travelling with Beanie

The land of the Maori & volcanic hot springs - Rotorua by Marek Charytonowicz

Rotorua disappointed us a bit. In our heads we painted a picture of a nice lakeside town with Maori culture visible on every step. What welcomed us was wide streets with supermarkets, car rentals, garages, motels and all other services on either side.  

It felt like we're entering a large city and just crossing it's busy, ugly suburb with all the big warehouse businesses. Even our camping ground (luckily - nice and cosy) was squeezed between a busy road and a tools warehouse. The nearby park had natural hot springs bubbling hot sulphur water but the wind was keeping the eggy smell away from this area.

We booked a Maori experience at Te Puia Maori Centre for the evening and we decided to lazy around for half a day for a change and do some camping chores. 

Te Puia Maori Centre was a nicely designed complex of small buildings next to large area of hot spring with an impressive geyser that was shooting water up to 30 meters every hour or so. The centre also housed traditional carving school and a small kiwi sanctuary where during the day one could see this unofficial symbol of New Zealand. Because our tour was in the late afternoon, we didn't get to see the kiwis nor the carving school unfortunately. Instead with other 30 people or so we were greeted by our guide and taken to a large wooden house where a group of Maori artists presented a show consisting of some traditional dancing, chanting, singing and a facts about their culture. They even invited the public to join them in dances (women) and attempt to do a haka (men). I definitely need to work on sticking out my tongue while rolling my eyes a bit more.

After the show we were taken to another house nearby for a welcome feast - hangi. Traditionally it is cooked on rocks heated by volcanic hot springs - in this case only some dishes were. I'm sorry to say it wasn't impressive. The food was good and very tasty but instead of expected fully traditional cuisine it was a combination of that and regular tourist oriented food - including seafood and pavlova. We did enjoy the meal and sneaked out to see the geyser and hot springs. These were quite spectacular and we even managed to see the geyser shooting water in the setting sun. 

Overall we left the experience with mixed feelings. Maori culture seems to be everywhere in names of places, language, symbols of New Zealand. It seems extremely interesting and colourful and we really wanted to learn more about it. We chose this experience because it was recommended but I'm not sure if it delivered what we expected. We had a little chat with our guide during the evening and he explained the reality. It's the tourism industry that works both ways: on one side keeps the traditions alive and needed, on the other side tailors them to what customer wants to pay for. It's sad to watch when one sees pavlova competing with traditional hangi - all cooked by a Chinese chef - and winning. 

Our group was the last one and we got to the camping ground in the evening. It was a good day and the next one was about to bring even more excitement.

We were going to try a zorb!

Welcome to Narnia - Cathedral Cove by Marek Charytonowicz

When we arrived in New Zealand we didn't really have a detailed plan of what we're going to do and when. We had a few places marked on the map around north part of North Island and that was all. After the first day we realised that we actually have very little time for what we want to see and we need to organise our route or miss some things and waste time.

That's why we decided the second day to take it easy and only go to nearby Hahei Beach with the famous Cathedral Cove, stay there and plan the New Zealand journey properly.

Hahei Beach was only half an hour away and we decided to find a cafe and regroup. The weather was nice and sunny and within an hour we had a pretty much full route across both islands. We didn't have much time as it turned out - only 19 days for both islands. It was going to be busy.

But for now it was an acclimatisation day - we checked into a beautiful camping ground and parked 15 meters form the beach under a massive pine tree. The ocean turned out to be refreshingly chilly - no more Australian soup! We sat on the beach for a couple of hours and decided to go and see the Cathedral Cove - a nearby wonder of nature. 

We used a water taxi to get there - 5 minute ride to avoid 2 hour walk up the hill. We were the only passengers on the little motorboat with tide coming in fast and waves getting higher. Five minutes later we reached a secluded little beach with a crowd of people waiting to be picked up to get back to town.

The Cathedral Cove is a limestone cave that links it with the Mare's Leg Cove. One can cross from one to the other under a majestic ceiling - which was used in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian as the entrance to the world of Narnia. It's beautiful and unfortunately very crowded. We stayed there for a short swim, a bathe in a small waterfall and then took a winding path along the cliffs back to town. 

