New Zealand: crossing the Cook Strait

Just after sunrise and while the moon was still high in the sky, we were driving out of Nelson.

Highway 6 runs through the mountains and over a couple of passes before descending into the Rai Valley. We had breakfast there. Further on, the road crosses the Pelorus Bridge and can be closed when the river is in flood. At Havelock, there are two options to get to Picton where the ferry departs from. You can stay on Highway 6 and get there via Blenheim or take the windy and scenic route. We chose the latter and were only a little way along it when we came to a look–out with views back up the valley and over the Marlborough Sounds.


Eventually this road descends to the shores of Queen Charlotte Sound and we arrived in Picton. We had a little time to kill before the ferry so coffee, a look in Down Under Books, the local second-hand bookstore which has a good selection of books on New Zealand as well as all the usual sections. Before heading over to the ferry terminal we had a short walk around the marina to Shelley Beach. There are other trails around here for walking and cycling.

Our mileage so far on the South Island has been 1604 miles. We dropped off the rental car as they charge you £500 to take one over to the North Island. We had arranged to pick another up in Wellington the following day. The ferry was not too busy at all and you can check in your cases so that you don’t have to lug them around on board.

The crossing was smooth and the sun went down before we docked in Wellington.

After getting my fix of mountains and forests it was quite strange to be back in the city with concrete flyovers, skyscrapers and rush hour traffic. We took an electric taxi to our hotel and had dinner at a nearby Belgian pub. We finally had some venison for the first time here after seeing so many red deer being farmed on the south island and were served by a guy from Leeds. We have met so many young people from the UK and Europe who are working here. Most of the antipodean youth seem to head for London.

New Zealand: Milford Sound

We were up before sunrise on a frosty morning to get on an early cruise on the Sound much of which was still in shadow.


It is the low season but even so, numerous coach tours arrive for the middle of the day cruises and an early start is advised. We were on a small boat with only around 20 people on board so no great crush to see what was going on or take photographs. We had a nature guide with us who provided a lot of interesting information on the geology, natural history and the settlement from the earliest Maori settlers to more modern times. The entrance to the Sound from the Tasman Sea is so narrow that even Captain Cook did not spot it when he was sailing by. Rudyard Kipling called it the eigth wonder of the world.

We could not have picked a better day weather-wise and my anxieties about rain were rapidly abolished. It was cold with a clear sky and hardly any wind at all. There are two waterfalls, the Bowen and Stirling. Some people got very close to the latter but I stayed well clear of the spray with my camera.


Even the boats are dwarfed by the vast cliffs.

There were a few New Zealand Fur Seals on the rocks but no dolphins or penguins seen on this trip.

At Fraser Cove, we were dropped off at the Discovery Centre where you descend into a submerged cylindrical room with views all around of the deep water with corals, fish, sea anemones, cucumbers and all sorts of other sea life. You can even sometimes spot a conger eel but we did not. If you do not dive it is a great way of experiencing life deep underwater. Back at our cabin we had a relaxing afternoon and this Weka decided to pay us a visit on the deck.

New Zealand: the Banks Peninsula – Akaroa Harbour

The 1st of June is the first day of winter down here. We had booked a two-hour cruise around the harbour and were a little disappointed to wake to mist and drizzle. The locals were saying that it was most unusual to get so much mist at this time of year. It lifted a little as we walked down to the pier for the 11am departure. There is a hut on the pier selling fish and chips so the gulls were hanging around hoping for some food. Red-billed Gulls are apparently declining in number.

We sailed down the eastern side of the harbour with a commentary on the history, geology and natural history of the area. These are the southern-most palm trees

The outer part of the harbour is a reserve and the company we went with, Black Cat Cruising, give part of the ticket price to maintaining the reserve. We kept our eyes peeled for wildlife but this was as close as we got to penguins.

Just outside the harbour dolphins were fishing all around us.


New Zealand Fur Seals were very well camouflaged on the rocks but soon popped their heads up to have a look at us.
We looked at the volcanic cliffs a little more closely

and then had a swift look around the Pacific for whales but there were none to be seen. The mist was descending again as we returned to Akaroa for lunch.

We walked back to our motel via the museum and some of the older streets in the town.

