London: Day 2 – a little bit of London

With the birthday celebrations done, we were ready to get to know London a little bit better. The best way is to just walk it so we signed up for a walking tour with London Walks. I chose them for two reasons –  affordable pricing and no prior booking necessary. You just show up for the walk that you want at the noted location, pay your £10 (£8 for seniors and kids are free!) and you are set to go. I have mentioned in previous posts the importance of flexibility when travelling with kids which is why our preferred tours are usually private ones as we could go at our own pace. As everything is expensive in London, hiring a private tour guide was not within our budget. London Walks offered a different kind of flexibility in that we could decide last minute to do a tour (or not) just by showing up. So if I had a kid that wasn’t feeling well I wouldn’t be out of pocket for a tour that I had already paid for. Since this was our first time in London, I chose the Hello London! tour. I was very happy with our guide, the pace of the tour and the walk itself. Take a look at some of the things we saw during our walk…

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National treasury building. Churchill’s war room can be found in the basement.

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North entrance of Westminster Abbey

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Great west door and towers of Westminster Abbey (door used by the royals)

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Our tour guide shared many interesting tidbits of historical and architectural information during the tour. For example, this doorway was extra wide to allow for a sedan chair to be carried inside to load the wealthy resident(s) so that s/he wouldn’t have to set foot outside and get their boots muddy. The front stoop also serves as a nice rest spot for tired children;)

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Street along St. James Park

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Changing of the the guards for Buckingham Palace

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Police escorts for the guards as apparently the guards needed guarding.

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At the Crimean War Memorial

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Spring has come to London

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This was the ride of either an ambassador or royal. Apparently the elite of London still travel by horse and carriage. Followed by car escort no less.

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Incredibly there are still an abundance of phone booths in London. I can’t remember the last time I saw one in Toronto.

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Buckingham Palace

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The National Gallery, London

After the tour, we grabbed a quick lunch and headed on the tube to the Tower of London. At one time in its history it served as a royal residence, home of the royal menagerie and of course royal prison. Current famous ghosts in residence: Anne Boleyn, Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey, Margaret Pole and the Princes in the Tower (rumoured to be Edward V, King of England and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York who disappeared when they were 12 and 9 years of age after their father died and they were left in the care of their uncle who later became Richard III, King of England).

Most museums in London are free to visit, but the Tower of London is not one of them. In fact, it’s quite pricey at a cost of £57.80 ($104.75 CAD) for a family of two adults and up to three children. We weren’t sure it would be worth the cost but it turned out to be an excellent way to teach the children about some of the history of England and is one of the highlights of London for us. One of the best parts that I didn’t get a photo of is the interactive exhibits at the top floor of the White Tower. The kids loved learning how to wield a sword and how much strength was needed to draw a bow. And of course I didn’t get a photo of the crown jewels but trust me when I say they are there;) Here are some things that I did photograph…

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The impressive almost 1000 year old Tower of London. The White Tower can be seen to the left of centre. The grass is where the moat would have been.

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One of 33 Yeoman Warders, guardians of the Tower of London since 1485. Also known as Beefeaters. In order to be selected as a Yeoman Warder they have to be retired from the armed forces after at least 22 years of service with a medal for long service and good conduct. One of the benefits of this position is that they and their families get to reside in the Tower. One of their duties is to lead free tours through the Tower complex;)

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Courtyard inside the Tower. Tower Bridge is just peeking through the background.

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Inside this building lies the Crown Jewels of England

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Guarding the crown jewels. I’m pretty sure the one guard is saying to the other guard “I can’t see a thing with this bear fur on my head”.

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The armoury inside the White Tower

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Inside the tower grounds with another view of Tower Bridge

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The Thames with Tower Bridge once again in the background

And that wraps up day two!

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London – All things Harry Potter

Our first full day (after having arrived late the night before) was not our typical exploration of the city we were in but instead was a headlong dive into the world of Harry Potter in celebration of our daughter’s 12th birthday. We did however start the day off the English way with the perfect breakfast for the birthday girl…

When they say full, they mean full. The English know how to do breakfast.

