Friday, January 29, 2016

Best of Both Worlds

I'm the first to admit that I'm a philistine, especially when it comes to the greats of literature. In fact, the first time I was called a philistine, I was in 1st year at university, and I thought that "Philistine" was a country in the Middle East!

Even worse, I was in 2nd year at university when I discovered that the Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights was not actually a cat! And there was me thinking that poor Cathy got lost on the moors trying to find her cat, as she roamed through the mists calling, "Heathcliff! Heathcliff!" Sure wasn't that what Kate Bush was telling us when she sang, "It's me, I'm Cathy, I've come home. So co-wo-wo-wold, its' me..." Cathy'd found the cat and was knocking on the window looking to come in from the cold... Right? Wrong!

As I writer now, is it a dumb move for me to to admit this? Maybe, but the truth of the matter is this, I'd rather have Steven King over Shakespeare any day of the week. Likewise, I was so bored by Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea that just a few pages in, I started to read just one sentence per page, got to the end and still knew what had happened.

In school, we had to read Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders. God was that excruciating! The whole selling of her hair bit... Jeez... I nearly had to buy a wig myself, the experience had me pulling my hair out!

But I did enjoy Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I read it by myself, at my own pace and didn't pick apart every sentence. Perhaps that was what made English Literature so miserable for me - being told what to infer from the words before me, though in fairness, it didn't take away from my enthusiasm for Oscar Wilde's Importance of being Earnest. Maybe some things are just too good to be destroyed by such microscopic examination.

As we waded through Frost and Heaney's poems, I though it would have been fun to do the same thing with the lyrics of the compensatory music classics of that time - Meat Loaf's Bat Out Hell, Queen's Bohemian Rapsidy, anything... anything at all by Pink Floyd! Wasn't that poetry too?

English Literature as a subject in school was compulsory and tedious. I scraped through Lit with a C. I was a literary lout, an uncultured clodhopper, a scholarly slob! Science was my thing.

So it is with some irony that I look at my life now and wonder how I got to this point... 

I'm still a scientist... I even work part-time as a scientist, doing biology fieldwork with a fabulous conservation team at Creekside Science. I love working with them so much, I'd nearly do it for free (shhhh! don't tell them that) and in fact, in the past I have done!

And I'm a writer. Can a person be both creative and a Scientist? When I was at school we sure weren't encouraged in that direction.

I write because I love it too - most of the time - and  because I'm lucky to have a huge amount of support from family and friends. It is highly unlikely that conservation work or writing will ever make me rich - at least not in coinage but as a lifestyle, yes - I'm a gazillionaire.



This week, as I sat in the "lunchroom" at work - a rock on Coyote Ridge, overlooking green valleys, with a morning of baby-butterfly counting under my belt, chatting with my co-workers about my Science Fiction Novel I'm writing, I realized that this is one of those moments - a culmination of all the parts of life poured into one pot, stirred and left to simmer.

Writing has always been a part of my make-up, just as much as science. I'm now writing a regular monthly column for Girl Who Readsand my posts will all be about how "ordinary" folk can be writers too - if you have the write stuff! My first post explored my own experience of figuring out that I wanted to be a writer...

Now, if I can just figure out how to make money being a traveling-writing-conservation scientist, I'd be able to afford to feed Ninja - the mutant teenage Rottweiler that's going to be staying here for the next few months....

Byddi Lee


Friday, January 22, 2016

Faith, Trust, and a Little Bit of Pixie Dust.

"So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land!"
-J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan


 This the last in the series from my trip back in time to New Zealand...





The 23rd May 2003 proved lucky for us.  We awoke to a crystal clear morning in Wanaka, a ski resort in the South Island.  The snow capped mountain peaks twinkled in the morning sun as we approached the hangar at the airfield.  After we had been weighed and suited up, we were introduced to our tandem masters and the camerapersons who were doing our video.

And still no clouds in the sky...

After the four other attempts, I had imposed a media blackout – no-one was allowed to talk to me about the sky dive that morning, thus preventing a huge build up of excitement/terror, to be followed by a huge anticlimax/relief, if the jump were called off.

