Gallivanting in Ghent

In honour of Belgium coming third in the world cup I thought it was high time that I wrote a little bit about my time in Belgium. To be honest, I don’t know why I haven’t written about Belgium sooner – it is one of my all time fave countries and one of my best friends is from here. But as so often happens with little ol’ Belgium, I overlooked it while writing about more ‘exotic’ destinations. This seems to be a common thing with Belgium – it is so underrated and oft forgotten about, yet really this little country has so much to offer!

My first time in Belgium was typical of the fleeting visit that so many pay to this country. I drove through it. Literally, in an hour or so it was done. Not even a stop in Belgian toilet. I was on one of those ‘party bus’ tours that visits 10 countries in 3 days and we literally drove from London to Amsterdam in one day, totally bypassing Belgium. Many years later, somewhat travel-wiser, I visited Belgium and just couldn’t understand why so many of these tour bus style type of holidays just glide on by. Even for young people – Belgium is amazing! It is party central (they have the biggest techno festival called Tomorrowland). It is a place for everyone, so why don’t more people visit?

Let’s start with Ghent. A fun compact city oozing history and beautiful lowland architecture. Set on the river Leie, start at the Graslei, the historic quay at the heart of the city. Along its banks are the gorgeous medieval buildings which today house patios with cafes and shops along the front. It is a great place to hang out and enjoy some Belgian beer!

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The city also has some stunning churches and a castle. Be sure to check out St Bavo’s church, St Nicholas’ church and St Michael’s church – they are all stunning gothic style churches that will leave you in awe. The Gravensteen castle is also fantastic. This 10th century castle still has a moat around it and you can climb on top of it for some views of the city as well.

For me though, the best part of Ghent was just strolling along the cobbled streets, passing through and admiring the squares, and sitting at a café/bar with a glass of champagne and some oysters. It was a glorious summers afternoon when I visited, and I was so pleased to be able to spend an afternoon in this city with my wonderful friend!

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St Nicholas

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Gravensteen

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The Eagle View Trail

Located half an hour out of the city proper, John Forrest National Park is a perfect chance for city slickers and visiting tourists to get out and sample what the typical bush scenery of Australia’s south west is all about. With its proximity to Perth, this of course means that the park is one of Perth’s most busiest, which for those seeking solitude might not be welcome. But if you are a solo hiker, or someone hiking for the first time, than this park is perfect as the trails are superbly maintained and there is always someone close by enough should you need a helping hand.

On the last warm days of autumn before winter kicked in, our hiking group decided it was time to start the season again. 3 of us went and explored the Eagle View trail in the park. We have done this trail numerous times in the past, but it never disappoints, and at 15km it is the perfect length for a practice hike. As always the view at the rocky outcrop over the city was fantastic, but we prefer not feeling like we are too close to the city so we kept going to delve more into the park (many tourists walk in and out to the eagle view lookout point as it is a great viewpoint to see the whole city). As we got more into the park we noticed a small burnoff, which is a ‘controlled burn’ by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. This is done in the cooler months to burn leaf litter on the ground which can cause huge problems with bushfires in the summer months. This led to a small section of the trail being very smoky and irritating to the eyes/throat for me, but overall nothing major to be concerned about.

Another great thing about this hike for those who are first timers, or for those who just want a treat at the end of a long day, is that there is a tavern (pub) at the carpark! So for those wanting an ice cold beer, or a nice steak and salad after a long days walk, you can get it at the end of your hike! I would definitely recommend this hike for anyone visiting Perth and wanting to see a snippet of the aussie bushland, or for those who want to get more into hiking/outdoor fitness and are not experienced at it.

 

 

 

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A Day Trip to Milford Sound

There is a good reason why Fiordland National Park is a must see destination for anyone travelling to New Zealand. The mountains soar all around you, the lakes and forests are pristine and so beautiful, and the road trip itself to get to Milford Sound is an epic journey that will have you in awe with every crest in the road.

From Queenstown it is a long drive to get to Milford Sound. Since I didn’t have a car, and I had just hiked for 3 days, I decided to entrust in a company called the BBQ Bus Tour. They were fantastic, with a smaller minibus (there were only 14 of us this day, instead of the 50 or so you see on the bigger tourist buses). We made numerous stops along the way, our driver Nigel was packed full of information, and he had a wicked sense of humor to boot making the long drive alot more enjoyable. He also cooked us an awesome BBQ lunch before we continued on to the cruise boats.