Once our tanks were filled up we headed out to figure out The London Underground and get to our first destination of King’s Cross where we would find platform 9 3/4 so we could get to Hogwarts.

Found the platform but had to engage in a little magical battle

We would consider The Underground fairly easy to figure out and navigate after having travelled through similar public transportation systems in many cities around the world. The most efficient and best value is to get yourself an oyster card for £5 (just over $9 CAD) and add any amount in increments of £5 as the fare for riders with the oyster card is half the price of the fare for a single journey ticket. Additionally children under the age of 11 travel free, children under 16 travel at a children’s fare (about half the price) but unfortunately there are no seniors fares for visitors.

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The oyster card for public transport in London

My mom (who joined us on this English adventure) at King’s Cross Underground Station.

After having found Platform 9 3/4 we were off to Hogwarts via a ride on The Underground to Euston Station, then a ride on the London Overground to Watford Junction (15 minute on direct train, 40 minute on other trains), followed by a shuttle bus ride to Warner Bros Studio tour London. We spent approximately 3.5 hours there and the kids loved it! Warning: Hogwarts is not cheap (but not much is in London) at a cost of £124 ($226 CAD) for a family of four plus £48.95 ($89 CAD) for an additional adult ticket with audio guide and souvenir guide book for the birthday girl.

The Overground train

One of the shuttle buses that travel between Watford Junction station and Warner Bros Studio Tour London. Cost: £2.5 round trip per rider.

Entrance to the studio tour

The birthday people got the privilege of opening the door to Hogwarts

Hogwarts Great Hall

Sometimes. But the mischief is strong in this one.

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The wand chooses you kids, not the other way around.

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Ready to fly

 

These three do not look like they are in need of urgent transport from the Knight Bus

Hogwarts Express pulling in

The potion room

Incredible model of Hogwarts that took 12 weeks just to assemble

We ended the day just as we started – the English way – a stop in the pub. We chose the pub across the street from Watford Junction for the convenience, ambiance and by the shuttle bus driver’s raving English review “it’s not bad as far as pubs go”;) It was an excellent choice where the food was good, the beer was plentiful and the prices were reasonable compared to London.

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Great pub if you’re ever in Watford Junction

 

Teotihuacan, Mexico

We took a day trip from Mexico City to visit the archaeological site of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan is an ancient Mesoamerican city believed to have been established around 100 BC (well before the Aztecs). It was the largest city in the Americas at its peak with an estimated population of more than 125,000. Today, it is the most visited site in Mexico and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Trying to capture the size of Teotihuacan’s 83 square kilometres. View from the Pyramid of the Moon of the Pyramid of the Sun (left) and the Avenue of the Dead.

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At the entrance:)

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View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Moon.

 

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Walking on the Avenue of the Dead heading towards the Pyramid of the Moon. The Avenue was once lined with ceremonial platforms topped with temples.

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The temple of Quetzalcoatl in the Ciudadela (enclosed compound that could hold 100,000 people) which was likely the city’s marketplace.

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Looking up at the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world after the Great Pyramid of Cholula (in Puebla, Mexico) and the Great Pyramid of Giza (in El Giza, Egypt).

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There were a lot of steps to climb!

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Proof we climbed the Pyramid of the Sun:)

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Close up of the Pyramid of the Moon. The upper portion is closed to visitors.

 

 

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We were fortunate to share our visit to Teotihuacan with our friends in Mexico. Our children and we were grateful for their friendship and company during our whole visit in Mexico.

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The reward after hours of walking and climbing:)

Visitors can easily visit the archaeological site on their own but we chose to hire a personal tour guide. One of the things we have learned in our travels is that sometimes a tour guide is worth the cost as it helps you get more out of a visit then you could on your own. This was true for our visit to Teotihuacan. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and made the history of Teotihuacan even more fascinating.

Mexico City, Mexico – Highlights

If it wasn’t clear in my first post, Mexico City has a lot to offer. Here are some of the highlights from our first four days. A highlight that is obviously missing will be the food. My apologies, I was too busy eating to take photos;) Enjoy!

Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Museum of Anthropology)

I think we have declared this to be the best museum we have ever visited. The museum’s collection and method of displaying its archaeological artifacts provided an impressive interpretation of the anthropological history of the area upon which Mexico is founded. An aspect I particularly loved was the life size outdoor exhibits where visitors could walk within the exhibit.

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One of the impressive outdoor exhibits.

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The interior courtyard of the museum surrounded by exhibition halls.

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The single pillar that supports the large concrete “umbrella” in the central courtyard.

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The most famous artifact in the museum’s collection is this original Aztec Sunstone.

Museo del Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor is an incredible active archaeological site in the very centre of Mexico City of one of the main temples of the Aztecs. Construction of the first temple likely  began sometime after 1325. Mexican pyramids were expanded by building on top of the pre-existing one. Templo Mayor went through six more expansions.

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An active archaeological site surrounded by the architecture of the Spanish colonial city that was built from the destruction of this Aztec temple.

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It appears the temple had the means to channel water.

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The archaeological site also has an informative museum where we learned about the use of colour by the Aztecs and were presented with the idea of how some of the objects may have looked like during their contemporary times.

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Wall of stone skulls. Aztecs were big on human sacrifice.

Palacio Nacional

Even though the Palacio Nacional no longer houses viceroys or presidents, it still houses many governmental offices. The main reason for visiting here is to see the famous Diego Rivera murals depicting Mexico’s history and identity.

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The royal chapel.

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The many arches of the interior patios of the palace.

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Looking up at Diego Rivera’s mural “the Conquest” in the main stairwell.

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Looking at the left panel of the main mural.

 

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One of 11 panels Rivera painted on the middle floor. Note how he painted the Spanish.

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My boys in front of another mural:)

 

Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe

The Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe is a Roman Catholic church, a basilica and a national shrine of Mexico rolled into one. It was apparently built on the site where Our Lady of Guadalupe (Blessed Virgin Mary) appeared to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. Pilgrimages have been made to this shrine almost uninterrupted since 1531.

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The old basilica.

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Inside the old basilica.

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Old basilica with its gold dome on the left. New basilica with its blue dome on the right.

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Parade of offers to the lady.

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A photo op can be had atop one of these majestic mounts against the incredible background:)

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Steps leading up and down from the shrine.

Xochimilco

Xochimilco is a borough in Mexico City recognised as a World Heritage Site due to its famous canals and chinampas (artificial islands). They are what remains of what was once a vast lake and canal system during the pre-Hispanic period.

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The many boats waiting to take visitors through Xochimilco’s famous canals. 

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A boat peddler selling blankets and ponchos.

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One of the canals with chinampas on either side.

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This one is for sale and if you’re lucky it will come with these three fierce watchdogs;)

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Mariachi bands ply their services in the canals. For 100 pesos you can have a band play you a song.

Frida Kahlo Museum (The Blue House or La Casa Azul)

La Casa Azul was the birthplace and home of the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It is also where she died and her ashes rest. After the death of her husband Diego Rivera, La Casa Azul became a museum in honour of Frida Kahlo. It houses works of art from Kahlo, Rivera and other artists along with Kahlo’s personal items. Despite the hefty admission fee (200 pesos per person) and the long line to get it in (usually about an hour), it is worth a visit.

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The entrance to La Casa Azul with its famous cobalt blue walls. Frida Kahlo left instructions on how to create this exact shade of blue.

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The line of people waiting to get in against the backdrop of the blue wall.

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A little photo session against the stunning blue wall while we waited in line:)

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Looking up to Kahlo’s studio space from the interior courtyard.

Coyoacan

Coyoacan is another one of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs. It has a charming atmosphere that exudes a peaceful bohemian vibe. It’s well worth a visit and would be a great place to station for an extended stay. There doesn’t seem to be any hotels in Coyoacan but B and B’s and vacation rentals appear to be plentiful.

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Side view of the Parish of San Juan Bautista from one of Coyoacan’s twin plazas. 

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One of Coyoacan’s many small cobblestoned streets.

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A lovely church in one of Coyoacan’s many small plazas.

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Stealing a kiss from Frida Kahlo despite Diego Rivera’s presence;)

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Another one of Coyoacan’s streets.

