NZ December 2017 Days 1 and 2-Auckland to Coromandel

We spent a quiet day in Auckland city centre after our flight arrived. Dave has been ill for a few days so it was a case of conserving energy and resting up.

Randal from Auckland Motorbike Rental came to collect us from the lovely Skycity Grand Hotel this morning and drive us 45 minutes to the coast to collect the bike. He was a friendly, chatty guy with more than 10 bikes in his garage. We were well prepared and managed to load up the bike in 30 minutes, with all the camping gear fitting in very easily, almost too easily. We have rented a Yamaha Super Tenere this time,as Dave wants to try it out with a view to trading in the Ducati in Hong Kong for something Japanese that is cheaper to maintain.

It was a brilliant blue sky day. The temperature was perfect. We rode along the coast from Maraetai to Thames, at the foot of the Coromandel Peninsula, where we stopped for tea.

The people were amazingly friendly and welcoming. Everyone raves about the road to Coromandel Township and warned us about the narrow, twisty bends. The road hugs the coast, right alongside the beach. It was really beautiful but we experienced a heavy shower and the sea turned grey for a while.

As we ascended up the mountain, the views down to the coast where stunning. It reminds me a bit of Ireland but the weather is much better and the flora is very different, in fact, unlike anything I have seen before.

The campsite at Long Bay is right on the beach. We pitched our tent about 15m from the water’s edge.

It became quite busy in the afternoon with locals swimming in the sea and relaxing. The atmosphere was good but much improved when only the campers were left at the end of the day. We cooked and fell asleep in the sunshine.

The time difference compared to Hong Kong, at this time of the year, is 5 hours, which works out well for us as the jet lag means we are able to stay awake till 10pm or later and get up as late as 8am. Like normal people.

First day review of the bike. Dave thinks it lacks power and is too heavy. I think it sounds like a tractor but it’s very comfy for a pillion. It is hard to get on when the side boxes are fitted though. Not very dignified.

The first night in the tent was not great as my body has to get used to it. I kept waking up with painful shoulders and turning over. I do love being in the tent though. There is something magical about getting into you nightie and snuggling down into the sleeping bag, while hearing the sound of the sea outside.

We went into town for a big breakfast, rather than cook and made contact with the internet.

We had planned to have an active day involving a walk but the weather closed in and it rained most of the day. It was fairly warm though. We stayed around the campsite reading and cooking and Dave had several naps.

Just as it looked like a totally uneventful day, magical happened just before bedtime. The sky began to slowly turn orange, then more orange and then some more (no filters or photoshop).

Seeing Things Clearer-USA, Mexico, Central America 2015-16

This is my final post of this trip. We left Berlin on 10th July last year, riding to London and flying from Heathrow on 17th July to Boston. We then rode 28,000 miles across the USA, Mexico and Central America to Panama and then back to the US border and onto Houston. 9 countries and 30 US states. It is good to get some perspective, a month after returning,to see the whole thing in its entirety. I can honestly say it is the best thing I have ever done in my life. It still feels painful to remember the best times. If I came into some money unexpectedly, I would go back and do it all again tomorrow, without a moment of hesitation, possibly indefinitely.

People have asked about the best places so here is a quick rundown and in no particular order.

Memphis, Tennesseegrace 1Big Sur, CaliforniaSAMSUNG CSCIdyllwild, CaliforniaSAMSUNG CSCBaja California, Mexicocropped-20151016024740_sam_1496.jpgGuanajuato, MexicoSAMSUNG CSCThe Highlands and Antigua Guatemalawp-1450816699515.jpgSAMSUNG CSCGranada, NicaraguaSAMSUNG CSCCosta Rica Beaches and WildlifeSAMSUNG CSCArizonaSAMSUNG CSCUtahhelen canyonlandsApart from these places, the things I loved the most were waking up feeling excited; the sense of incredible freedom; meeting friendly people (especially in the USA); speaking Spanish (badly); being outdoors all the time; going to sleep in the tent, in the darkness; riding through amazing landscapes; seeing creatures and of course, sharing it all with Dave. We have been together over 20 years but our bond is now stronger than ever.