My tandem master was very nice, joking that he had only done this once before and telling me to pay extra attention to the video showing us the procedures so that I could tell him what to do, apart from "Don't let go.” 

Fiona and Bex, a Zimbabwean girl we were friends with, and our tandem masters and video cameramen all loaded into an extremely small airplane. 

As we took off, I held on very tightly to the windowsill of the plane, my knuckles pure white. Grinning, my tandem master, unhooked my fingers and I had visions of him having to peel my fingers from the doorjamb when it came time to jump.

As the plane got higher and the ground got smaller, the fear abated.  At one stage, between eight thousand and twelve thousand feet, I actually said to my tandem master that the plane was very small and noisy, and I couldn't wait to get out of it.  I think at this point my brain had gone on strike, like it was saying to my body, "Go ahead do what you like, but I am not getting involved."  I went into autopilot.

Shortly after that, the doors opened. Fiona was first.  She went over to the door and vanished. I let out a wail.  She just disappeared so fast. 

Then it was Becky and then me. 

Sitting on the edge of the plane was surprisingly okay.  I was confused about which camera to smile at, wave at and maintain eye contact with.  Remember, my brain was on strike, so I just kept trying to get into the position for the freefall. The tandem master kept turning my head to this camera and that one.

Then in a blinding, stomach-whooshing, vacuum-breathing moment we were out, flipping over, back upright and flying. 
Look how tiny the plane is!

The wind blasted past my ears.  I sliced through crystalline crisp air at two hundred kilometers an hour.  What a rush! 
Somewhere between twelve thousand feet and eight thousand feet, I fell in love with my tandem master – even though I couldn't remember what he looked like. The feeling of flying was so soul filling I kept thinking "Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you." But I wasn't really sure who I was thanking.

The tandem master pulled the parachute. Then came my favorite bit.  Only when we slowed down to a graceful glide did it impact on me just how fast we had been going. 
The tandem master asked, "Well, what did you think of that?"
All I could breathlessly say was, "Holy Majoley!”  Well, the brain was still sulking.

OMG - the scenery!
We floated over stunning scenery, chatting, with the tandem master pointing out the names of various mountains and lakes.  Mostly I didn't answer, just grinned inanely and wondered if angels felt this way when they look down from heaven on a perfect earth. From up here you’re not close enough to see the rubbish that the up-close intricate detail shows.

The landing was uneventful and graceful enough for a first timer. I landed on my feet, and not for the first time since I’d embarked upon my travels.  After the dive I was a bit shaky, my brain obviously kicking back in.  I also saw my tandem master for what seemed like the first time.  Love affair over.  Brief but beautiful.

As if that wasn’t enough, the next day Fiona decided to do the Canyon Swing – a ten second free-fall for one hundred and nine meters, ending up in a swing across a canyon.  Bex, our fellow skydiver from the previous day, and I decided to go watch Fiona.  As it turned out she was the only one scheduled to do it.  She did it twice.  It looked terrifying.

Her first canyon swing began with her suspended over the edge. The jump guy gave Bex a cord to pull and some gave way beneath Fiona.  Hers eyes and mouth popped open with shock as she plummeted towards the canyon floor, but she loved it and came back for another one. 
This time she did "The Chair."  A plastic patio chair was strapped to her.  She was still safely snug in her harness and they balanced her over the edge backwards, like an errant pupil swinging on her chair, and then her let go.  Off she toppled, with fear etched into her face. I told the jump guys, who were whooping as she wailed through her free-fall, that they were “evil bastards.”  They took it as a compliment.

I was adamant I was not going to do it.  The guys working on the swing offered Bex and me a two for one deal.  I said no way... No doing it not even for free... But Bex was particularly low on money, so the deal was great for her, but the guys said if I didn't jump (or at least pay or a jump), no deal.  What to do?  Bex really really wanted to do it... Guess what I did....
 
Ten minutes later I stood terrified with my back to the ledge, harness on, ropes attached, balancing over a one hundred and nine meter drop.  I decided to go off backwards, for something different.  Something different? How mad does that sound?  I stared into the eyes of the jump-master as he counted down.  I nearly bottled. I hadn't had time to fully disengage my brain, but at the word “Go” I managed to somehow launch myself.  Fiona reckons my legs collapsed beneath me and for the second time in thirty six hours I was free-falling.

