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There and Back again
Northland and the Far North
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Sunday, October 21, 2018

There and Back again


At first, we were unsure, whether it would really be a good idea to visit the Hobbiton movie set (David), or whether it would be way too touristy (I, Fe). But then we decided to give it a go. Following advice from a friend we wanted to book one of the last tours of the day, but the weather forecast convinced us that an earlier tour would be better.

Since we drove down from North of Auckland we ended up arriving over an hour too early, so we went for a short walk to a nearby Geocache, which was lovingly hidden behind a hobbit door in a hill, visited the gift shop, which had beautiful post cards, but not much else of interest and then finally checked in. They offered us an “upgrade” to an earlier tour, which we took.

While waiting for our tour to start, it started to rain (so much for the weather forecast!), so we boarded the bus and hoped that it would pass.

Once on site, the rain had stopped again, and we could get our first glimpse of Hobbiton.

For the visitors without havy raincoats huge umbrellas were handed out. Quite handy to hide them on pictures.
Hobbiton was discovered as Peter Jackson and his location scout flew over the area by helicopter. After the filming was finished, only a couple of holes in the hills remained. To everyone’s surprise, after the film became a huge hit, lots of fans wanted to come and visit Hobbiton. However, there was not that much to see. So, when the decision was made to rebuild Hobbiton for the filming of The Hobbit movies, they chose more lasting materials and opened it up to the public once the filming was completed.

At Hobbiton there are about 48 (David says 44, but as I was proofreading, I changed it to a more accurate number) Hobbit holes in various sizes. This was made because the filming leveraged forced perspective that human actors could appear small like Hobbits (for this the houses were built at 100% scale) or as tall as wizards (70 – 80% scale).

The grandest Hobbit hole of all is, of course, Bags End. Unfortunatelly, it is too high above the path to get a superb picture.

But all the others were worth inspecting as well, as everyone was lovingly and distinctly decorated (from the dried fish at the fisher’s hole, to bees at the beekeeper’s and cheese at the Cheese mongers).
The gardens in Hobbiton were also a sight to behold with lots of vegetables and flowers that were currently in season.

After a long and rambling walk through Hobbiton, where we could also look behind one of the doors (there isn’t much there, only outside scenes were filmed here), we headed along a nice path to the Green Dragon, where we could enjoy a complimentary beer and relax for a bit, before the bus took us back to the carpark.

In summary, we were positively surprised. Despite the dozens of tourists, the whole place had a real charming atmosphere, which was helped by our enthusiastic guide. So, we can really recommend visiting Hobbiton.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Northland and the Far North

Since we wanted to visit both the Northernmost and the Southernmost point on mainland New Zealand, we decided to head Northwards first.

Our first stop on the way northward was Tutukaka, which is the starting point for expeditions to the Poor Knights Islands. The Poor Knights Islands are said to be the Galapagos of New Zealand. The reason for this is, that it lies on the East Australian Current (known from the documentary Finding Nemo), which in summertime regularly brings warm water and fish eggs. This means that around these islands one can encounter tropical fish, which are normally not found at this latitude. On the other hand the rich water flow attracts large pelagics such as huge swarms of Eagle Rays and in very rare circumstances even a Whale Shark.

We were too early for this, but the diving was still very exciting. In cold 16° Celsius water we found lots of Kelp, small Anemones, some corral, Morays, Angelfish, Scorpionfish, Kingfish, Nudibranches, an Octopus and much more. Since Scuba Diving was not the main focus of this vacation, I left my underwater camera at home, so unfortunately, I can only share the pictures that our dive guide took. You can see some pictures in this Facebook post.

During the surface interval we saw a couple of New Zealand Fur Seals on the rocks and could enter the largest Sea Cave in the World (our whole ship fitted inside!).


All in all we had an excellent day.

From Tutukaka we headed Northwards through the region called Northland. We stopped in Mangonui for the night. On the way to dinner we spotted a "Caution Penguin Crossing" sign, but saw no Penguins. However, we did encounter a very friendly Pied Shag (who, according to some people, nearly looks like a pinguin).


From Mangonui we headed to Cape Reinga, the Northernmost light house in New Zealand and the Northernmost point that can easily be accessed. It is located in the region called Far North (the New Zealanders were very innovative when giving names ;) ).

Cape Reinga was extremely busy with tourists, so we headed to Spirits Bay, which only featured a campground, and spent a quiet evening with almost no one around.