The picturesque walk took us alongside the Gemstone Bay and Stingray Bay all the way to Hahei Beach. We discovered a little rope swing on the beach and became little kids again.

Later we had a nice dinner in a local cafe and enjoyed an evening by the camper van. The tranquility of camping life, we could get used to that...

Digging a pool on a beach - the Hot Water Beach of the Coromandel Peninsula by Marek Charytonowicz

At 10 o'clock we met Britz, our camper van. Small enough to fit within a 'car' category, big enough to be our mobile home for the next 19 days on the winding roads of New Zealand. It was a white Toyota Hiace, with mini kitchen, gas hob, microwave and a fridge. Several hidden bench compartments and a back door board that opened as a bed completed the picture. It also had another sleeping area positioned just under the roof that we could unfold - but we decided it's perfect for all our bags and spare bedsheets. 

We named it Bruno Britz although originally I wanted to call it Sabs Moving Castle. We liked it - it looked friendly and cosy next to the serious camper vans parked beside it. We dropped our bags on the floor and set off to the nearest supermarket to fill it up with provisions. 

Our plan for today was modest - a two hour drive to the Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula on East Coast of the North Island. The sand of this famous beach was hiding several hot volcanic springs and one could use a shovel to dig himself a little spa pool on the beach.

The roads turned out to be great - well maintained, up to 100km an hour and crossing the most beautiful landscapes we could imagine. New Zealand was definitely rising to the challenge and amazing us with dense forests, green fields to the horizon and rolling hills that any Hobbit would appreciate. After a while we entered Coromandel Peninsula and the road became winding and enclosed in beautiful forest. It felt like being in Europe again if it wasn't for the giant ferns that gave New Zealand the shape of its national symbol. It was warm and sunny with small white clouds like from the Simpsons painted on the blue sky.

We reached Hot Water Beach and our first campsite in the evening - the Top 10 Holiday Park. It was a nice quiet place with all the amenities and only 2 minute walk from the beach. We parked, connected the electricity and organised our little home on wheels. It was the first camping night - for both of us the first camper van camping in our lives.

Later on armed with a shovel we walked to the small beach. There were a few surfers there and the South Pacific was basking in the sunset. 

The idea with the Hot Water Beach is that during the low tide you dig a little pool in the sand and the hot springs running under the beach will fill it up with hot water - and you've got a handmade spa.  When we arrived, there were already a few people there sitting in their holes. I must say - it looked a crowd of rather large children playing in mud and building sand castles. Every now and then a wave would come and flood the sand holes and everyone would frantically start digging and repairing the wall around their little pools.

Laughing we joined the group and realised that once you find a hot spring and dig a pool - sitting in hot water and watching the sunset is a rather nice experience. Especially that since we came early - we could observe other people going through the same efforts of finding the spot, digging, securing from the waves. a jolly crowd of grown up kids on the beach. Priceless!

After that we cooked our first camper meal, quickly turned the kitchen into a bedroom and drifted away under chilly starry sky. The first day was done and we were officially camper van folk now.

Kia ora - welcome to the Middle Earth! by Marek Charytonowicz

At 5:45 am we jumped in a cab and got to the airport to fly to Auckland. The New Zealand adventure was beginning and we were excited and very sleepy. Three hours of beautiful ocean views later we landed in the land of mountains, Maori, Kiwis and Hobbits. It was already afternoon - three hours ahead of Brisbane time and we immediately jumped from 9 to 12-hour time difference from home. 

New Zealand welcomed us with long customs control. Bringing any food or plants to the islands is not allowed to avoid contaminating the local flora and for us that means giving up all the matchbox seeds found on the beach in Port Douglas. Apparently they bring luck when found so it seemed like we gave away around 8 pieces of it. When we finally managed to convince the officers that we don't have any more biological weapons that may threaten New Zealand in our bags, we were greeted by a three meter stone statue of a Dwarf Warrior - a movie prop from The Lord Of The Rings - temporarily residing at the airport and welcoming travellers to Middle Earth. I couldn't wait to see the locations used in the trilogy by Peter Jackson - it was like a child's dream coming true at least!

