacon and eggs — yum! After breakfast we drove out to Maguk and hiked short way over big rocks to the Barramundi Gorge. The crystal clear waters below the waterfall were very inviting after a walk that had us sweating, even at 9am! After that, we picked up our belongings from the campsite and Hamish dropped us off at the airstrip. Once again we had Kevin and the curtainless plane to transfer us quickly back to Darwin.

By the time we reached the Holiday Inn Darwin at 1pm, we were already tired! Our ambitious plans to see something of Darwin were put aside in favor of laundry and lunch from room service. After 3 loads of laundry, a light lunch and some relaxation, we headed across the road to the park along the waterfront. The kids entertained themselves with playing catch and climbing on the playground for awhile, but after we all became hot again we returned to the hotel for a swim. Then we got cleaned up for dinner. Darwin is not really a place to get a cab easily, so we ended up walking out the back door of the hotel and stumbling upon a fantastic Asian restaurant! We were all so excited to find Thai and Indian dishes on the menu — we over-ordered a little and stuffed ourselves completely.

Monday morning our flight to Cairns was an early one, so we were in a taxi by 5:30am. Luckily the trip was without incident and we arrived in Cairns around 10:30am local time. Once we loaded up our car, we grabbed some lunch and headed up the Captain Cook highway north toward Port Douglas. The Silky Oakes Lodge is located just beyond Mossman, which is a bit past Port Douglas, and it's in a beautiful spot. We got settled into our 2 cabins and relaxed by the pool for awhile before soaking in the bath to prepare for dinner. The kids were all excited to see a big bathtub after a week without our "creature comforts", so it took us awhile to get ready! The next step was to plan out our three days to fit in the best activities.

So Tuesday morning the boys went with Daniel to the Mirage golf course for 9 holes, while I took the girls to the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary. We spent the morning doing the usual things, kangaroos, koalas, snakes and birds, then picked up the boys from the golf course. We found a nice pub lunch in Port Douglas, after which we raced up to the Daintree River for an afternoon of fishing with Dave, a seasoned guide on the river. The prospect of fishing for 4 hours didn't exactly thrill me, but I must admit that it was pretty exciting. Shortly after we started, Ben caught a good sized Golden Trevalley (which we ended up eating for dinner!). That was after Daniel hooked a leopard ray which had to be thrown back. The gang also caught numerous small fish which had to be thrown back, and Daniel pulled in a "blue swimmer", which was the most beautiful crab I've ever seen — blue and purple and iridescent!

After Dave filleted our fish, we took it back to the hotel and the kitchen staff agreed to pan fry it for us. We had to wait until 8pm for a table because we hadn't made a reservation, so the kids were quite tired, but the fish was certainly worth the wait. The consensus was that it was the best fish we'd ever tasted! We all went to bed feeling very satisfied. Wednesday morning we caught up on some laundry and tried to arrange some horse riding on the beach. Unfortunately, the horse riding was fully booked for that afternoon and the next, which meant we wouldn't be able to do it during our visit. So we headed off into Mossman to find a cafˇ for lunch. After lunch, we agreed to have a walk around the Mossman Gorge, which had a very manageable walk, just under 1km, and beautiful scenery and lookout points. We were most impressed by the fact that the stairs, bridges and lookouts were all built from recycled plastic, but made to look like wood! Apparently the material resists wear from the weather better than most other materials and it looks quite nice. We returned to the lodge in time for me to have a relaxing massage while Daniel entertained the girls and the boys bicycled around the area. After an early dinner we took over the "entertainment room" which contained the only TV on the premises and watched a family movie.

On our final morning we had a pleasant surprise — the horse riding on Wonga Beach had arranged for an extra ride that afternoon due to demand! So in the morning I dropped Daniel and the boys off at the Mossman golf course and took the girls into town to buy some snacks and visit the playground. After picking up the boys, we had lunch at the hotel and then Daniel took the older kids off for a ride, while I stayed at the lodge with the little one. He returned walking very stiffly, but they all described the ride as a wonderful experience. We enjoyed our final dinner at the lodge and had an early night. Our flight from Cairns on Friday wasn't until after noon, so we appreciated the leisurely morning to eat breakfast, pack and get the car loaded up. The drive down to Cairns was very pleasant and we arrived at the airport to discover that our flight was delayed by about 2 hours. This turned out to be no problem, as the airport had wi-fi and everyone was busily surfing the internet while we waited for our flight to board!