I roared all the way down.  It was so far that I had time to go “Arrrrrrrrrrrgh!” Breathe in and restart a new, “Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh!” again.  It wasn't as violent as the bungee I'd done six months before in South Africa and the swing part was lovely, whistling through the canyon with the river beneath me.  I laughed at myself, replaying the scream in my head, as they winched me back up.  Anyway, once was enough for me.

I vowed no more free-falling for at least a year.  I was dreaming about it at night. 

It had been amazing.  Not just the crazy stuff we were doing but the gang of friends we had gathered up was great too.  But alas, as with everything, it had to come to an end.  It was a tearful farewell between us as we moved on to our next adventure in life. Fiona promised me that now she’d had her skydive, she’d stay safe and sound inside her Air New Zealand plane on her way west to Australia.

I went to Milford Sound.  This was where some of the Lord of the Ring's most spectacular scenery was filmed.  It had been raining for a few days and the fjord was just teeming with waterfalls.  I think I photographed most of them.  

Queenstown was a huge party town and I was glad to be leaving if only for the sake of my liver.  There were many mad nights out and drunken adventures.  I won a bungee jump one night in the pub and resorted to having to "lose" the voucher.  I'd had enough adrenaline.

The weather here had been frustrating.  It was too cold to do much by way of outdoor pursuits but no snow for skiing.  A warm-up was in order.

After a disappointing lack of skiing due to the fact that it hadn't snowed, I too decided not to hang around and headed back up to Auckland. I’d made friends up with a couple of sisters from Cork, Jen and Brid.  I arranged to travel with Jen and Brid to Fiji the following where I was hoping to meet up again with Bex.

I’d simply had a marvelous time in New Zealand but was looking forward to settling down in Canada for a while and living a tamer life.  No more jumping off bridges, out of planes and off the sides of gorges.  I was looking forward to the monotony of routine and some sunshine in the mountains.

But I still had to get through Fiji first.

I’ll always remember the toast Fiona and I raised our glasses to on the first night in Auckland.

“Why spend thousands of pounds on counseling when you can do this instead.”

Fiona was the best travel buddy I could have wished for.  We laughed so much and rejoiced in each other. 

In New Zealand, I experienced freedom from my broken heart.  New Zealand was about rekindling the magic of a lost era.  I began to think and react like I had done as a teenager.  Not as a form of regression, but more by way of digging up old values and remembering things that I had forgotten I liked to do.

I saw the world as beautiful again.  Like I used to before I met my ex.  I used to love the sounds of nature; for example, rain tinkling down a broken drainpipe outside my window a musical sound, despite the exceedingly primitive digs I’d lived in as a student.  Sunsets made my heart ache before I'd even known what real heartache was.  I'd look at a velvet black sky, knowing that the stars were in fact real diamonds, placed there by God.  A spider’s web on a frosty morning was the manifestation of those diamonds on earth. The simple pleasures in life!

Back in my youth, my imagination had been free and innocent, before it became tainted by skepticism and cynicism.  Back in those days, I had believed in magic.

New Zealand and the friends I'd met there, re-introduced me to the girl I was before and I really liked it. I could once more cry, “I believe in Fairies” and know that Tinkerbelle would live. After all, hadn’t Fiona and I flown? We have the photos to prove it...

Next week - back to the present...like buying in dog food for Ninja, the mutant Rottweiler... you know, that sort of thing...

Byddi Lee

Friday, January 15, 2016

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

The more I re-read my journal from the last time I was in New Zealand the more I look forward to our next trip. I'm sure, Ninja, the rottweiler, will love living here while we are gone too!

Sooo wavy flashback lines as we travel back to 2003...

Lake Matheson, near Fox Glacier, New Zealand, 2003


Somewhere over the Rainbow

Dorothy traveled "somewhere over the rainbow" to get to Oz and at the end of April 2003 I think I found the Rainbow.  Well, the Rainbow Warrior to be precise.  It was a choppy day and the boat trip out was two hours long.  Arriving at the dive site, shaken but not stirred, we donned our wet-suits and hit the water.  It was a cool nineteen degrees Celsius which was a whole ten or so degrees colder than what I’d been used to in Cairns.  So when I jumped in, one of the first to do so, I squealed so much from the shock of the "cold" water that I scared the other divers.  