An hour later we were making ourselves comfortable in Quality Hotel Purnell. A place that needs 'quality' in its name immediately sounds suspicious - especially when a day earlier we watched John Oliver ridiculing Donald Trump (read Drumpf) and using our hotels' golden logo as a ironic example of bad branding. The hotel wasn't too bad though and at least the area was nice and a walk away from the city centre. 

We didn't plan to stay long in Auckland. We only had one evening to have a sneak peek at the city and grab a bite - in a strange place called Woodpecker which was an unexpected fusion between Canadian axe man grill bar and Thai restaurant - but served good food nonetheless. We did a short walk to see the harbour and have a drink. It was much colder than in Brisbane and now we appreciated the long sleeved shirts and jumpers that used to be a dead weight in Australia.

The next day we were about to pick up our camper van. With no prior experience in driving one that itself was looking like an adventure... 

Kat, Ned & Scout - Brisbane by Marek Charytonowicz

Brisbane welcomed us with cloudy skies and it was a bit of a shock to be back in a city. We knew that the reality of travelling is to say goodbye to one place just to welcome another adventure but some goodbyes are more difficult than others. 

The good thing was we were about to see our friends Ned and Kat again, play with their little Rhodesian - Scout and see Brisbane for a couple of days. It was very nice - spending time with them, chatting and cooking together. We felt very welcomed and it was great to see them again.

Brisbane itself turned out to be a bit moody with us - out of the two days we had there, the first we spent in a cafe on Southbank, surrounded by pouring down rain and not really feeling like trying to walk around and see anything. Instead, we spent a few hours planning our New Zealand leg of the trip and then relaxed at home playing with Scout who's infinite amount of energy and love was constant fun for us. 

We both love dogs and it turned out we both love Rhodesian Ridgebacks - especially when they're 4 months old and you have all the time in the world to play with them. One day she will be much bigger and stronger but for now it was all about running around, wrestling and barking.

The second day Brisbane was much more accommodating and the dun finally showed its face. We spent it walking around Southbank up to the Kangaroo Point. We crossed the massive Story Bridge on foot and explored Fortitude Valley and area around Central Station. Brisbane was finally nice - a slow paced city with large river going across it and beautiful green areas. We liked it but we were longing for outdoors again - as it turned out we got used to countryside life a bit.

That night we cooked a thank you dinner for Ned and Kat and said our goodbyes. They've been great hosts and made us feel really at home. Thank you! Till the next time!

Goodbye Byron Bay by Marek Charytonowicz

We knew we were going to miss Byron before time came to say goodbye. It is a great place to stay for longer and no surprise it attracts so many people. It seem to offer a little bit of everything - great lazy beach time, surfing spots for beginners and pros alike, treks and walks around town, a few galleries, good restaurants and great cafes and some great musicians that busk on the streets.

We took it all in over those two weeks. We relaxed on the beach, jumped waves and just sun bathed on the sand. We did long walks to see the lighthouse with its spectacular views over the bay and discovered Beach Cafe with amazing mango smoothies on the way there.

We had a blast learning to surf with Gaz and Rhys - not only because we got to love the feeling of surfing a wave - but also because of the great easygoing and laid back attitude of those two dudes. Each time it was hard work paddling, frustration of trying to catch a wave and finally the ecstasy of riding one with nothing but a wobbly board under your feet. And although the whole experience was delayed three days due to weather conditions, it was worth the wait and we'll never forget it.

Byron for us was also hanging around town, visiting various local shops, trying food and coffee in some great spots around town and catching performances of local musicians - like Garrett Kato, a Canadian songwriter whom we discovered accidentally passing by his busking performance. He was very very good - and you can judge it yourself here on Spotify. He was also a nice chap and we chatted about common musical tastes and suggested visiting London for some performances. Who knows, maybe one day we'll listen to him on our side of the world.