The things that have left the biggest impression on me include the spring sunshine in Arizona with endless clear, blue skies and the fresh, mountain air at 6000 feet and above. I fell in love with one place above all-Idyllwild, California. The place where pine cones are as big as your foot and the town is thick with hippies. If a visa was possible, I would seriously retire there to a log cabin on the mountain. I can definitely see a future where we spend part of the year there. I can also see us driving an RV with a motorbike strapped to the back, spending winters in Arizona. I cannot imagine we will not go back to the USA. It is now part of me.

What have  I learned? Everything is possible if you plan and work hard at it. The countryside is where I am happiest. I am very lucky (but I knew that already). I am excited to return to this lifestyle eventually. I now know what retirement will look like but before that I have to go to Hong Kong and make some money. Until then though, I am definitely seeing things clearer.

The Last Leg-North Carolina to Houston 14th-21st May 2016

It is over a month now since we left the USA and flew to Hong Kong and then back to the UK. We have been briefly to both Berlin and Lanzarote since then and have travelled across England from London to Burnley and stopped over in North Wales for a night. It has all been a whirlwind and a hard transition; going from living like vagabonds, wild and free to assimilating back into a normal life. It is great to be able to catch up with so many people and also to rest. I only realised after the trip was over, just how exhausting it was.SAMSUNG CSCOur trusty steed Silver arrived back yesterday, having been on a ship for a few weeks and so it seemed the right time to conclude the blog; charge up the camera to retrieve the last few photos and draw a line, very regrettably under the whole thing.

We did not lose momentum during the last 10 days, we hung on to every last minute. We dipped into South Carolin and then North Carolina, spending a night in Asheville. A hip city that seemed very liveable. We stayed in a cute Airbnb and sat out on the porch in true southern style listening to the cicadas and enjoying the warm evening air.SAMSUNG CSCThe Great Smoky Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world and they are stunningly green. It was sad to leave them.SAMSUNG CSCWe managed a last night of camping at another stunning lake.

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Then we headed to Savannah, Georgia. What a great place this is. The residential architecture is very unique and in many places quite run down but there is loads of atmosphere and the people are very friendly. We stayed in another cool Airbnb.

SAMSUNG CSCThe city was astonishing though in that is was so reminiscent of London. I felt the historical presence of the British more than I have anywhere in the USASAMSUNG CSC

SAMSUNG CSCWe spent a couple of hours in the evening wandering around the stunning squares of amazing architecture against a backdrop of oak trees dripping with moss.SAMSUNG CSCWe then move onto Jacksonville, Florida for a couple of nights. The city is nothing special but we had tickets to see one of our heroes, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher. It was great to see him in the flesh. We then headed to New Orleans. We had hoped to arrive there earlier and spend more time but we had spent so much time in the Deep South dodging thunder storms and time ran out. However, we spent one night and saw a fair bit as well as enjoying 2 or 3 bars.2016-05-16 21.17.39-2SAMSUNG CSCNew Orleans is extraordinary and is a place I would like to return. The buildings in the centre are stunning and the place has a party atmosphere, even on a Monday night.SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSC2016-05-16 22.51.19What I liked more though was the residential area where we stayed, about 15 minutes walk from the French Quarter. The streets are lined with shotgun shacks, painted in bright colours and there are plenty of cool bars and cafes to sit outside.

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The roads are full of potholes and the place has a shabby feeling (it is not that safe late at night) but the atmosphere is unforgettable.

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And so we set off for our last, long ride from New Orleans to Houston-about 350 miles. We stopped at our last Starbucks. We must have frequented more Starbucks across the USA than anyone else over the last 10 months. We have enjoyed their free WiFi and English Breakfast Tea and they have always been a port in a storm-sometimes literally.

SAMSUNG CSCHouston is a massive city. It felt quite overwhelming.SAMSUNG CSCWe made it to our accommodation safely, feeling very relieved.

2016-05-17 21.55.06We had booked an apartment for 4 nights where we could have easy access to shopping malls and hairdressers to enable us to transition into school teachers for the visit to Hong Kong.SAMSUNG CSCWe rode Silver to the warehouse and waved him goodbye.wp-1463690132432.jpgAnd so it was over. 28,000 miles, 10 months, 9 countries. A trip of a lifetime.  I will blog a final summary in the next couple of days and will save my closing comments for then.