The wreck was twenty-four meters down, and it was beautiful.  Covered in jewel anemones which were literally every color of the rainbow, this was one Warrior still fighting to be a Rainbow.  We went into one of the cabins, briefly, because I was a bit of a scary cat at this point. There were hundreds of nocturnal fish hanging out waiting for the sun to go down.  It was a bit freaky because it was dark and there were so many. They were like the marine versions of bats/vampires. Perhaps I was narked. I spent longer than I really should have down there and got back on the ship with only ten bars in my tank.  It was just too hard to leave.  I hadn't really been that into diving wrecks before but I think this may have converted me somewhat, though I still find it a bit creepy and ghoulish.  It’s like walking around graveyards.

We arrived back to Auckland that night where we visited the sky tower and then ended up in the casino bar.  I don’t know how that happened.  We were sitting for a while watching all the people gambling and I was just saying to Fiona, "Where the hell do all these people get money to literally throw away?" and then in the next breath I found myself saying, "Let's put twenty dollars in each and play till it’s gone".  So that's how all these people must do it.  Seeing as how I taught Fiona how to kayak, she decided to teach me how to play Black Jack.  It was a fair trade.  To cut a long story short, we lost all our money, but as Fiona pointed out, it took us an hour to lose it.

We traveled south from Auckland on the Kiwi Experience.  It was an early start, as usual. This adventuring lark was hard work.

We stopped at a beach called Hot Water Beach, where we were told you simply dig up the sand to find hot springs underneath, so you get your own hot pools.  At the start, we weren’t having much luck. About ten of us dug around randomly, sticking a foot in the hole to see if it was hot.  The beach looks as though it had been attacked by giant prairie dogs.  However, there were actually only two hot springs.  The power of advertising had led us to believe these things simply covered the beach, but it was fun and a good opportunity to get chatting to the rest of the folk on the bus, about twenty-five people in total.

Fantastic scenery surrounded us all the way. Unfortunately, the weather turned so we couldn't go kayaking in Cathedral Cove.  It was said to be "some of the best kayaking on the planet" quoted from the same book that told us about Hot Water Beach.

We had begun to realize that we simply couldn't do everything, and there was so much to do here that we had to make difficult choices.  We were given the option of carving a bone pendant in traditional Maori style, but I decided to be boring and went to the hairdresser  – backpackers are people too you know! Afterwards, all gorgeous, of course, I met Fiona in the pub where we ate a mountain of green-lipped mussels for the equivalent of three quid each.

Again we were up early the next day and we all grumbled in a good-natured way getting on the bus.  We were all getting to know one another and the group was good craic even if a little young – nineteen to twenty-three year-olds. I felt a bit like the aunty on the bus.  The driver told us about each town that we would be going to as we drove along and every time he mentioned Taupo my heart missed a beat.  That was where we planned to skydive.  It was weather dependent, but it was now striking fear into my heart. I'd run out of excuses as to why I hadn't already done a sky dive, except for the obvious one – That jumping out of perfectly good plane twelve thousand feet in the air was just plain nuts.  It looked like I was going to be doing it, and soon.  We were due to arrive in Taupo the next day.

For the moment, I was content to soak in some more hot springs and maybe treat myself to a massage.  Thinking about skydiving was just so stressful.  Fiona often said, "Don't sweat the small stuff.”  So did that mean it was time to start sweating?

What a nail-biting time we had trying to get our skydive fitted in.  We stopped in Taupo, booked it and waited for our lift the first afternoon.  It was so nerve-racking, that I hadn't been able to eat all day.  As soon as our driver came to collect us telling us that it was cancelled, hunger crashed down upon us, and we went for another feed of green-lipped mussels.

The next afternoon, we were brought out to the airport and shown the video.  Personally I think that this was cruel as it only served to heighten our anxiety.  I preferred the idea of going about the skydive BA Baracus - style, (ref: the A Team) whereby I get knocked unconscious until the bit where I am shoved out of the plane by my tandem buddy. 