The plane finally took off at about 3pm, bound for Rockhampton, via Townsville and Mackay. Taking off and landing 3 separate times was a nuisance, but at least we were allowed to stay on board during the stops, and we reached Rockhampton by 6pm. We quickly collected our luggage and loaded up the car, headed for a BBQ at the Crofts' place in Yeppoon. They had lots of relatives visiting so it was a lively group and the kids enjoyed being reunited with their friends. We still had to check into our hotel, so we headed off at around 9pm and managed to get everyone tucked up into bed.

The rest of the weekend was spent in Yeppoon, joining in with our friends' activities where possible, and taking advantage of the good internet access at the hotel in order to plan some of our future adventures. The boys fit in 2 rounds of golf and we finalized a place to stay in Sydney at Christmas time. With our flight to Christchurch scheduled for Monday, we packed up everything on Sunday evening so that we could have a farewell outing to the beach with the Crofts on Monday morning. The kids were very good about saying "good-bye" and heading off to the airport. After a short flight from Rockhampton to Brisbane, we arrived in the domestic terminal. Although there is a train service to the international terminal, we decided that with our volume of luggage we would catch a taxi. Fortunately, the international terminal was not busy and we reached the check-in desk quickly. Pacific Blue informed us that a return ticket is required to enter New Zealand, so off we went to purchase those. After a surprising amount of red tape (the check-in desk agent insisted that he is required to hand write every passport number that is not from either Australia or NZ), we finally had our boarding passes! Although the flight departed on time and landed in Christchurch at 11:30pm, as scheduled, it felt like a very long day by the time we snuggled up into bed at the Crowne Plaza at 1am (which felt like 11pm, the time in Australia).

Our first task in Christchurch was meant to be purchasing warm clothes, but since the temperature was around 17 degrees Celsius, it suddenly didn't seem so important! Our second task was to be renewing UK passports for the kids at the local consulate. Unfortunately, we discovered that the local consulate was just a mini one which doesn't cover passport services. So that will have to take place in Wellington. So we filled our time by shopping and eating! We did find a few pieces of warm clothing, but we found much more success with food. Tuesday afternoon at the shopping mall we found a delicious Indian place in the food court — I enjoyed a delicious mango chicken curry. That evening we took the kids to Yamagen, the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. The teppanyaki and sushi were delicious and we all loved that meal. On Wednesday we visited the Antarctic Centre, located near the airport, where we saw blue penguins and experienced a simulated blizzard! That evening we had dinner at the Himalaya restaurant, where we ate a curry very much in the British style.

Thursday morning we set off for Mt. Cook, a 4-hour drive from Christchurch. Unfortunately the temperature had dropped quite a bit and rain had set in. We still enjoyed the drive, as we headed into the mountains. We stopped at a lovely little cafˇ called the Farm Barn Cafˇ, where we had sandwiches and delicious pumpkin and tomato soup! But upon reaching Mt. Cook we were dismayed to find that it was completely obscured by clouds. The Hermitage Hotel was lovely, though it was frustrating to have the best rooms (those that would have the best view of the mountain on a clear day) in those conditions! The rooms were very comfortable and we all had a good sleep. The next morning we visited the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre, which is located in on site. The kids enjoyed the 3-D movie about Mt. Cook and Sir Edmund climbing it, as well as the planetarium show about the southern sky and our universe.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Yeppoon.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 23/24: Yeppoon

25-Aug-08 :: After reaching Brisbane, catching our connecting flight to Rockhampton proved impossible. Faced with the choice of spending the night in a hotel and returning the next morning, we opted instead to grab a rental car and drive 700 kilometers. By the time we reached the motorway, it was nearly 5pm, so we had an hour or so of daylight left. We had our first McDonalds in months at Gympie, then drove on until we reached Gin Gin just before 9pm (but 11pm in Fiji time). We managed to get a family room in a motel for a good price, and were all asleep within minutes of turning out the lights.