 

The Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee-May 6-9th, 2016

So after much doubt and hassle, we finally made it to the Great Smoky Mountains. We were rained off here last August and it felt like unfinished business, plus this is one of the best places in the country to see black bears. So it was worth a visit and a last attempt to see bears before we leave. Dave managed to fix the surging problem with the bike, although it was touch and go and we nearly turned back towards Houston. We passed very near the other Birmingham (Alabama) on the way, which felt strange.

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It has been a busy weekend, due to Mother’s Day but we had booked the campsite in advance and they gave us by far the best spot, right on the river. Although all the gushing did keep us awake at night.

SAMSUNG CSCAlthough the mountains here are pretty small, I cannot remember ever having been anywhere greener (and that includes North Wales).

SAMSUNG CSCThe mountains are impressively forested.

SAMSUNG CSCSo what you all want to know is did we see a bear? The answer is no. We saw 7!! We waited till after the weekend rush and rode up into the national park this morning. As we approached the car park at Cades Cove, there was a crowd of people on the grass verge, all looking into the forest. I jumped off the bike and joined them. I saw three bears, two climbing a tree about 50m away. Three rangers were trying to keep the people at a safe distance and sounding horns to scare the bears away. The bears were quite small and very black. We rode on, scanning the meadows (seen in the photo above). We saw a few wild turkeys. Two or three cars in front of us then stopped and seemed to be pointing to the right. I couldn’t see anything and we nearly drove on when Dave pointed to the undergrowth on the left, literally only 5 feet away from the bike, there was a small, brownish bear, tucking into what looked like clover. He was so intent on what he was doing and did not seem to notice us.

SAMSUNG CSCHe looked just like Paddington (I know he is a Spectacled Bear from Peru), with very tiny eyes, that made him look quite vulnerable. It was really thrilling.We followed the same three cars for the next 8 miles, painfully slowly, scanning the meadows and trees. We saw some deer.

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Just before we arrived at the end of the loop we saw a group of cars parked along the road and people with cameras. There in the forest about 20m away was another group of three bears, what looked like a mother and two large cubs. They were walking towards us. We were safe in the knowledge that we could ride away on the bike but everyone else was on foot, probably stupidly close (all the signs tell you to stand at least 50 yards away).

SAMSUNG CSCSo we were really lucky. After several near bear encounters last year, we finally saw bears in our last few days. I remember the day I saw a wild tiger in India, like it was yesterday and I know I will remember this day forever.

Jackson, Mississippi to Huntsville, Alabama1st-6th May 2016

It has been an odd week with little achieved, due to problems with the bike and the weather. We ended up in Jackson, Mississippi for 4 nights while Dave sorted out a change of the steering head bearings and we waited for thunderstorms to pass. We moved from the scary downtown area to a posh part of town to the north and got a good deal on a hotel suite where we could cook. We watched lots of TV and cooked lots of curries and got a lot of sleep.

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Dave did well with the bearings, sourcing a similar bearing  that is used in a Toyota car from AutoZone and changing it on the carpark in the pouring rain. He managed to get it in with the help of a shed load of grease.

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We moved on to a wonderful campsite on a lake in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in northern Mississippi.

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This must be the furthest away from traffic we have camped the whole trip. There was no distant car noise and at night the place was truly magical with only the sounds of owls in the trees and fish jumping in the lake.

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It was also a great place for yoga.

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We managed out cheapest day of the trip at $37, including the cost of doing the laundry.

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The next day we travelled via Tupelo to visit Elvis’s birthplace. Tupelo is now a huge town and it was hard to get a feeling for what the area would have been like when Elvis lived there but is was good to see the shack he grew up in and get a feel for what his life was like as a child.

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I particularly enjoyed reading accounts of people who knew him back then, describing him as shy and also recounting how, when he received his first guitar for his birthday, he really wanted an air rifle. We both got to sit on the swing on the porch. I am sure it is not the same swing but it was still fun. SAMSUNG CSC

Unfortunately, the weather turned bad again and we had to seek refuge in a hotel for the night in Huntsville, Alabama. The rain poured down, in a tropical fashion, while we stayed cosy indoors and ordered takeout food from the local Chinese restaurant. I love the fact that it is the normal thing here to order food into your hotel room. All rooms also have microwaves for heating leftovers.