We did yoga and tried delightful wood oven pizza at the Tree House and indulge in tons of ice creams at the Beaches & Cream. And we spent hours watching surfers braving the waves of the swell. It was epic.

So we packed our bags and boarded the Greyhound with heavy hearts wishing that we could stay longer. We didn't really know how much longer, a few days, a few weeks... just longer.

The Protesters Falls by Marek Charytonowicz

We have been in Byron Bay for almost two weeks now and have done nothing but the beach activities. We loved that but we thought we need a break and we rented a small Kia Rio  for a day to get out of town and see the area a bit more.

The ocean decided to take a break from people too - a massive swell, an aftermath of the Cyclone Winston that hit Fiji only several days before, brought large waves and turned the beach into a whirlpool of sea foam. It looked spectacular but unless you were a. good surfer, it was better to stay away.

So instead we packed a few things and headed to the other side of Cape Byron to see a few places that Rhys - our surfing teacher had recommended. We reached Broken Head and then Lennox Head - small seaside town with a few nice cafes and shops. Their beaches - facing directly east - were both a whirlpool of massive waves and a sea foam from the swell. Quite a view that makes you feel a bit of respect for the forces of nature.

After that we decided to head inland and check out one of the nearby waterfalls - the Protesters Falls - that one of the shopkeepers in Lennox Head recommended. It took around an hour of winding country roads. At one point we attempted to find a hidden waterfall that an ice cream parlour owner in Byron Bay suggested to us. He gave us a hand drawn map  that we tried to follow but after some time of following a gravel road we found only massive potholes and a concrete 3 meter dragon guarding a road cross. Yes, a dragon - beautifully sculpted from some sort of concrete or clay.

We turned around and went straight to Protesters Falls instead - deep into the forest. 

The falls bears its name to commemorate the first successful social protests held in 1979 to change the conservation laws to stop the extensive logging of the forest. These protests and their outcome turned out to be one of the most important moments in Australian nature conservation history.

The falls were a 10 minute walk through the dense forest that brought to mind Daintree Forest with its giant ferns, tall trees and rocky path weaving its way among the vegetation. From time to time you would hear aloud crack and a massive dried palm leaf would fall down on the ground tearing its way through the canopy. It felt like being Indiana Jones about to discover an ancient treasure.

The treasure turned out to be a stunning 30 meter thin waterfall falling into a small rocky pond surrounded by lush rainforest and rocks. There was only one more couple there, quietly enjoying the sounds of the forest. The pond and waterfall was cold and refreshing - but it's not a comfortable swimming place as the bottom of he shallow pool is very rocky with a few tree trunks so it's easy to slip and hit yourself. What we also didn't know is that it's actually not allowed to swim here because of the mosquito repellent and sunscreen dissolving in water and endangering the local population of Fleay's Barred Frogs down the stream. Too late a discovery.

We spend a couple of hours there, simply taking in the forest atmosphere, the water spray rainbows in the sun, the sounds and the solitude of this place. It was a refreshing change after busy Byron Bay and we needed it.

It was difficult to leave this hidden gem and go back. In Byron we went for a walk and it looked like the swell is finally going down so we were looking forward to two more days possibly on the beach. Waves or no waves - the ocean always looks so tempting!

Breath slowly & steadily and never ever hold your breath - PADI course part I by Marek Charytonowicz

Living for a moment in a place like Byron Bay inspires you. Firstly to learn surfing - when you watch all those people young and old picking their boards or all shapes and sizes and running to the waves to surf them, get tumbled, get up and surf them again. It's a spectacle that we loved watching from the beach but even more wanted to try ourselves.

And secondly - it make you want to learn diving. After doing the two introductory dives on the Great Barrier Reef I really wanted to do the PADI Open Water diver course - the entry to the diving world, that usually takes only a few days to complete and can be partially done online. 