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One of many schools or museums that one can simply walk in and have a rest in its gardens. This one even offered free coffee as they believed that “if there’s coffee for one there should be coffee for all”:)

Phew as you can see we managed to really get around Mexico City and see alot during our few days there! We even managed a day trip out of the city to see the great pyramids of Teotihuacan. Coming up next!

Mexico City, Mexico – Impressions

In our travels, there have been places that have failed to live up to their reputation as a travel destination and then there are those that have surprised us that more people haven’t travelled there. Mexico City is one of those places. When there is little first hand accounts (other than that of the travel book writers) we end up travelling to a new city and a new country with preconceived notions of what that place is like. So it may be surprising to you that Mexico, specifically Mexico City is not a dangerous place infested with drug cartels and dragged down by the desperation of poverty. Mexico City as I see it is a city that is misunderstood (or at least carries an outdated reputation). Don’t get me wrong, Mexico City has its share of poverty and crime but you (or Trump) may be surprised to know that the US has eight times more total crimes than Mexico and specifically six times more violent crimes (source).

The reality is… Mexico City is a city that prides itself on its grand architectural and cultural history. It is a city that celebrates art of all forms. It is a city with possibly more impressive galleries and museums than any other city in the world. It is a city with a myriad of culinary flavours that can cater to anyone who loves food. And who doesn’t?! It is a city that offers warm hospitality whether you speak Spanish or embarrassingly little. Here is the Mexico City we saw.

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View from our hotel room overlooking the Zocalo (main square or Plaza de la Constitución) on the right with its giant flag of Mexico, the Mexican City Metropolitan Cathedral on the left and Palacio Nacional (National Palace) across. Unfortunately not much of the 240 m X 240 m Zocalo can be seen due to a combination of tents set up for a festival and the ongoing restoration of the 700 year old square.

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A street in the historical centre.

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A street festooned with flags.

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Excellent public photography exhibit that sends a powerful message about the beauty of nature and the negative ways humans impact nature. This was found along one of the main roads – Paseo de la Reforma.

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Also along Paseo de la Reforma, located in the median strip, is a series of bell sculptures that can be rung in various ways (including this one by swinging). It’s perfect for keeping tired kids going.

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Artistic expression of green wall found in the historical centre.

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A Diego Rivera mural found on a random wall in the city. Do you see Frida Kahlo?

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From Diego Rivera to this street art from an artist unknown to me, Mexico City is overflowing with art.

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Another exceptional mural made by one of the talented street artists of Mexico City.

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From visual art to performance art. We came across this ritual and celebration of Aztec music and dance in an area that was considered the centre of the universe by the Aztecs.

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Incredible costumes of the performers.

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Including painting the face.

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Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). One of the “newer” architectural beauties in the city having been constructed in the 1930’s. It hosts art events of all forms.

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One of the doorways to the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. It is the largest cathedral in the Americas. Construction began in 1573 with the last section constructed in 1813.

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Chapultepec Park looking up towards Chapultepec Castle.

 

 

 

 

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One of the food markets in the city.

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An incredible bakery in the city. There’s practically a bakery on every block.

Next up on the blog is going to be some of the highlights from what we got up to in 4 days in Mexico City!

Travel Day – Mexico!

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Photo credit: https://www.mexperience.com/lifestyle/mexico-essentials/getting-to-mexico/

Here we go again! It seems so long since we’ve had a travel day! Of course we’re doing Mexico the C-family way. Unlike many Canadians, we won’t be headed to places like Cancun, Puerto Vallarta or Acapulco. Instead we’re hitting up Mexico City and travelling around the Veracruz region staying at a field station in the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. A little tree counting, a little monkey hunting and a whole lot of Mexican food and culture coming your way!

New Zealand, South Island, Otago coast (Moeraki+Katiki+Dunedin)

From Christchurch we headed south into the Otago Region along the coast making stops at the Moeraki Boulders, Katiki Point Historic Reserve and the city of Dunedin. I will apologize now for the excessive number of photos of boulders. I admit I was obsessed and took hundreds of photos from every conceivable angle. Consider yourselves lucky that I’m only posting a handful.