Heading back South we stopped at the Kai Iwi Lakes. The largest of which, Lake Taharoa, featured a white sandy beach and a water colour that would put the South Pacific to shame. There is an easy 2 hour walk around it on which we saw the full beauty of the surrounding landscape.


Our last stop in Northland was the very informative Kauri Museum, which features lot of displays  depicting rooms and houses from the early settlement and especially everything that had to do with the Kauri tree industry (heavy machinery, a sawmill, lots of samples from different trees).

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Friday, October 05, 2018

Rangitoto - hiking on a volcanic island

We used our first day in Auckland to get to know the city and to get organized, this allowed us to do a full day excursion to Rangitoto on the second day.

Rangitoto is the youngest volcanic island near Auckland, it erupted about 600 years ago, although no one knows for how long the process lasted.


Today Rangitoto is a nature park which offers many opportunities for hiking, camping and swimming (in summer at least).


Our motivation was to find a couple of special challenge Caches, so we didn't follow the rest of the visitors who headed straight to the summit, but rather chose a smaller track which followed the coastline. This was an excellent decision, as it brought us accros a very wide range of terrain. From stretches switch volcanic rock, where we had to watch out where we placed our feet, to lush forrests with moss covered stones.


Looking for the Caches went very smoothly. Only the first one eluded us, the rest was discovered quickly.


Since the island is quite young the number of animals is still quite small. We spotted a number of beautiful birds and a couple of cute brown quails.


After a short lunch break we headed up to the summit from where we had spectacular views. Unfortunately, the last ferry departed at 3:30pm, so we had to head straight back down and skip a fair number of Caches.


All in all we can highly recommend visiting Rangitoto.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2018

On the road again :)

After a long planning phase our next big adventure finally started. We flew from Zurich over Singpore to Auckland, but one thing after another.

Looking for flights with the least possible plane changes we ended up booking with Singapore Airlines, but thanks to the Star Alliance program we could fly with Swiss from Zurich to Singapore and depart at 10:45pm on Sunday night, arriving in Singapore at 5pm the next day. Since our connecting flight with Air New Zealand was a day later, we dropped our things off at the airport hotel and headed into the city for dinner, geocaching and some light sight seeing.

Unfortunately, everything took a bit longer than I had planned it, so we didn't get dinner before 8pm. We then headed to the Marina Bay to get a good view of Singapore by night.
 
We also found a couple of Geocaches, one of which I hadn't found during my last visit.

But with the time difference and the long flight, we were very tired and soon headed back to the airport.

The next morning we got up early to catch our 9am flight. After a quiet journey we landed in Auckland at 11:30pm. Clearing immigration, customs and walking to the airport hotel took quite some time and so we didn't get to sleep before 1am.

However, since we only had half a day (due to another 5 hours time difference) and I had slept on the plane, more sleep was a bit elusive.

In hindsight, we probably would add another day in Singapore to ease with the time difference and to get some more time to really enjoy the many sights the city has to offer.

Both Swiss and Air New Zealand had superb on board entertainment and I was able to catch up with a couple of movies I had missed (Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Fantastic Beasts and where to find them...). Air New Zealand also featured a number of TED talks, two of which I watched and can highly recommend:
- Your body language may shape who you are
- How to make stress your friend

Now we are looking forward to explore New Zealand :)

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Dartmoor Way

After our great experience on the Coleridge Way last year, we decided to come back to South-West England to hike in and around the Dartmoor National Park.

We started in Buckfastleigh which was easy to reach from London, first a modern train to Totnes and from there the South Devon Steam Railway. A very nice option to slow down and enjoy the area.

Close to our pub was the impressive Buckfast Abbey, a still active monastery which goes back to 1018.
Buckfast Abbey

The first day brought some technical trouble, with the GPS not displaying our route, fortunately our phones acted as a perfect back up. Compared to the Coleridge Way, the Dartmoor Way was very poorly signposted, so we were very glad for the digital maps and way points. After a short stretch along the main road we headed through back roads, small tracks and woodland. Enjoying beautiful views on the way.
Nice view

We added an extra night at Bovey Tracey, which gave us the option to explore the High Tors. After being dropped off at Manaton we visited Hounds Tor, Bowerman's Nose and Haytor.
Bowerman's Nose

This was a wonderful hike with beautiful views, many interesting stone formations and our first Dartmoor Ponies! Around Haytor we found an extensive network called the Granite Tramway. This was built in 1820 to transport the local granite from the quarries to the shore. The trams were pulled uphill by a team of horses and rolled downhill by gravity.
Track Switch of the Granite Railway

