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One of the joys of hosting visitors from overseas is showing them about my city. Yesterday, instead of staying at home and writing my Microblog Monday posts, I was walking through our town with my sister-in-law from Perth, Australia. She lived here briefly in 1989 and has visited periodically, and now as her children are growing up, it is easier for her to leave them for a few hours, and we recall the pre-children days when we used to explore the Wellington designer shops on each visit. Yesterday, we poked through a few NZ designer clothing stores (she tried on and rejected, I drooled and resisted), poked through some favourite gift shops (she purchased, I didn’t, though I did find a display cabinet that I want to buy if it is for sale, but that’s another story), and had a long chat over udon noodle soup for lunch.

But first, we visited the Gallipoli (a battle in World War I that is iconic for Australians and NZers) exhibition at Te Papa, the National Museum, which her children had visited a few days earlier when the adults had retired to a nearby restaurant (a good excuse for me to try a place I’ve been wanting to visit for ages) for a more sophisticated lunch. Amidst the exhibits of clothing and provisions and the simulated trenches and periscopes and the animated battle scenes, Weta Workshop (the brains behind the special effects and models of The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit/King Kong movies, as well as a myriad others, have created huge life-like models of particular personalities at Gallipoli, some soldiers, a doctor and a nurse. We see their eyes, their sweat, their injuries, feel their fear and pain and exhaustion and caring, and hear their stories, thanks to letters shared by their families. It’s a reminder of how lucky we are in little old Wellington, to have such world-class artists here to bring these people and their stories to life so poignantly.

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I’m going to drip-feed a few travel stories from my trip, but I need more than eight sentences, so won’t be doing it on Mondays. I wrote a first story on the weekend here (The Great Puffin Hunt), and may continue writing on a new travel blog.

Yes, I know I have been procrastinating about restarting a travel blog for a long time, but the thing is, it is all bound up with procrastination over relaunching a travel business (designing custom-made itineraries for travellers) that I started many years ago. Back then, at the same time that I was starting to get clients, I also began getting a lot more (and better paid) consulting work that took all my time and energy. Consequently, my fledgling little business was sadly neglected and has effectively been put on hold for the last decade or so.

Times have changed, and whilst there is much more information available on the internet now to assist travellers, it can also be overwhelming and extremely time-consuming, so I still believe there is a market out there. I’m almost ready to relaunch it now, but I am still figuring a few things out, at the same time trying to boost my confidence. So at this stage, all I can say is watch this space.

 

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The hunters crossed the globe in search of these small, cute, ungainly birds. Okay, they were crossing the globe anyway, but the birds provided an extra degree of motivation. They knew that it was early in the season, but reckoned that if they missed them at the beginning of their trip, there would be another chance towards the end of the trip. They went armed, not heavily, but with zoom lenses and a tripod, and were full of hope, though had fewer expectations.

Their first serious hunt was in Dyrhólaey in southern Iceland, where dramatic rocky cliffs soared from the North Atlantic, icy winds whipped and cowed even the hardiest of hunters, and any overly optimistic hunter’s tripod would have taken flight towards the ocean below.  Conditions were, therefore, perfect for the little birds to be at home in their nests.

Dyrhólaey cliffs

Dyrhólaey

But the puffins had yet to return from the ocean this year, a little later than usual, the hunters were informed by the staff at the nearby hotel. That explained, they figured, why even the commercial boats that took puffin watchers out near Reykjavik had not been operating. Or maybe it was just that the current, stormy weather had kept them, and the puffin hunters, safely inside, dry and warm. There was some disappointment, but there had been so many other wonders to behold in Iceland that the little birds were forgiven.

So the hunters left bleak, windswept but beautiful Iceland and continued on their journey, forgetting about the puffins until several weeks later. Hopeful and thorough research before their departure had identified a little island on the Atlantic coast of Norway. The island is called Runde, and websites and guide books grandly describe it as a bird island, with a population of around 25,000 puffins, and about the same number of other birds. It turned out that a fully booked hotel elsewhere had presented our puffin hunters an extra day in the area, and so – given that a day exploring Art Nouveau architecture wasn’t really their thing – they decided to take up the hunt again. They set off in the middle of the day, despite knowing that this wasn’t prime puffin-hunting time, and were rewarded with a wonderfully scenic drive, island hopping by ferry, causeway, bridges and tunnels. At first, the countryside was classic Norway, with forest-covered hills and mountains, swooping down to green fields on the banks of a blue fjord. Later, as the hunters came closer to the coast, the islands turned barren, rocky and mossy, typical of the famous Atlantic Coastal Road further north, stark but still beautiful.