Shetland: to a lighthouse


Café society was on the pavement, students were sunbathing on the Meadows and sunglasses required on our first morning in Edinburgh. We had 36 hours there for business and pleasure: seeing our solicitor, picking up supplies and having a very enjoyable dinner with a friend before and early start to drive to Aberdeen the next morning. We had hoped to be driving over the Forth on the new Queensferry Crossing which was originally scheduled to open in May but has been delayed so that will have to wait for another trip. There were several signs on the A90 warning that deer might be crossing the road, even in the middle of Dundee. However, it was not until we were on a minor road to Fettercairn that a Roe hind ran across in front of us and disappeared into the forest. The diversion to Fettercairn was to photograph another distillery for the photobook of all those in the British Isles.

The unicorn comes from the Ramsay family crest: they founded the distillery. Noticing signs to the arch I had to ask about that and was told that it had been erected to commemorate a visit to Fettercairn by Queen Victoria in the early 1860s. The arch is dated 1864.

Just south of Aberdeen there are extensive roadworks as a city bypass is being constructed. Looking at the map I could see that its route might be contentious especially through Deeside and the friends we met for lunch in the city confirmed this. Interestingly Aberdeen also missed the chance to develop the waterfront with historic buildings behind it and instead has an enormous shopping centre. Our friend also showed me some street art which is in a small back street and I would never have found it without her help.


Pottering around the city centre before we had to board the boat I discovered a good-sized Oxfam book and music shop on Back Wynd, just off Union Street. I added a volume to my New Naturalist collection and James found some music. A little while later we were on the ship. It was built in Finland and the harbour had boats registered in Bergen, Panama, Limassol and Monrovia that I could see. We cast off and as Aberdeen disappeared in the mist, the pilot boat left us and we sailed past the last light on the harbour wall.

We arrived into Lerwick on time and after picking up more supplies at the Co-op, stopped at a coastal espresso bar. They directed us to the nearest petrol station more reliably than the car’s satnav and James was given a free can of Irnbru after filling up there. While he was doing that, I noticed Clickimin Broch across the road. It was built over 2,000 years ago and no-one knows whether it was a fortress or merely a residence. It remained partially submerged until 1874 when the loch water level dropped. various excavations have taken place since the 1860s.

Driving north on the A970 we passed abandoned crofts and Voe where the last clearances took place in 1799. The residents farming the land were removed so that larger scale sheep farming could be introduced. We reached Mavis Grind, just south of Brae. The name means ‘gateway of the narrow isthmus’ and the just over 100m wide strip of land separates St Magnus Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on one side with Ell Wick, Sullom Voe and the North Sea on the other. Until the 1950s it was used as a boat drag to enable rapid travel from one sea to the other. On our visit locals were trying to clean up the shore, disentangling plastic from seaweed. A lot of it comes from fishing nets and creels. I spoke to one of the women who said that as a child she would pick broken glass from the net floats off the beach but that now it was all waste plastic. There is a path around the area but as it was extremely windy and the car thermometer was reading 1 degree, we decided to leave that for another day. A little further on we stopped for a picnic lunch. We stayed in the car as the thermometer now read -1 degree. This did not last as we continued into Northmavine but as the thermometer rose, the rain fell. A small diversion from our route took us to the St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick where we ensconced ourselves in the bar until we could get into the lighthouse. Renovation was under way and the proprietor told us that this was the first time for 50 years. He explained that the building was listed and this was delaying work. The toilets have already been re-vamped and I have never seen a sparkly toilet seat before. We eventually reached Eshaness Lighthouse which was ready for us. It is the last Northern Lighthouse constructed by the Stevenson family and was automated in 1974. The light keepers house fell into private hands and in 1999 an American author Sharma Krauskopf bought it. She wrote a book about living on Eshaness called ‘The Last Lighthouse’. I must try and find that. In 2005, the Shetland Amenity Trust purchased the cottage and now rent it out as holiday accommodation. They do not have access to the tower. We settled in hoping that the mist would lift later.