Of course, Wed morning by 5am everyone was stirring, so we decided to hit the road before dawn. The morning mist only added to the beauty of the Queensland scenery as the sun came up. After a quick stop at the Colliseum roadhouse for a cooked breakfast and a stop in Bororen to fill up with petrol, we cruised the rest of the way to Yeppoon.

We met the Crofts at the Yeppoon Golf Club and followed them to the Great Keppel Yacht Club and Marina. There we met some of Sue's friends, had a coffee and let the kids get reacquainted. By the time we reached the house, it was time for a late lunch. After that we had our first experience at the local beach, which was lovely. The water was a bit cool, but the kids entertained themselves by digging in the sand, while the parents had a toast with some bubbles.

During our week and a half stay with the Crofts we did an awful lot. For us, it was just nice to see the kids all enjoying each others' company so much, especially after 5 months with only each other as companions. With the huge shaded verandahs, their house is the perfect place for the kids to keep busy outdoors. The boys played tennis and rode scooters, while the little girls pretended to be dogs and such in their make believe games. The older girls joined in both activities! The kids also enjoyed watching the Olympics together, as well as old episodes of "Gilligan's Island".

The time passed very quickly with visits to the beach, a trip to the family pineapple farm, a stop at the Saturday morning farmers' market, not to mention shopping and cooking for the core 12 people, plus whatever friends and family members decided to stop by! The boys also fit in 2 outings to the golf course, which they shared with a lot of kangaroos. And the girls managed a short horse ride, as well as a chance to help feed and care for some horses. And we all enjoyed our visit to Cooberry Park, where the kids had a chance to hold a snake, pat a koala, cuddle a joey, and feed numerous kangaroos and wallabies.

We left Yeppoon on a Sunday, headed back toward Brisbane. The drive back felt a little easier, maybe because it was familiar. We reached Coolum, on the Sunshine Coast, at about 7pm, and checked into the Hyatt. What a fantastic place! I was really wishing that we had more time to spend there, with the great golf course, tennis courts and bicycles for hire. Plus we had a 2 bedroom apartment with a small kitchen for a good price!

Monday morning Daniel dropped us off at Australia Zoo and continued on to Brisbane, where he liberated our luggage from customs at the airport and moved it to a long-term storage facility--a full day's work. Meanwhile the kids and I had a great day, although it was overcast and a bit cool (our first cloudy day in Australia!). The older kids each had their photo done with a native Australian animal, and they even got the chance to feed some bananas to an elephant! The show in the Crocoseum was amazing, seeing how high and how quickly a motivated crocodile could jump! There was even a small playground and a couple of "rides" for the kids. All in all it was a great day.

That evening we returned to the Hyatt, as we'd been unable to find any space in Brisbane. So in the morning we had to get up early and hit the road by 6:30am, in order to make our flight to Darwin. Fortunately, Quantas has easy computerized check-in kiosks, and security for domestic flights is more low-key than the international security, so we had plenty of time to find some food in Brisbane airport. And our flight ended up being delayed by about 45 minutes, so we explored the small domestic terminal quite thoroughly!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Yeppoon.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 21/22: Fiji

11-Aug-08 :: We began our final 2 weeks aboard Vaimiti with fantastic weather. Fiji was one of the few places where we actually passed smaller islands (rather than just looking at open sea!) as we approached a port in which we were able to clear customs and immigration. We arrived in Savusavu, on the island of Viti Levu, late on Thursday afternoon. The town had a nice feel to it, and Daniel and the boys began looking around for diving options. This is the home of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort and diving school, which is obviously famous because of Jacques. The boys were very excited about their dive on Friday, but unfortunately the site was not as interesting as any of the others they had seen in the Pacific, and the visibility was poor. What a shame that their first really disappointing dive took place at a diving school with such a stellar reputation.