I've enrolled to the online theoretical part right after doing the dives in Port Douglas - just to do it in my spare time and when an opportunity arrises - do the practical part somewhere during the journey. The opportunity happened to be now and I signed up for the course in one of the local diving shops - the Sundive Byron Bay. The course was supposed to start on Tuesday and take three days of practical training - under the condition that I complete the theory part on my own.

It turned out that the theory takes time - almost 10 hours of it if one wants to read everything but skip the videos. I finished at half past one am on Tuesday morning. Seven hours later I was at a small pool of a local backpacker hostel, staring at a pile of diving equipment among other eight participants of the course. I was excited - being under water has always been the most relaxing experience for me and I loved doing lengths at the pool underwater almost touching the bottom. 

The pool training was interesting - two instructors were methodically going through a number of exercises and skills that we were supposed to learn and demonstrate practically. Because a pool is a controlled environment, it's easier to learn there. Once this is done, the skills are then repeated in an open water environment- lake, sea or ocean. One needs to successfully complete the pool training and four ocean dives to gain the PADI Open Water Diver certificate.

Our pool training was great fun but the 9 participants and tiny pool made it look like fish in a bucket at Christmas - overcrowded, bumping into one another and unable to swim. I liked it though and after a day of that I was exhausted but happy and looking forward to the next day when we were to start the ocean dives.

That part unfortunately never happened. When I showed up at 7am at the diving shop the next day, my instructor told me that all of the dives are on hold for the next five days due to the weather - Cyclone Winston brought swell that made the only local diving spot inaccessible most likely till next week. The week when we're already in Brisbane. The one good thing was that Sundive decided to not charge me for the pool training - I'm not entirely sure why, but it was a very nice gesture from their side.

Tough luck. I was very disappointed. The diving spot here - Julian's Rocks -  is the only rocky place in the sandy bay which means that all of the marine life is sheltering there - sharks, smaller fish, manta rays, turtles. But if you can not safely anchor a boat out there, you can't go down to see all this beauty.

I started researching where else I can finish the course on a referral basis and decided that our few days in Sydney is a perfect opportunity to do so. So it looks like I will spend two days under water after all!

Hanging loose - surfing with Gaz and Rhys by Marek Charytonowicz

After three days of waiting we finally got the call that our surfing lessons are a go. The water conditions improved and large waves were no longer pounding in the shallows.

We were excited. Byron Bay is well known for its surfing conditions. Here the Coral Sea to the north meets the Tasman Sea in the south. Cape Byron protrudes into the Pacific Ocean and forms the most easterly point of the Australian mainland with a white lighthouse guarding the rocky cliffs. On one side of the peninsula it's got the Tallow Beach with large waves coming straight from the open ocean and causing strong rips - the domain of the skilled surfers. On the other side though, it has The Pass where waves slide alongside gently curved shoreline and travel uninterrupted carrying surfers for a long period of time. This is where learning takes place and it's a beautiful place to do that.

We were picked up by Rhys - tall, rugged, hippie looking guy with piercing slightly creepy blue eyes and very laid back attitude. A few years earlier he won the Australian Masterchef title and now he spends half of the year teaching surfing and the other half cooking on a luxury yacht sailing around Australia. He arrived in an old noisy van with trailer loaded with surfboards and a few more people already inside. 

Fifteen minutes later we were at a parking lot, put on worn out red rasher vests and met Gaz - even more rugged and weathered looking older Australian with bleached blond long hair, dreadlocked in places and a great sense of humour. He was the owner of the surfing school that was his secondary activity after playing golf all the time. He's been surfing all his life and he had a straightforward non bullshit approach to learning. Basically - take the board and just do it. 

We picked the boards and marched to the beach where he gave us a 10 minute introduction to the surfing theory - quoting "you look up at the beach, you surf to the beach, you look down at fish, you swim with the fish" and "name your board, love your board, look at the wave and banana!". Armed with that in depth knowledge and hefty amount cheese of jokes from Gaz, we grabbed out surfboards and headed into the ocean. Very excited and slightly scared of waves breaking in front of us.