We were told we had ten minutes to go, and Fiona and I set up a relay race back and forth to the toilets.  Then, just as we were about to get into the lovely red "Jump" suits the sky clouded over and the jump was cancelled.  After we had our complimentary muffins to abate the whoosh of starvation that engulfed us, we were brought back to our hostel and we retired early to bed under the conviction that our rescheduled jump at seven thirty am would be third time lucky.

At seven am I rang the skydive center.  The weather was awful and the skydive was cancelled, so we had a big fry-up for breakfast.

Later on, back on the Kiwi Bus, we traveled down to Wellington for an overnight stop and then on to the ferry for the trip to the South Island.  Our bus had been whittled down to a core group of eight of us who got on very well together.  Whilst on the three-hour-long ferry trip we devised a great game.  Sarah, a crazy nineteen-year-old American girl, had a digital camera. She would set off and take a photo of some random punter on the boat, then come back and show us the picture.  We seven had to split up and see who could find him in the shortest time.  It was hilarious.  We also had a breath choking moment when one of the guys, Steve, wanted to know where exactly in the South Island Mordor was?  He thought it was a real place.  But he did add he wasn't expecting there to be a big ring of fire over the mountain as in the movie.  Hours later we stopped laughing.

In Nelson, we picked up a full bus, and made lots more new pals.  This included two other Irish guys one from Monaghan, Seamus, and the other from Dublin, Ian.  The bus was quite entertained, and baffled, by the constant slagging we gave each other  – all in good humour.

We stopped at a beautiful coastal national park called Able Tasman and I went on a kayak trip.  Unfortunately, I managed to land myself with the only "unpleasant" person on our bus, a rather sour English girl who really did not appreciate my navigation skills.

Okay, so I went the wrong way.  It was a fifty-fifty chance.  Anyway, despite the obvious sour milk which, I couldn't detect, but which must have been floating around if my humorless Kayak buddy's face was anything to go by, it was a beautiful kayak trip.  Lots of big rock formations and interesting little islands, and some submerged rocks, which must have been where the milk was spilled, perhaps by another boat that had previously grounded on them, just as we had.

But my personal highlight for this section was the Horse Riding.  Fiona was going horse riding. If Fiona was going to jump out of a plane, then so was I. Thus it followed that despite an allergy to horses, I was going horse riding too.  Tanked up on anti-histamine, we set off in our welly-boots looking suitably “horsey-set” to find our mounts.  Fiona's horse was a rather grumpy black mare called Lady who kicked any other horse that got too close, much to Fiona's horror.  My horse was a frisky little mare called Pixie.  She liked to eat grass all the time but we soon learned who was boss.  She was.  So we got grass reins to stop her guzzling and off we went.

Even before I’d gotten on the horse, I was surprised at how scared I was of them.  They were very big and tended to look down their noses at me.  This more due to their anatomy than their attitude, but it still unnerved me.  I was not comforted by the guide's advice to calm down once I was on Pixie because “...horses can tell if you are nervous...”  I guess it was those shaking knees at her shoulders that gave it away.

Pixie and I came to a tentative agreement.  She could go whatever way she wanted so long as it she followed the other horses.  The best bit was having a go at cantering.  We started by learning to trot.  I found it a very bumpy and ungainly form of transport. The next stage, actually cantering, was more of a rocking motion.  It brought me back to my old rocking horse.  We’d had the best rocking horse a kid could ever want, and as a child I’d traveled all across the plains of North America with my rocking horse and my imagination.  Now, I was approximating that for real.  It was a wonderful feeling. 

The following day we went to Franz Joseph.  This was another skydive venue up in the mountains with spectacular glaciers.  So, as we were staying for two nights, Fiona and I put our names down for the Heli-Hike on the glacier and the sky dive.  Guess what – the sky dive was cancelled.  The Heli-Hike involved a trip in a helicopter on to the glacier and a two-hour hike with some ice climbing and exploring ice caves too.  We couldn't wait.  Alas, that morning it too was cancelled.  Fiona threatened that if she did not get to do her skydive in New Zealand, she was going to jump out of the Air New Zealand plane on the way to Australia.