Day three saw us on the road again with our full backpacks. Hiking along beautiful tracks we headed to North Bovey, where we encountered many thatched houses and stayed at the wonderfully renovated Ring of Bells Inn.
Thatched House in North Bovey

Day four brought us deeper into the Moor, with beautiful views and quite a bit of up and down. Since we had time we made a detour to visit Castle Drogo, which looks like a real castle but was only built in 1911 and is now part of the National Trust and can be visited. It is very interesting to learn about its history and see what comforts were built in at the time.
Standing Stone at the top of the hill

From Chagford we headed to Okehampton. This was the second most impressive stretch (after Haytor) and the most strenuous so far. We encountered many animals today: Dartmoor Ponies, Cows and dozens of Sheep (such as the little lamb that didn't quite know what to do with us). And yet after we reached Belstone we decided to use the nice weather and head further into the Moor, where we found a wide open space with stunning views all around. After a moderate descent we followed a picturesque track along the East Okement River into Okehampton. Unfortunately, after seven hours, my GPS ran out of battery, so we don't know how many kilometers we did that day, but it was definitely more than 20.
Little Lamb

Crossing several meadows and open spaces where we spotted many sheep, we headed downhill again, where we encountered the Highwayman Inn, a very peculiar place with rooms chuck full of artifacts and lots of decoration. The owners are very friendly and happy to tell more about the place. Definitely worth a stop, even if just for a drink. Unfortunately, this is where the weather turned bad, after five days of sunshine and pleasant temperatures it started to rain. Not for long, but it was a precursor of what was to come. On the last stretch of the day we came across a Geocaching Power Trail and used this to log a couple of more Caches than on the other days :).
The Highwayman Inn

Last year, we were pretty exhausted after six days of walking, so this time we planned a rest day in Lydford, which gave us the opportunity to wash some of our clothes. Since the weather was good in the morning we headed into the moor, where I couldn't resist finding a T5 swimming/diving Geocache. And the water was so cold! But definitely worth it. Afterward we climbed up to Widgery Cross. On the way down it started to rain again, so we headed back to the hotel to warm up. Later as it looked a bit better we headed to Lydford Gorge, a stunning valley with a waterfall.

Widgery Cross

The next day, the weather looked so so. Nevertheless, we gave it a try and headed off. However, the steady rain with the heavy wind (so that the rain was coming at us horizontally!), really dampened us and our mood. We saw nothing of the promised views and decided to add a lunch stop in a pub. After being dry again and looking outside, we decided that was it for the day and took a cab into Tavistock.
Rainy Dartmoor

The next morning the weather didn't look too good yet, so we explored Tavistock on foot before taking the bus to Princetown. From there we took a short walk to Kings Tor where we had a fantastic experience with upcoming fog, and we finally understood why everyone warns from entering the Moor during bad weather. Fortunately, Kings Tor was in the middle of a loop road and with our GPS devices we always knew where we were. At Kings Tor we encountered another large group of Dartmoor Ponies including a foal!
Dartmoor Ponies with Foal

The last day fortunately brought better weather and we had a fantastic walk, with quite a bit of up and downs but again with many animals and wonderful landscape. After 9.5 hours of walking my GPS ran out of battery again, at this time we had already covered 27.5 kilometers and it took us another half hour to reach our final destination, where we devoured a large dinner.
Dart River

Before heading back to London we had some time to explore Totnes which has a very nice town center with many old buildings.
Totnes Castle

We've grown very fond of the Dartmoor region during our time there, and we may return for another hiking vacation.
According to my GPS we covered 182 kilometers in 11 days. The gap in the top is due to GPS failure, the gap at the bottom is due to bus and cab during bad weather.

We arranged this trip with the help of Encounter Walking Holidays, who were very friendly and did a great job in supplying us with all needed information as well as organizing all accommodation on the way.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Board Game Weekend 2018

One of my highlights of Spring every year is the Board Game Weekend in Tösstal, which happens on the last weekend in April.

This year the Board Game Weekend celebrated its 10th anniversary and I attended for the 7th time in a row :).

My personal goals for this weekend was to play as many new games as possible. In the end I played 30 rounds of 24 distinct games, only three of which I had played before.