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This dog enjoyed barking at us as he drove past

Yesterday we left on the final leg of the journey to the Great Smoky Mountains. The bike has been “surging” for a few days and Dave has been trying to sort it out (suspected transmission problem of some kind). After 40 minutes on the road, he decided it was too serious to continue and we had to head back to Huntsville and check into another hotel. Another takeaway meal, a few episodes of Masterchef and a bottle of wine helped to ease the disappointment. So today, we have to make a decision about whether we are going to make it to the mountains or not. The journey back to Houston (where both us and the bike depart from), via New Orleans, is about 800 miles but if we head to the mountains and then back it is 1600 miles. The weather is set to be great for the next few days and whatever decision we make we will try to make the most of it. Just 17 days till we fly out.

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Dallas, Texas to Jackson, Mississippi 23rd-29th April 2016

Of the three days we spent in Dallas, we worked for two of them and at the end I delivered 47,000 words to my two thesis supervisors.  I am now applying for permission to deliver my thesis early. Fingers crossed this is granted. On the third day, we went to visit the assassination site of JFK. This was one of only two things that Dave specifically want to do in the whole of the USA. We had a lovely lunch in a great New York style deli and then wandered over to the site. On the way we passed the memorial to JFK. It felt underwhelming.

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The first thing that strikes you about the assassination site is how much smaller, closer and compact it is than it appears on the footage. The Book Depository and the “grassy knoll” are just a few metres away from where the bullets struck.

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The Book Depository

Neither Dave nor I are supporters of the “single gunman” theory or the findings of the Warren Report. For this reason we agonised about whether to go into the museum on the 6th floor of the former Book Depository which, apparently, fails to mention at all that there may be other theories about how the President died. Some campaigners on the internet ask you to boycott this museum. In the end our minds were made  up for us by the long queues (even on a Monday).

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The road where the assassination took place

It is very sad and moving standing there looking at the piece of road where JFK was shot. I don’t automatically feel sad at these kinds of places but I did here. I wondered whether the world would be different now if JFK had lived and likely served two terms. We will never know.

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The grassy knoll to the left under the trees

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The site of the assassination with the Book Depository in the background on the left

The centre of Dallas reminded me a lot of Manchester close up. There are quite a few redbrick buildings,  very reminiscent of the town centre around China Town in Manchester and they have the same tram system. The skyline is quite different though. I found it to be a low key place. We enjoyed our few days there.

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We have had to be flexible since we left Dallas as there has been a lot of bad weather which we have successfully dodged. We don’t mind a bit of rain or even a light thunderstorm but we do not want the tent to be blown away in a tornado and we have managed to avoid the worst of the weather using the internet. We did see a great couple of dust devils on the road though.

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We are now out of the desert and cannot believe how green it is here. The landscape is just like home. The grass pollen is very high, however, and I have suffered a bit with hay fever.

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Over the last three days we have passed through Louisiana and Mississippi. It is very interesting here. There are lots of shacks. Many sell crawfish, catfish and jumbo shrimp but many are also lived in by poor people, mostly African-Americans. The poverty is more akin to what you see in Asia and I have certainly not seen anything like it in western Europe. It is very sad. The people are amazingly friendly though. Everyone is interested in us and I come  out of every shop or gas station with a huge grin.

One of the two highlights of the past few days has been Natchez. This is a town on the banks of the Mississippi. The motto of this state is “The Birthplace of America’s Music” which is reference to the blues which grew out of the Mississippi delta.

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We crossed the Mississippi back in August when we left Memphis and it was good to see it again.

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Natchez was once one of the richest towns in the USA and there are more plantation homes here than anywhere else in the country.

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The centre of town is very Georgian looking and I kept thinking I was in Leominster or somewhere similar in the UK.

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We had a great night out there, met a few other travellers, had a few beers and a Thai meal. I am very interested in architecture and wanted to visit some Antebellum homes, from the 1830-1860 period but when I researched them I felt a little uncomfortable to see how these houses are visited just for their beauty with no reference to the historical context of slavery, the exploitation from which this great wealth developed. Sadly this has put me off wanting to visit any of the big plantation homes. I did learn in my research that the British were mostly responsible for bringing slaves to the USA, firstly to support tobacco production in the Virginias and later with sugar cane and cotton in the Deep South. The biggest slave owners were mostly of British descent, some owning over 1000 slaves. Three quarters of people who lived in the south did not own slaves, however.