The idea was we stay closer to Gaz and Rhys, lie flat on the board and when the right wave comes they will launch us, we'll do a banana and stand up - hopefully surfing the wave to the beach.  Surprisingly this tactics seemed to work - we were standing on boards and surfing the waves!!! 

And what a feeling it was - you put a lot of effort into paddling, your arms turn into heavy blocks and every move hurts, you're flat on the board, you see a wave coming, nobody on it - you're good to go. You turn around, start paddling like crazy and just when you feel it on the end of your board breaking you lift your torso on your hands into a banana shape (this prevents the board from diving down and lifts up the end of it). Suddenly you feel the powerful kick of the water - the wave takes the board and sends you forward really fast. You jump up to standing position, look at the beach and.... you're surfing! 

And despite the fact that this is just a basic type - no turns, tunnels, jumps - the feeling is amazing, only you, water and a simple board, nothing more. Im nothing more than a beginner but I can feel that this makes you get to know water like no other sport. You're so close and personal with the wave and you forget about the world around you for a moment. A truly amazing feeling. 

We did three classes overall across the next week. Each time we were getting slightly better and were given a bit more freedom - to start paddling and try to catch our own waves. Each time it was great fun, we were leaving bruised, tired, wet and happy! We wanted to learn more, start turning, start feeling we can control the board. We loved it and we were looking forward to trying it later on during the journey. Perhaps the waves of Bali would be good for us!

The joy of nothing - the lazy days of Byron Bay by Marek Charytonowicz

As much as we were sad to leave the boat and Whitsunday Islands, Airlie Beach left no impression. It was a backpacker oriented gateway to the islands but for us it wasn't really a place worth staying for longer. So we gladly boarded a small Virgin Australia plane to get to Brisbane to see Ned & Kat as a stopover to explore the Gold Coast and finally immerse ourselves in surfing and beach life. 

Meeting Ned & Kat was awesome - I used to work with this guy back in London for a year and apart from being one of the best designers I've ever met, he was also probably the kindest guy on the planet. I haven't seen him for over three years and it was nice to visit him, his wife Kat and their 4 months old Rhodesian Ridgeback pup - Scout, in their new beautiful house in the suburb of Brisbane. 

This stay was short - only a weekend. We spent our time with them walking the dog and exploring their lovely neighbourhood. We had great time and they made us feel very welcome and helped with all the arrangements for the next leg of the trip. On Sunday we visited nearby waterfalls with a swimming hole and attempted to lit up a bbq in a Bear Grylls style - using a wet wood found in the forest around. Well, we did light it up but it was more of a meat smoking spot than a barbecue so we moved to a gas powered one and finally had the meal. Swimming in the waterhole was awesome - cold and refreshing - with an added excitement of meeting a half-a-meter local eel. It was a great weekend!

On Monday morning we boarded a Greyhound bus and headed to Byron Bay - an amazing little seaside town, known for its surfing opportunities and generally laid back lifestyle. It turned out - this kind of beach bum way of life was what we love and we spent almost a week simply lazying around before attempting any water sports.

We checked in into our apartment which was to become our home for the next two weeks and hit the beach - a spectacular many miles long stretch of golden sand with big turquoise waves crashing on the shallows and sending sea spray in the air.

Finally - contrary to Port Douglas - the ocean was cooling!   So... we spent most of the first week jumping the waves, lying in the sun or in the sun tent, observing people, observing surfers and bodyboarders braving the waves - and generally relaxing.

We tried morning yoga and afternoon massages that left us bruised and happy. We drank amazing coffee in the morning and ate breakfast at home or in one of the cafes recommended by our apartment's manager (a middle age British lady, clearly enjoying her Byron life and knowing all about everything worth knowing here). We went for long walks on the beach with the famous Byron Bay lighthouse sending long ray of light deep into the evening sky and we sipped amazing margaritas in Miss Margarita bar on the main street. We cooked dinners at home and found probably the best laksa we ever had at Red Hot & Green restaurant. 

The joy of nothing at its best!

At the end of the week we booked our surfing class. And I booked my PADI Open Water diving course. The next week was looking really busy in comparison already....