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Early morning clouds

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The valley heading towards the sound

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Mirror Lakes

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I like how they signed this.

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Lunchstop views

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The Chasm

Once we got to the cruise dock, there were people everywhere! Luckily for us as well our boat was pretty quiet, so there was no arguing or jostling for good positions. Everyone had space and could take the photos they wanted. The boat, once onto the fjord (even though its called a Sound Milford is technically a fjord)cruises all the way out to where it meets the Tasman Sea. It was freezing on the water – never think because it’s warm on the shore that the ocean will be the same! It was pretty windy, but the boat wasn’t too rocky which was good. The captain shows you various points of interest, including seeing seal colonies and driving the boat into the waterfalls that cascade off the steep rock. We were also fortunate to see a group of dolphins behind the boat.

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yay for no rain!

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a cloudy and atmospheric day

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waterfalls

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it was windy on the boat!

The drive back to Queenstown was a long one, with a quick pitstop in Te Anau to toilet and grab a coffee. Overall the day is a long one (7am pick up to about 9pm drop off). But it was worth every minute! The scenery along the whole way is stunning, and the banter with Nigel from the BBQ Bus made the time fly by. I would definitely recommend doing a tour with this company if you don’t have a hire car or just don’t want to make the long drive yourself.

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and the sun came out for the drive back…

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The Routeburn Track – day 3

On our last morning we woke up to dry conditions – the rain had stopped overnight and it promised to be an awesome day! It was also to be the easiest day, with only 9km to the road that would take us back to civilization. This 9km was all downhill and flat too, which made for an easy pleasant stroll compared to what we had been through the first two days!

The morning started at the falls, and from there it was a reasonably steep downhill to Routeburn Flats, another campsite with facilities about 2.5km away. The flats is obviously the base of the valley floor, and it was lovely being inside the bottom of the valley, sitting by the meandering river, skimming some stones taking in the views.

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leaving the falls and going down

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and then the sun came!

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checking out Routeburn Flats

After a while we got to a little clearing where there is a ‘beach’. The water was crystal clear and absolutely beautiful…. and absolutely freaking cold! There was no way this wimp was going in, but a few of the hardy souls decided to wade in and jump off the big boulders which had found their way down from the surrounding cliff faces. It was a lovely spot, and through some patches of clouds the sun came out just in time. After lunch it was a relatively short walk through some wonderful beech forest to the roads end. It was a bittersweet moment…. I could have kept on hiking! I wanted to keep on hiking! 3 days out here didnt feel like enough! I was walking alone at the end, enjoying my own company, when on literally the last corner on the trail before the carpark there was a beautiful little bush robin just sitting on a rock. He sat there for so long, I could take plenty of photos. I admit, I “talked” to him. I was in this hippyish ‘I love trees I love nature’ moment and I spoke to him, calling him a cute little guy and thanking him for giving me one last surprise on the trail. Definitely not me usually! But that’s what nature does right?

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a great lunch spot

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absolutely glorious colours!

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the new zealand bush robin – such a poser!

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feeling accomplished!

And so ended one of the greatest walks I have done (not that I’ve done many, but you know, this was great!). They don’t call it a “Great Walk” for nothing! It was such a fantastic trip, I walked towards the carpark (and masses of day walkers) with a huge grin on my face which could not be wiped off. I had done it!!

Now as mentioned on day 1, I did this walk with a company called Ultimate Hikes, because I had left it late and couldn’t get reservations one needs to make online to walk this trail independantly. (book early folks!) This had some pros and cons, but definitely mostly pros! While at time I sometimes felt like a bit of a ‘cheat hiker’ for getting into a bed at a lodge at night, and having a hot shower after a rainy day, at the end of the day you still walk the EXACT same path as anyone else on the trail who huts or tents does. I still experienced the wonder of this trail like anybody else. I was worried with a big group (20+ people) that I would never get to walk alone, but that was nothing to worry about. I actually walked more alone than with anyone – our group was often very spread out and you could be very independant during the day. It was definitely nice after the second day of rain to get to a lodge that had a drying room. Yes, a drying room, which was this super heated room where you could hang your wet clothes and they dried in a matter of hours. Nothing beat putting on dry boots the next day! Because of the dry room, you really could keep clothing to a minimum, which meant a lighter pack. Also of course, being served food and having a bed meant no food to carry and no sleeping bag, which meant a lighter pack. All of these weight savings definitely help for those of us with bad backs/shoulders (me!) or for those of us doing our first multi day hike where we had to carry our own bags (me!). Doing this hike with Ultimate Hikes was definitely a good first tester for me to see how my back would hold up, and with only 7kg in the pack it felt great!