The next day we pulled up anchor and motored out between the reefs because there was virtually no wind. Talk about hot!! Captain Jean Luc was expecting bad weather to arrive, so we spent as little time as possible in open water, instead moving across to the north side of Vanua Levu (the main island of Fiji) and hugging the coast. We were headed for a beautiful, secluded bay between 2 small islands, just off the mainland, but we reached it after dark and could not negotiate the entrance safely. That night we anchored just outside the reef, but the wind had still not picked up so that proved to be a surprisingly good sleep. The next morning we entered that bay and the water was like glass! We took out 2 kayaks and paddled around, to discover a huge section of reef just below the surface. The water was so calm that the view from the kayak was the same as if we were snorkeling! Really beautiful. The rest of the morning we spent driving around in the inflatable, searching for great snorkeling spots. On the whole we were a bit disappointed — this was not the fantastic coral we had been led to expect in Fiji. But we remained hopeful that we would find it! That afternoon we visited one of the beaches and had a relaxing walk, while the kids played in the water.

The following morning we followed the coast southwest until we reached Lautoka, where we once again had to check in with the authorities. Daniel went ashore for some cash, but the rest of us were too keen to get to the outer islands to have an interest in a city. That night the wind picked up and it didn't abate during the remainder of our stay on Vaimiti. After a night anchored off Lautoka, we set sail for the southern Yasawas, which was a short trip. By lunchtime we were anchored in a beautiful bay on the west side of Waya island. We could see beautiful beaches on three sides, but couldn't decide which one to visit. Then we were told that setting foot on any beach requires permission from the local village head, and that each of the beaches belonged to a different village! In that way, our decision was made. The captain was able to contact the leader of one of the villages, where he presented some gifts that enabled us to make a visit to the beach. We arrived just as school let out, which meant that we were swamped with curious children. We spent an enlightening hour in their company, marveling at their comparatively difficult life. Many of the children had terrible scars from coral cuts that hadn't healed well, since the village didn't even have antiseptic cream. The crew gave them some from the supplies on the boat, and we donated some fuel from our reserves for them to power their generator. Unfortunately, our kids didn't seem to be paying much attention, maybe because they really needed some physical play in the water after a day and a half on board the boat.

When we returned to Vaimiti, the kids surprised us by wondering if they had any extra clothes or toys that we could offer to the people in the local villages. It turns out that the kids had noticed after all that the villagers live a very basic life in a country where the per capita GDP was already the lowest of any we had visited. So we spent the next morning going through our belongings — we gathered a lot of children's clothing, as well as a few toys, and Daniel took the items to a village (a different one than we visited the previous day). Apparently the villagers were very pleased — a good lesson for the kids. After Daniel returned, we pulled up anchor again and headed south to the Mamanucas, a group of islands a bit closer to the mainland. We anchored in the beautiful Musket Cove, home to several well-know resorts. Our first visit to land was very productive, since Daniel was able to arrange diving for himself, the boys and three members of the crew. Unfortunately we discovered that the internet connection was only via dial-up, so we didn't bother. Thursday morning, the divers headed for at 8am, leaving me and the girls on board. When the girls and I decided to head on land to visit the beach, we got a pleasant surprise — part of the entrance to the cove had become exposed at low tide, revealing a beautiful sand bar just behind us! It turned out to be a great place to play for an hour or so until we headed on land to meet the others for lunch. As it turns out, the beach in the harbor disappears at low tide and only returns later in the afternoon.

The girls and I had a brief dip in the pool, followed by lunch with Daniel and the boys. The report from their dives this time was very positive — guess they finally saw the coral we were expecting to find in Fiji! Everyone was very satisfied, and the boys were especially excited to have been out with the crew from our boat. Lunch was very pleasant, since the Fijian staff are friendly and kind to children. I managed to book myself a facial later in the afternoon, which allowed Daniel and the kids entertain themselves by playing on the beach with the kayaks. That night after dinner the noise of fish jumping all around us was deafening! Davide put out a fishing line and caught fish after fish in no time at all, but none of them was big enough to keep. The kids were fascinated to shine torches over the water and see hundreds of fish!