The puffin hunters arrived in the mid-afternoon and were buoyed by the encouragement of the guy in the information centre, who advised that although it was early in the day, it was also windy, and that meant some of the puffins would not have gone to sea for the day.

So the puffin hunters drove to the carpark, and looked up, further up, and up again at their intended destination. It seemed that their venture involved climbing to the very top of the island to reach the high cliffs where puffins love to nest. Considering one of the puffin-hunters had been limping around Copenhagen just a few days earlier, they were doing this with crossed fingers. They consulted the map and, in an attempt to minimise the effort required, opted to try the route to the nearest cliffs. The initial ascent was steep, but on a wide, easy gravel path, through a few gates to keep the sheep away from the few houses scattered at the entrance.

They set off, pacing themselves, but enthusiastic. They passed one puffin hunter having a rest. He was heavily armed with tripods and heavy long lenses. It didn’t bode well for him at this early stage that he was using his asthma inhaler already. It was, however, reflective of the steepness of the climb. The ground was a peat bog, and so was soft, with water oozing out all over the place. It was slippery in parts, but not too bad, and the intrepid hunters ploughed on upwards. The carpark got further and further away, the view of all the coastal islands stretched out before them, but the top didn’t seem to get any closer.

There was a moment when disaster almost struck. The soft ground wobbled, the weak ankle tweaked with a shot of pain, and they both worried that this might have been the end of their quest. The ankle stabilised, but they took it slower and more carefully from then on. Their steep climb continued. Eventually, after an hour or so, they reached the first cliffs. There were a few birds soaring around above them, but they were too big and flying far too swiftly and gracefully to be the sought after little birds. The abundant bird life that had been promised by websites and guide books had not yet emerged, however. There weren’t even that many gulls.

The hunters passed a few other trekkers, and asked, hopefully, if they had seen any. Some shook their heads, and one said that she had seen some in the distance only, right at the top. They turned south along the ridge, towards the cliffs at the back of the island, and tried to keep up the pace. The sunny day had turned dark, the clouds had lowered and engulfed the puffin hunters, reducing visibility to metres. They continued on, trying to keep up their spirits. One hunter said, “we’re those tourists we hear about on the news at home. They venture off on a hike when it is fune and sunny, with only a bottle of water between them, the weather closes in and they become a cautionary tale!”

The weak ankle was holding up, but the stronger of the two had disturbing thoughts going through his mind. He was trying to figure out how he’d get his partner down if her ankle ceased up again. His best idea, he confessed later, was to lay one of their windbreakers down on the ground, and have her slide down the slope on it. Fortunately, they didn’t have to put this concept into practice.

Eventually, they came to the other side of the island and cautiously started down to the other cliffs. A slip and a turned ankle here would not be a good idea, toboggan-option or not!  They emerged out of the mist, and found they were not alone on the island. Other hunters had made their way up via another, lower and much easier route, one they had seen several hours earlier, one that had stone paving stones laid out (but which hadn’t been obvious at the junction) all the way. Along with the others, they found a large, flat rock on which to sit and rest and wait. Some of the others set up tripods. Our hunters laughed with each other ruefully; their tripod was still in the car, but they also knew it would have made the climb even harder than it had been.

It was peaceful. The mist rose, the wind died down a little, and the sun even shone for a while. A friendly crow kept them amused as they waited.

P1050488 friendly crow cr ed web

They noticed birds starting to fly in from the sea, and briefly, some excited activity ensued amongst those with the huge cameras and long lenses and tripods. The birds though kept their distance, and it was getting cold, and late, given that the hunters had a couple of hours drive back to their hotel.

In the cliffs below them, they saw an ungainly bird fly in. It was the right size and shape and colour (black and white) with the right flight patterns to be a puffin. Then they saw another one. Anticipation grew, then waned. The birds were all simply too far away to determine if they were puffins. The photographs of the island on the internet, showing puffins within arms reach of photographers, seemed like a cruel joke at this point. It was getting cold. Really cold. Dusk was hours away – in fact, in these northern climes, dusk only lasted a few hours around midnight, and they weren’t so committed that they would stay that late.

So the puffin hunters admitted defeat and made their way down the ridiculously easy path they should have taken in the first place.

Path down and Atlantic view

About half-way down on the road more travelled

Runde nesting birds

One of the few birds we saw on the island

They had to put the disappointment behind them. The day had been an adventure. The drive back was beautiful. But ultimately, these were the only positive puffin sightings of the whole trip:

P1000512 puffin stockings web

 

 

 

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There’s a difference between travelling to a destination and coming home, which I know is stating the obvious. Whilst coming home does not have the same excitement of new or exotic pleasures, the relief of the familiar, and the pure comforts of home at the end of the journey are nonetheless worth celebrating.