At this stage serendipity called.  We decided to walk the five mile round trip to the glacier to have a look.  Well, I hate walking, so the plan changed to hitch hiking and as there were two of us, we felt safe.  We got a lift in a ‘64 Daimler driven by a ZZ top reject who was really nice.  We had a look at the glacier.  The up-side to having our booking for the helicopter cancelled due to rain was that we were treated to the most stunning rainbows across the glacier.  You simply can't pre-book a rainbow.

The scenery was heart-achingly beautiful. I wished I was spending more time here. 

We decided to hitch hike back to the hostel and two English girls stopped to give us a lift.  They mentioned they were going to the Glacier in the next valley and we asked could we go too.  It was even more beautiful and the four of us had a great day together.  They were teachers on a career break too.  We planned to meet up with them in Wanaka the next night.  That’s where we would make our fifth attempt at a sky dive or Fiona was going to be requesting the emergency exit on her flight to Australia!
Fiona and I enjoying the signage at Fox Glacier, New Zealand, 2003

Byddi Lee

Friday, January 8, 2016

When the worst things turn out to be the best things...

2016 is bringing us big changes. We are not sure where we'll wash up after it all. It's scary and exciting all at once. Here's what's happening... My Husband's contract finishes up this month and he'll be looking for a new job. But before he does, we are going to take a few months out and travel. (If robbers are reading this and you know were we live, please note that we have hired a man with a vicious dog, who does martial arts (the man not the dog!) to house-sit while we are away. Or maybe we haven't ... but would you risk it?   *Narrowed eyes* - I don't think so...!)

Anyways, one of the places we will visit is New Zealand. I've been there before. Back in 2002 I embarked upon a two-year-long trip around the world. It was on the heels of a divorce and I believed that the only way to heal my broken heart then was to travel. What a way to self medicate! It forced me out of myself, to experience life at a time when I really just wanted to curl up and wither away. Like many things, I've discovered in my life - sometimes the worst things that have happened to me have turned out to be the best things that have happened to me.

My trip began in 2002 in South Africa for 7 months, where I worked as a volunteer on a Dolphin and Whale research project and learned to dive there. Then I went to Australia for 3 months and dived the Great Barrier reef for a couple of weeks. New Zealand 6 weeks, Fiji 2 weeks, then the Canadian Rockies for 10 months where I fulfilled a dream of being a ski instructor for a season. A quick 6 week tour of  the US and then back home to Belfast to teach Biology in 2004. Shortly after, I met the love of my life and married him in 2006.

During my travels, I kept a journal, which I emailed home periodically. These emails were  typically written in internet cafe's where I had to pay for internet time. So I had to write quickly and hadn't much time to edit. The writing was rough, first-drafty, misspelled with terrible grammar, but entertaining enough that many of the recipients told me that I should make it into a book - Eat, Pray, Love beat me to it!

My Husband has never been to New Zealand, so we decided to incorporate that in our Pacific Rim trip in the next few months. I pulled out my old journals and reread them. I enjoyed them so much that I decided  to attempt to correct the grammar and spelling and present it as a kind of "throw back" blog post in the weeks coming up to our departure - you know - in between putting away things that the giant ninja dog might chew while we're gone - yeah, maybe the dog does do martial arts too!

There are some foot notes with it to help give context and one XXXed out name because I haven't had the chance to ask that person if I can publish that name. Fiona - my travel buddy and all round wonderful person, didn't mind me using her name.

Though I journaled through South Africa and Australia, I'm sticking with the New Zealand section. When I get there in March I can use it as a comparison. We pick up the story in April 2003 as I fly into Auckland...





A Change in Climate

Flying into Auckland, I was struck by how green everything was.  Considering it was nearly ten months since I had seen so much green, I could really understand now how foreigners perceive Ireland.

Anyway, the best way to describe the difference between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand was this: If each country was like a new house being built then Australia hadn't even started the landscaping of its grounds.  South Africa had started. It has fountains, ponds and water features, i.e. the hard-scaping in place and was waiting for the plants to grow in. New Zealand had fully matured grounds with water features, gazebos, mazes, the works.  It truly was a beautiful landscape.