Friday morning was devoted to packing first, then playing out on the sandbar. The boys took the kayaks over, and we all tried the snorkeling. Surprisingly, the coral was very healthy and the quantity of fish was incredible. The kids enjoyed playing in the sand, kayaking and snorkeling, knowing that these activities will not be so easily available from now on. We had lunch while anchored in Musket Cove, then set off for Denarau Marina, which must be entered at high tide. Arriving there was very interesting, as the boat attracted a lot of attention. Captain Jean Luc did a great job of pulling a large boat into a compact spot, and his skill seemed to be much admired in the marina. Once the boat was secure, our first priority was to find a hotel for our final 3 nights in Fiji. We secured 2 rooms at the Sofitel for Saturday, Sunday and Monday night, then enjoyed our final dinner aboard Vaimiti while the crew members spent time having drinks with the crew from a neighboring boat. Daniel smoked one of his Cuban cigars at the back of the boat while I sipped red wine and we spoke with a brave American family who have been living on boats for 7 years! I think we've decided that will never be us. Although we've really enjoyed this leg of our journey, we are currently looking forward to spending some time travelling on land. Of course, who knows how we will feel a few down the road.

Saturday morning we finished our packing surprisingly quickly. The kids were keen to say good-bye to all the crew members, so we waited around a bit for them to finish their chores on land in order to bid "farewell" to everyone. The moment was very emotional, especially for the kids. It was sad to leave people who had been such a big part of our lives for so many months. But we got settled into our rooms at the hotel and the kids were soon distracted by checking out the options on pay-per-view. That evening we had a nice meal in the hotel restaurant and I was very proud of how the kids behaved. Sunday we finally got around to setting up the computer and checking on our flight to Australia. We had been optimistic while packing, assuming that our luggage allowance would be two bags per person of about 23kg each. On that basis, we would have had only 1 extra bag and we were relaxed about paying for that. Unfortunately the Air Pacific web-site revealed that each person was allowed just 1 bag of 20kg. In the end, Daniel arranged to have 8 bags sent via air cargo to Brisbane, and we took the other 5 on board with us. The air cargo was a very good value (considering that Air Pacific would not even guarantee that they would accept excess baggage, plus they wanted to charge about 10 times the price!).

Sunday we relaxed by the pool and watched the kids on the water slide. The boys also tried the "flying fish" where they held onto an inflatable "fish" being pulled at high speed by a motor boat. Needless to say, they had a great time. Later that afternoon, Daniel took them golfing. They really enjoyed themselves — apparently the Denaurau golf course is very nice. After that we ventured off to one of the neighboring hotels for a meal at the Japanese restaurant. The kids love their tepanyaki, and we had a really nice meal. Monday morning it was back to business. Daniel arranged for a taxi to take him to the airport with the extra 8 bags. He also visited the Nadi District School, which we had been told would appreciate our donation of 10 XO laptops (for more information on these see the "links" section of the web-site). Along with the laptops, we had 2 bags full of reading books, textbooks and educational games that we no longer needed, all of which were donated to the school. Unfortunately there wasn't enough room in the taxi for all of us to go along and see the school, but Daniel assures us that the staff thought it was Christmas.

Our final night in Fiji was uneventful, with another lovely Asian meal in the hotel restaurant after a day by the pool. Luckily the flight from Nadi to Brisbane was not an early morning departure, so we were able to have a leisurely breakfast before closing up our bags and heading to the airport. Checking in with only 5 bags was much more relaxing than with 13! Although leaving Fiji was sad, we were all looking forward to a visit with the Crofts, our friends in Queensland!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Fiji.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 20: Tonga

24-July-08 :: We set off from Samoa on a rainy Monday morning, hoping for the weather to improve. As we crept along the north side of Upolu, the protection from the island gave us a false sense that the conditions wouldn't be too bad. However, as soon as we turned south between Upolu and Savai'I, we began to understand what the trip to the south west was really going to be like. The wind from the southeast was blowing up to 30 knots and as we emerged from the protection of the Samoa islands it whipped the rain in every direction, quickly drenching our covered deck and sending us indoors. The rain also forced us to keep the hatches closed, which allowed very little air to move and created a hot, stuffy atmosphere in the cabins. Throughout the day we all began to feel sick, especially after dark. That was definitely our most miserable overnight on board.