It’s always a pleasure turning on the tap and drinking delicious water after a trip overseas, but I have to admit that on this trip, both Iceland and Norway provided very drinkable and even quite tasty water, unlike the ghastly stuff that comes out of the taps in places like France and Italy and the rest of Europe.

Even though it is winter here, the light seems so much brighter than the early summer light in Scandinavia; here, the colours are vivid and the landscape sparkles.

After five weeks away, it is nice to have a washing machine on call!

Cooking again, and not having to pay the exorbitant prices of Iceland and Norway for food, is fun – or it will be once I recover fully from the jet lag.

Speaking of jet lag, according to the experts it generally takes about one day for each time zone changed (with eastward travel, because you lose time), which means that we still have two or three days to go to consider ourselves fully recovered. I can usually tell when I have adjusted back to NZ time when I stop waking up early, so I figure that I’m almost there, as I noticed a familiar desire to stay in my warm, cosy bed this morning!

 

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  • We arrived home last night, 40 hours after leaving our hotel room in Oslo, and that is just too long. But, as I told my disbelieving father-in-law (who is not enamoured of travel), it was worth it.
  • Five weeks of dust is actually quite a lot, considering I cleaned the house the day before we left.
  • It’s a bit depressing coming home to a dusty house, especially since – did I mention this? – I cleaned it the day before we left.
  • The seasons have changed since we left, with only a few sad brown leaves left on our oak tree.
  • It was the same temperature here in Wellington as it was in Oslo when we left, even though we are in opposite seasons.
  • It’s quite nice though to go to bed under a cosy duvet and in the darkness, as it never got dark in our five weeks in those northern reaches.
  • My body might be in this time zone, but my head is not, as it tries to fast-forward 10 hours, so I really wish I’d written and scheduled today’s post before I left!

 

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Our first time in Europe, we struggled with jet lag the first day or two, but by the time we picked up a car in Paris, we were well adjusted (having flown only from Bangkok, not NZ), and likewise the second time, when we collected our car after a week in Rome. We then became more blasé, and flew into Paris at 6 am – albeit after a business class flight (thanks to all the airpoints/frequent flyer miles I’d saved up from all my business travel), when we had managed a few more hours sleep than usual on the 24 hour flight – and picked up a car at the airport and drove a few hours to Orleans. We were exhausted when we got there, and it’s not something we would recommend. Likewise, there have been some horror stories of international travellers arriving in New Zealand in the early morning, immediately collecting a car, and either falling asleep at the wheel or making fatal errors because they weren’t alert enough to remember to stay on the correct, left, side of the road.

So these days, we try to include a few adjustment days before we start driving on foreign roads. On this trip, we’re going to have three days before we jump into driving, so hopefully, we will have had a few nights sleep and will be alert enough to remember to stay on the right (in both senses of the word) side of the road when our natural inclination is to keep left.

That’s why today we’re going to be in London (having sensibly written and scheduled my Microblog Monday posts for the next month), adjusting to an upside down time zone, maybe having afternoon tea somewhere, and hopefully exploring somewhere new in this amazing city. Or maybe we’ll just be snoring off on the Tube or in a hotel lobby until our room becomes available (worst case scenario – nine hours after we arrive), recovering from travelling from the other side of the world.

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I am taking up a friend’s suggestion that I run a competition to guess where I’m going on my next trip, and the winners (first to guess* correctly) will receive a postcard from the destination they identified. (Two qualifications to this: 1. Assuming postcards are still available for purchase (if not, I’ll make a photocard on my return), and 2. The postcard will have been bought from the destination, but might not be posted from there.)

We’re going to eight countries on this five-week trip, seven of which will be new and exciting for us.

Clues (I might add to this list later in the week):

  • It will take a total of about 31 hours travelling time (from home to hotel) to reach our first destination, which is really only a stop-over to go onto the others.
  • Two destinations (or more, I’m not sure) might offer the opportunity to see (or even better) photograph puffins.
  • According to internet historical weather data, I have to pack for daily high temperatures ranging from 5 C (41F) to 33C (91F) … and in at least one destination, rain, lots of rain.
  • Only one of the destinations would require me to get a visa, but given my mode of travel to enter this location, it turns out I don’t need one there either.

* If you already know where I’m going (because I’ve told you), and you want a postcard too, email me your address at malinzblog(at)yahoo(dot)co(dot)nz.

 

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