I arrived in Auckland and met up with a girl I went to school with.  Fiona was travelling around the world too, but in the opposite direction. By coincidence we happened to be in New Zealand at the same time.  It was great to see her again, especially as New Zealand was the first place I've come to where I hadn't had the luxury of knowing any locals to meet up with.  So we decided to do the Kiwi Experience together.  This was a hop-on-hop-off bus trip system similar to the Oz experience I had already done on the way up the east coast of Australia.

My Dad had told me that his friend's son was in New Zealand, but he wasn't sure where. He was finding out the contact details for me.  In the meantime, Fiona and I wandered into an Irish bar, for a bowl of soup for lunch. The barman, upon hearing our accents, asked us where we were from.  When told him we were from Armagh, he said he was too. I started laughing and said, "Are you XXXX Mc XXXXX?"
He looked a bit concered, in a “Who wants to know way?” But yes, it was my Dad's friend's son.  We couldn't believe it - and we got a free soup.

On Friday, we started the Kiwi Experience and arrived up in Paihia.  That first afternoon we booked to do a swimming-with-dolphins tour.  I was a bit "dolphined1 out" but thought it would be cool to actually swim with them.  Unfortunately, when we did eventually find a pod of bottlenose dolphins, they had young with them. According to New Zealand law, we couldn't swim with them because of this.  I still enjoyed watching them, so it wasn't a wasted journey.  The boat trip was a bit cold.  The weather was like the start of autumn, on a good day at home2, but I'd been spoiled by too much sunshine and heat. I was feeling the nip in the air.  When we got back to land, we spent a couple of hours lazing in natural hot pools in a place nearby.  It stank of sulphur, but you did get used to it after a while.

Next day, we boarded the J. Tucker tall ship for a voyage around the Bay of Islands.  I got to drive the ship, well steer it I suppose. Many of the crew commented on the fact that that never usually sailed so close to one of the little rocky islands that we passed.  I don't think they were complimenting my navigational skills, which were; let's face it, getting an international reputation3.  Anyway disaster was averted by the skipper taking over, and we had a glorious trip.  Back on land, we capitulated to the New Zealand climate and went shopping.  A pair of gloves, beaney hat, thermal undies and a lovely pink fleece later, and I felt better equipped to deal with the Kiwi climate.

That evening, Fiona and I went to the pub quiz in the nearby (too near really) bar and came fourth, winning a large pizza for our efforts.  Next day, we had a sleep in and then went kayaking in the Bay of Islands.  It was Fiona's first ever time in a kayak, and she coped admirably.  In fact, we spent a long time mutually congratulating each other.  Fiona, on her new found paddling skills, and me, on my prowess as a teacher.
Kiwi Experience was already starting to go the same route as the Australia Experience.  We were constantly bumping into people we met along the way and were making lots of new friends.  I even bumped into a guy one night from Bangor, Co. Down who I’d met on one of the dive boats in Cairns.  Fiona was amazed.  She would get used to it.  We were going to be tripping over lots of people the whole way round New Zealand.

New Zealand was truly beautiful.  Dare I say even more so than South Africa and Australia.  There was a lovely atmosphere, despite the chill in the air, and I was already wishing I had more time here.  My advice to people thinking of a trip to both Australia and New Zealand –  give yourself plenty of time for New Zealand.

As I walked up to the hostel this evening the sun was setting over the Bay of Islands. It was simply stunning.  The Bay was practically landlocked and within it were scattered dozens of little islands.  The water was a perfect mirror of a pink and bronze sky. Simply looking at that kind of thing fills the soul.  Once more, I think someone up there was watching over me and will continue to as long as I let him, or her.

1 - I had volunteered on a Dolphin and Whale Project for three month while I’d been in South Africa.
2 - “Home” means Ireland.
3 - This refers to a diving incident on the Great Barrier Reef that resulted in me and my buddy having to be twoed (by speed boat) back to the ship because we’d “lost” the ship and gone quite far off course.
Pretty tame so far. Let's see how long that lasts for!

Byddi Lee