On the plus side, we made relatively good time in the strong wind. By morning, not only had the skies cleared and the sea calmed somewhat, but we realized we were much closer to Vava'u, in Tonga, than anticipated. That day of sailing was much nicer and everyone started to feel better. Instead of the 2-night journey we had anticipated, we arrived in the Vava'u that evening at about 9pm — the entry was navigable in the dark and we spent that night in a peaceful anchorage. We woke up on a sunny Thursday morning (having lost a day due to crossing the International Date Line) and waited for the immigration officials to clear us so we could go ashore. Our job was to organize some activities while there, and at the top of our list was seeing humpback whales! Sailing Safaris, which departed from the Yacht Club, seemed to be the best option. Gabrielle, the guide, informed us that it was still early in the season so their first expedition was scheduled for Sunday and there was no guarantee of seeing any whales. We spoke to Jason and Lisa at the Aquarium Café and they arranged for a small boat to take us on a tour of the nearby islands on Friday, which was very interesting. It's finally possible to say that we found numerous beaches that compare with Bermuda! The kids really enjoyed playing in the sand and swimming in some calm water. With the bad weather we experienced in Samoa, swimming hadn't been on the agenda for awhile! Saturday I went with the boys on a single tank dive. The divemaster, Paul, was originally from North Carolina and had worked on many live-aboard diving boats in various parts of the world before choosing Vava'u in Tonga. Although we didn't see any spectacular creatures, the coral was beautiful and we saw some interesting species of fish that were new to us. That afternoon we wandered around Neiafu a bit — it's a very friendly place with lots of yachting people hanging around at coffee shops and bars. After that we had a quiet Saturday evening on the boat.

Finally we woke up on Sunday morning for our long-awaited whale watching expedition! We grabbed the pack lunch Davide made for us and headed off to the Yacht Club to join our group. I kept warning the kids not to have high expectations, since we'd been warned it was early in the season. Still, we all found it difficult to control our enthusiasm. We set off at about 9:30am with our guides, Gabrielle (she takes videos of the whales), Nofo (she has 14 years of experience taking visitors out to find the whales) and our boat driver, Peter. One member of our group was Robbie, and medical student from Ireland who was doing a summer placement at the local hospital. We then stopped off at another yacht to pick up a family from New Zealand with three children. It took us nearly an hour to get to the southern part of the archipelago, where the whales are most likely to be spotted. We were all engaged in conversation when Nofo spotted the first humpback, at about 11am. We were all so excited! At first all we could see was a cloud of spray rising off the water and blowing away, but then the whale's back appeared above the water briefly. In fact, there were two of them! As the boat moved slowly closer, we were able to see much more of their bodies and sometimes their tails as they dove under. That was just the beginning of an amazing day — we ended up seeing about 10 whales, and at least 7 up close, all between 11am and 2pm. Finally the chance came to get in the water with them. We had to go in groups of 4, so everyone had to wait for their turn. As for me, I let out an involuntary scream into my snorkel when we got up close — they are so huge! And I'm told that the 2 whales we snorkeled with were juveniles of 2 to 3 years, so not even fully grown! During the hour-long boat journey to return to Neiafu, all of us discussed the amazing experience we had just shared.

Fortunately, since we saw so many whales we were happy to move on the next day. The kids had been threatening not to leave Tonga until we saw the whales! Our original itinerary had included a stop in the Hapai'i group of islands, south of Vava'u, as well as a visit to Tongatapu, which is where the king lives, in the city of Nuku'alofa. However, as we near the end of our time on the boat we are more aware of time constraints and decided to skip the rest of Tonga and carry on to Fiji. After much discussion, it was decided that we would sail toward Hapai'i anyway and watch for more whales along the way. That enabled us to spend Monday night anchored quietly off shore and head off to Fiji the following day. That ended up being a great idea, since we saw 2 humpbacks as we sailed out of Vava'u, and 3 others as we left Hapai'i for Fiji! We also sailed directly between 2 volcanoes, located about 30 miles west of Hapai'i — Kao is a perfectly shaped but dormant volcano, and just south of it is Tofua, which is still active with smoke pouring out of its lake-filled crater. See them both up close was pretty exciting! Now we are en route to Savusavu, on Vanua Levu in Fiji. Because the islands are so spread out, we've already started passing some of the out-lying ones today, even though we won't reach our destination until the early hours of tomorrow morning. Everyone is excited about Fiji, which seems to have lots of amazing snorkeling and diving.

Take a look at a YouTube
video of whale watching in Tonga.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Tonga.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

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