My personal favorites were:
  • Biosphere: A complex game where you try to win by specializing your species in certain areas which allow you to spread across the board and reach goals which change every game. There are 300 dice in the box, but you don't roll a single one of them, since the dice indicate how long a specimen of your species will live. A very clever mechanism and a game I'm looking forward to play many more times.
  • Drop It: Dropping a piece of wood into a vertical game board sounds like Four Connect (Vier Gewinnt), but the clue is that there are no separators. This leads to surprising effects when gravity and physics combine to bounce a carefully placed piece into the wrong corner. A quick and addictive game, which can lead to a sore neck, from checking whether the piece is above the scoring line or not.
  • Skyjo: Staring at twelve face down cards can be quite tense. Every turn you take a card and then decide whether you replace a card that is face up, or one that is face down or just discard this card and reveal a face down card. At the end of the game you try to get as few points as possible. The groans are loud when your replace a face down -2 with a 0 and the next player will thank you for it. Easy to learn, hard to master, fun to play.
The date for Board Game Weekend 2019 is already marked in my calendar :D.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Scuba Diving in the Maldives

It is a bit strange. I've been scuba diving for fourteen years now, with many diving trips all around the world, and yet I have never been in the Maldives. In the past I either went very far away (like Southeast Asia, South Pacific, South America) or stayed close (Egypt, Sudan) and so the Maldives have fallen through the cracks.

When I went hunting for a diving trip for this year, the Maldives weren't at the top of my list, but a good diving buddy spent last years vacation on the Carpe Novo Liveaboard in the Maldives and had such a great time that he wanted to return again this year. So I decided to trust his opinion and join him :).

I didn't quite now what to expect, so I just decided to let myself be surprised. And surprised I was.

The Carpe Novo is the most spacious liveaboard I have seen so far. With space for twenty divers there was a large common area, a separate open air dining room and cabins with a lot of space. One reason for this, was that all the dive equipment including the compressors were on a Donghi, a smaller boat which accompanied us and from which we drove to the dive sites.

Our first dives were in the North Malé Atoll and the second dive at Lankan Faru was already a highlight. At this Manta cleaning station up to 8 Manta Rays were hanging around, swimming in formation and passing right over us. So even with mediocre visibility we got a good view :)

We headed North to the Baa Atoll, where the price for the most beautiful dive site goes to Yellow Wall. A wall covered from top to bottom in yellow Soft Coral.

Over night we headed South to North Ari Atoll where we did two dives at Rasdhoo Ridge. The first dive was already pretty good with a couple of Grey Reef Sharks cruising back and forth in front of us. The second dive managed to top that with dozens of Grey Reef Sharks turning up! A fantastic experience :)

The next day we did a dive at Fish Head in the North Ari Atoll. There our guides spotted a Giant Guitarfish sleeping on the bottom. A personal first, I was very happy to finally see a Guitarfish :)

Traveling farther South to the South Ari Atoll we did a dive at Mahchafushi Wreck. A former shipping boat that was purposefully sunk for diving. Now it offers an interesting spot with lots of coral growth and fish life. Which is good, because next to the wreck there is nothing to see. The last El Niño together with a Crown of Thornes invasion left the complete reef dead. Even though there were still some small fishes around it was a depressing sight. :(

One of the reasons why we traveled to South Ari Atoll, was the chance to see Whale Sharks. The next morning during breakfast the captain went on the lookout and pretty soon they spotted one. We all immediately donned our snorkeling gear and hit the water. The Whale Shark wasn't in a hurry and so we could swim along for a bit. After a dive on the outer reef we stayed on the Dhongi and went looking for more and after a long search we found another. Again we had the chance to swim with it for a good while. Another fantastic experience!

A longer cruise to Vaavu Atoll meant we had to skip the third dive in the afternoon, but we got the opportunity to do a night dive  at Alimatha Jetty. This place is famous for its "friendly" Nurse Sharks, Rays and Giant Trevallies. And it was as described. The Sharks and Rays showed no reluctance and cruised around us as if we weren't there. Some of them even touched us when they swam by. What a unique experience! The second best night dive of my career (Flashlight Fish in Vanuatu remain the personal highlight).

Since our trip was coming to a close, we headed back North to South Malé Atoll. At Kandooma Thila we had another chance to see many Grey Reef Sharks and a group of five White Spotted Eagle Rays who just hung there in the current.

After ten days our trip came to a close and we used the last afternoon for a short trip to Malé, the capital of the Maldives, which is the ugliest island I had seen in the Maldives ;)

After this experience I can say that a return to the Maldives is definitely an option to consider. And the Carpe Novo very high on the list for liveaboard of choice.

More pictures can be found in my web album.

If you want to know more about the dive sites we visited and what we saw there, you can check out my online dive log.

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