Our best day this week was yesterday, as this was the only day we have had guaranteed good weather and been able to camp. We passed through a town called Waterproof. There was a prison there and the whole scene was reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption. The area was quite poor and very remote and I was a bit concerned about staying there at first but the campsite was stunning and well used.

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We had our own little part of the lake to look out on.

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We saw quite a bit of wildlife, including large egrets, red and yellow birds, squirrels and anole lizards that puff their throats up red like they are blowing bubbles with gum. On the road today we also helped a terrapin, the size of a large tortoise that was stranded trying to cross  (in British English we have three words-tortoise, terrapin and turtle, whereas Americans seem to only use turtle). I also saw a large dead armadillo being eaten by vultures.

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Dave enjoyed the break. Reading his book in various positions.

SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSCThis campsite is owned by Louisiana state parks and includes electricity at each site, your own water tap, free WiFi and a laundry-all for just over 20 quid a night. We loved it there and felt very happy to be back sleeping in the outdoors.

So finally, we are today in Jackson, Mississippi. We need steering head bearings for the bike and managed to source some here but they will not arrive till tomorrow so we had to stay overnight. The people are lovely but the whole place is slightly scary. Two locals advised us not to stay here, including one skinny guy wearing a camouflage jumpsuit who looked like an archetypal methhead and chatted with me for quite a while outside AutoZone. So we are ensconced in our safe chain hotel the Comfort Inn, with our takeaway food waiting for tomorrow to arrive.

Our plans for the next few days are loose because of the weather but we are heading towards the Great Smoky Mountains. It would be good to be there in three days but who knows?

 

 

Phoenix to Tuscon, Arizona-camping in the desert 14th-19th April 2016

We spent 3 days camping in the desert at two locations in Arizona. First at the Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix. This is right next to Superstition Mountain, so called because of the rumours, going back more than 100 years, of gold in them there hills. Gold has never been found. The Lost Dutchman apparently got lost searching for it.

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The area was beautiful, especially as the sun was setting.

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It was only 15 minutes ride from the outskirts of Phoenix and we were able to visit the cinema to see Midnight Special. If you have not seen it, I thought it was a very good film. Not life changing but it kept me enthralled the whole time.

We moved on to a very remote location called Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This is only 7 miles from the Mexican border at Lukeville and it felt strange being so close to Mexico again.

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We passed through a tiny town called Ajo (garlic in Spanish) but decided to wait till the final town of Why before getting food supplies. Big mistake as Why had only one gas station and nothing else. We decided to ride on to the campground and found it to be very remote and beautiful but we still had no food. We headed to Lukeville at the border, 5 miles away. There was again only a gas station but we did manage to get ice cold Heineken and Doritos and (oddly) cups of instant oats (the perfect camping breakfast for vegans). No dinner though, they only had Spam and Pot Noodles.

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After a few beers, we dipped into the food bag and came out with some red lentils and half a bag of wholewheat fusilli. An odd dinner seasoned with some Cajun spice mix but enough to soak up the beer.

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We soaked up the beautiful, desert atmosphere. It was very reminiscent of Baja California. Many of the saguaro cacti are in flower. You can see the buds in the silhouette below.

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On the way into the campground there is a sign that says “Illegal immigration and smuggling takes place in this area. If you see anything suspicious report it to the Visitor Centre”. No wonder the campground was half empty. On the way back to Tucson, we encountered three road blocks/check points manned by scary looking US agents and about ten different patrol vehicles, hiding in the bushes (it was like an episode of Breaking Bad). We saw nothing like this when we crossed at El Paso a month ago but this area is much more remote and perfect for smuggling. We were glad we had decided to move on.

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Today we begin the long journey east. We plan to be in Dallas for Saturday, in time for the Everton v Man. Utd. FA Cup semi-final, being played at Wembley. We have 1000 miles to cover before then. We will go via Roswell, New Mexico.We will spend 3 days in Dallas before heading towards New Orleans. We wanted to see Santa Fe and Taos but it is too cold up there for us and we also need to make progress and zig zagging north to south when you want to go east, slows you down. We will be sad to leave the desert but we only have 4 more weeks before the bike goes off to the shippers and we need to get to the Deep South and see something new.