Winter Sun in South Queensferry

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We had spent Saturday wandering around Edinburgh with my father who had not visited the city for 20 years. He enjoyed seeing what had changed and what had not. Sunday morning brought one of the still sunny winter days that the east coast of Britain often gets in winter while those of us on the western side of the country are experiencing grey wet weather. As my father is a retired engineer, I knew he would be interested to see the new Queensferry Bridge. He still has copies of ‘The Engineer’ magazine from the 19th century which were found in my grandfather’s garage when it was being cleared after his death. They contain a month-by-month account of the building of the Forth Rail Bridge which is fascinating. The visitors’ centre for the new bridge is not open on Sundays so we contented ourselves with a wander along the shore and into the historic old town of South Queensferry. The name of the town dates from the ferry service for Queen Margaret which was established in the 11th century and ran at first from some rocks to the west of the current harbour. The ferry ran until 1964 when the Road Bridge opened. The new bridge is scheduled to open in early May 2017 so we hope to be able to cross it when we go to Shetland in May. At the moment there is still a small section missing. I hope it joins up satisfactorily, I remember the Kessock Bridge near Inverness not quite matching up in the middle when the two halves were joined South Queensferry also has a bookshop so a return trip on a day other than a Sunday might have to be made at some point.
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Lazy days by the Causeway Coast

Causeway Coast 12 Whitepark Bay 15 Aug 2016-1
On Saturday morning we were almost first off the ferry and made it to Ballymoney in good time. After breakfast we wandered into town for a caffeine fix and to use the wifi in a local café. Every time we come, a few more shops have closed. It is still the marching season here and several flute bands walked through the high street before getting on their buses to Derry. Shortly afterwards, some heavily armoured police Landrovers from Belfast followed them. In the afternoon we drove to Portstewart which has renovated the promenade since we were here last year. There is a wider path by the beach, curved street lamps and a sculpture entitled ‘The Fishing Boat’ by Niall O’Neill.
The Fishing Boat by Niall O'Neill Portstewart 13 Aug 2016-1
We visited the Art Shop; the proprietor is someone we have bought antique maps from in the past and we had a look through his collection but did not find anything we wanted. He told us that he was now getting into movie posters and I overheard him saying to another customer that he had about 600.
On Sunday evening we took James’s parents and other relatives out for a meal at a hotel on the coast to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. This morning we drove along part of the Causeway Coast and popped into the secondhand bookshop there where I found another two volumes for a natural history series I am collecting. We continued past Dunseverick, Ballintoy and on to Whitepark Bay with Islay and the Mull of Kintyre on the horizon. The bay has a four-star Youth Hostel which might be a stopping off point when we walk the coastal path at some point in the future. We are looking forward to James retiring and we can have longer sojourns over here. There is now a day passenger ferry over to Islay which includes lunch at the distillery. The beach is backed by wildflower strewn cliffs, the ruins of the old youth hostel and pasture for cattle. It is somewhere to go hunting for fossils: belemnites, a relative of the ammonite, can be found in some of the stones and rocks on this beach and I have a small collection accumulated over the years, on my mantelpiece.
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On our way back to Ballymoney we passed the Dark Hedges which were relatively unknown outside Northern Ireland until they featured in ‘Game of Thrones’. Now you can hardly move for tourists, a new hotel has sprung up and they are finally on the map.
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We are now in a queue at Belfast Docks waiting to get on the ferry.
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Waiting for a boat on the Wirral

Several years ago the overnight ferry we were due to take from Birkenhead to Belfast was delayed and we were told not to return to check in until 10.30pm. We headed into to New Brighton and found a bistro. On this journey we decided to go back there and eat before going to the ferry port and being restricted to the offerings on the boat. Despite summer Friday afternoon heavy traffic on the motorways, we made good time and had an hour to kill before our meal so parked up on the promenade and walked along to the end.
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The tide was coming in fast and several fisherman were casting their lines. I asked one what he was hoping to catch; he replied ‘bass’ but they’re very slow tonight. Some brave souls were swimming but most families were heading back home after an afternoon on the beach. We were too late to visit the museum in Fort Perch Rock, a former defence building dating from 1820 as it closed at 5pm.
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After dinner, it was time to head back to the port and after another wait, get onto the boat.
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Across the water, lights were starting to come on in Liverpool and it was time for us to settle into our cabin before the 5.30am alarm tomorrow morning.
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