Moeraki Boulders

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View on waking up on the second morning in New Zealand

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Not a bad spot for some freedom camping

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In search of dinosaur eggs

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Distracted by the sunrise

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Found them! The Moeraki Boulders are large spherical boulders of concretions washed out of the mudstone by coastal erosion. Concretions are formed when mineral deposits in water around a nucleus, often organic in nature such as a leaf or shell. They are pretty much geological curiosities that have taken millions of years to grow (Moeraki Boulders are from the Paleocene Epoch). They are also eerily cool, especially in the first morning light.

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It’s easy to imagine that we have come across a nest of dinosaur eggs.

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For a perspective on the size of the boulders

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The Moeraki Boulders are a special type of concretions called septarian concretions due to their angular cavities. Here are my peeps checking out one of those cavities.

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Sitting here since before mankind

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Another cluster of boulders

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My baby dinosaur hatching out

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The cracks are a characteristic of septarian concretions. This one reminds me of a green turtle.

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A look at the insides of the boulders

 

Katiki Point Historic Reserve

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Katiki Point Historic Reserve is famous for its incredible coastal views and its resident penguins and fur seals.

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Just a ten minute walk from the entrance will bring you to the point where gorgeous vistas and the resident colony of fur seals awaits.

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Here’s one of the residents

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I’m sure this one wanted me to scratch his belly but Marc was adamant that I not go near it. Tempting isn’t it?

 

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Searching for penguins. Sadly it was too early in the day and they were all out fishing.

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The countryside around Katiki Point

 

Dunedin

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Otago Harbour and the surrounding countryside around the city of Dunedin

 

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Here are the two reasons for our stop in Dunedin:) We were fortunate to have an old friend and a new friend play host and tour guide for us. Other than showing us incredible views of Dunedin they also took us to see glowworms! It was incredible to see them start glowing as the light of the day faded. Unfortunately my photography abilities just wasn’t good enough to capture their magic.

 

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Otago Harbour on the left and Dunedin on the right as the sun is setting

New Zealand, South Island, Christchurch

New Zealand: a country where the people share a name with a bird and a fruit and every bend in the road leads to a one lane bridge and spectacular landscapes. This first post on our journey through New Zealand comes at an interesting time. As I write this, New Zealand is in the news. Those memorable landscapes we drove through are now forever changed by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that took place three days ago. It resulted in a lift of the seabed by almost two metres and a mind-boggling 100,000 landslides.

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Landslide covering a highway that we once drove. Image source: NZ Defence Force

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Seabed that has lifted. Image source: National Business Review (photo via Mark Enlin)

As I read the stories and see the images coming through the Internet, I think of driving on the roads and the highways that are now torn apart or covered up. As I read that the famous seal breeding ground at Ohau Point has been destroyed by the the earthquake, I think of visiting the baby seals there. It is one of our fondest memories from New Zealand. More than ever, I am grateful that we had an opportunity to travel through this incredible country. And now I get to share it with you.

Our journey began in this sweet ride…

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So we upgraded from the campervan in Australia to this swanky camper for our New Zealand escapades. It was so comfortable that we briefly contemplated selling our belongings and living in it for good. 

 

We set out from Christchurch with an ambitious itinerary for the next three weeks. The plan was to head south from Christchurch, make a stop in Dunedin to see a friend and then cut across to Queenstown and Wanaka before going back up north through the West Coast then over and around to Kaikoura. We would then take the ferry over to Wellington and move through the North Island stopping in Rotorua, Matamata, and finally ending in Auckland. Not only did we manage to do all this but we ended up adding a couple of days in the Coromandel. Ready to hear all about it?

Well, here’s Christchurch and day one of our Kiwi journey.

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View outside our camper on the first morning. Travelling by camper allowed us to wake up to scenes like this one. 

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And this one

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Typical New Zealand scene: bird, water and mountain

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One of many murals found throughout the city of Christchurch

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Many buildings that were damaged in the 2011 earthquake still stand unrepaired. 

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While in the city we managed to fit in a game of chess…

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climb a tree at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens…

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and smell a very large flower.

 

 

Australia: Part 3 – Central New South Wales (Gosford to Sydney)

How is it that over a month has passed since my last post?! Real life has returned in the form of school lunch making, homework assistance, extra curricular activities and one thing after another before falling over with exhaustion at the end of the night. Most evenings I don’t even have enough mental energy to speak coherently never mind write coherently. So that’s my long explanation for my absence and forewarning about the timeliness of future posts. Now that I have absolved myself sufficiently of guilt, I can share the last part of our Australian adventure…

We continued to head south through New South Wales, making a few stops in the Gosford area before travelling south to Bouddi National Park and finally Sydney. We did take a detour inland to Canberra but despite it being Australia’s capital, there’s very little to share from our stop there. Although it was in Canberra that we managed to pick up a couple pairs of long coveted Blunnies (a.k.a. Blundstone boots).

The Gosford area

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We decided to stay the night at a campsite in the small town of Patonga outside of Gosford. Patonga sure was pretty but there was nowhere to buy groceries and the town had only one restaurant. Made our dinner choice pretty easy.

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Our campsite in Patonga. Thankfully we still had beer in the campervan fridge. Not a bad spot for a pre-dinner drink.

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And we got to enjoy this early evening scene while having that drink.

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The next day we headed to Brisbane Waters National Park to checkout ancient Aboriginal rock engravings ranging from 200-2000+ years old. Here’s the morning view from the top.

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The rock engraving sites are easily accessed off the main road although spotting the sign for the site was a challenge. At the site, there are engravings of people and animals (kangaroos, fish, etc.). The kids are pointing to an engraving of a man wearing an elaborate headdress with a boomerang in one hand and a shield in the other.

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After checking out the ancient Aboriginal rock engravings we headed to the Australian Reptile Park which was on the kids must visit places after scouring the guide book.

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Australian Reptile Park has been involved in the collection of snake and spider venom since the 1950’s for Australia’s antivenom program. All of the venom for Australia’s antivenom program come from the work of just two guys who get snakes and spiders to try to bite them all day long. How do these guys explain to their mothers what they do?

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Along with reptiles and arachnids, Australian Reptile Park is also home to cute and cuddly animals like this wombat.

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And no visit to the park is complete without watching the crocodile show. Hard to see how big this crocodile is with it mostly submerged but trust me when I tell you it’s MASSIVE. This nice zookeeper, dangling a partial chicken carcass to tempt him, was definitely intimidated. At least she has a big stick and Blunnies to keep her safe.

Bouddi National Park

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Continuing south from Gosford we headed to Bouddi National Park, one of the most breathtaking national parks in Australia. This is saying alot as Australia is the land of beautiful national parks.

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Ready for our walk!

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There are several walks to choose from. We chose the incredible Bouddi Coastal Walk.

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Out of this world rock formations

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This walk was so beautiful that I just couldn’t stop taking photos

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Beautiful Bouddhi

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We made sure they didn’t stand too close to the edge

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The cutest little beach was at the end of the coastal walk

Sydney

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We left the rugged natural beauty of Bouddi and headed to the city life of Sydney. View of Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House.

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No visit to Sydney is complete without taking a trip on the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly which offers amazing views of the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour and of course Sydney itself.  Here is a view of the famous Sydney Opera House from the harbour. Did you know the Sydney Opera House is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

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This rain shrouded view of Manly was also captured from the ferry.

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No Nemo or Dory, just a couple of cute kids

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The “shells” of the opera house

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Walking through the historic area of Sydney referred to as “The Rocks”

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There was no question we were going to have lunch and a pint at the Lord Nelson, the oldest pub in Sydney.

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Strolling through Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens

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A view of the city at dusk taken from the seawall of the Royal Botanic Gardens

Australia has hooked me with its beauty. There is no doubt that we will be back for more. We were fortunate to see as much as we did. Choosing to travel by camper was definitely the right choice for our family and made all our stops possible. It got us even more excited for our upgraded ride for our travels in New Zealand. Coming up next!

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Our ride and our home for our incredible days in Australia