Overall I am so glad I still went ahead and did this hike with Ultimate Hikes. They are definitely a reliable and professional outfit who have the right balance of care for their hikers, while letting those who want it to have enough independance. Having said that though, now that I know what a great walk trail is like, and knowing I am strong enough to do it, I would definitely save my money and challenge myself more to doing it by myself. New Zealand do such a great job with their trail and outdoor network in general, with good signage, excellent information online and at DOC offices, that anyone could do an NZ trail independantly. The next time I go back I will definitely book early, get my hut/camp sites, and enjoy all that the NZ outdoors has to offer!!!

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The Routeburn Track – day 2

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Climbing away from Lake Mackenzie

All night I could hear the rain falling on the roof of the hut. The second day was going to be wet! We awoke to a steady fall, at least it was dead still with not a breeze to be felt. I could deal with this, at least it wasnt storming, and the rain was not pouring hard, it was just a constant medium fall. Sadly the second day is traditionally the day with the best views, with even the chance to see the ocean in the distance. Today there was no chance of seeing anything!

We left our hut and straight away the trail zig-zagged up and up. I actually thought it was very pleasant to do that uphill walk in the cooling rain, on a hot sunny day there would be no coverage and I’m sure I would have been cursing up that hill. lol. After climbing and climbing you get to Ocean Peak corner – where on a good day you can see the Darran Mountains, Hollyford Valley and even the Tasman Sea. As you can see on my pic, you could see nothing. Just a tarn a few metres in front. As soon as you hit Ocean Peak corner you can feel the cold wind, and the next 4.5km is a reasonably flat walk towards the Harris Saddle lunch shelter. It was during this section that the trail pretty much became a river in parts – the rain was getting a bit heavier and the flat rock of the trail held the water in. Soon the boots felt like you were holding a litre of water in each foot, and the socks were squelching with every step. I actually loved walking in the rain, it felt so clean and refreshing!

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the trail was like a river

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Ocean Peak Corner – minus the ocean views lol

At Harris Saddle we sat and ate lunch, then a few of us decided to take the optional walk to the highest point of the trail – Conical Hill. Even though the chances of seeing anything were rather slim, I didnt want to miss a thing on this trail, so back into the rain I went. This climb was quite tough – it was all large rock, and of course, being wet, it was very very slippery. At times it was scrambling on all fours to get up. Anyway we got to the viewpoint and there wasnt much of a view! But there were a few rare glimpses where a cloud would clear and you could see just how high up on a ledge we were. It was very freaky! Anyway downhill was um… fun. Lets just say I had two falls, one of which was very nasty on a slick rock. I landed hard on my tailbone and elbow, and for the rest of the day my elbow was throbbing. Luckily no major damage, it could have been so much worse.

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enjoying the um… views. lol

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going back down conical hill lookout to the harris saddle lunch shelter

From Harris Saddle the trail continues past the magnificent Lake Harris. Even in the bad weather you could see just how magnificent this scenery is. I loved how the trail clung to the side of the hill, sometimes when you looked you could see a big drop, which was scary but fun at the same time. After walking along for a while the sun was finally trying to peak out from the clouds, and the rain actually stopped enough to put the iphone away from the top pocket and grab my bigger camera out. When the sun actually hit my body I let out a yelp, it was an exciting moment!

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a rainy Lake Harris

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it was definitely atmospheric!

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the trail is on the left, high above Lake Harris

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when the sun does try and peak through it is magic!

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Lake Harris with Mt Xanicus

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heading down towards the routeburn falls hut

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still smiling with soggy underwear!

The rest of the trail was all downhill, heading towards the Routeburn Falls Lodge. It was such a pleasant trail, the rocks were less extreme making it easier to walk on and not worry where to step. There was even boardwalked sections and lots of little bridges over the run offs from the mountains above. It was spectacular to see the clouds move by so fast, and have the sun come out a bit, making shadows and different light. I finally arrived at the lodge, and squeezed out my socks which would have supplied enough water for a cup of tea. lol. The day ended with an absolutely spectacular rainbow over the Routeburn Valley. What a way to end this wild and crazy day!

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and the sun comes out towards the end of the day!

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a rainbow at routeburn falls lodge – a great way to end the day!

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The Routeburn Track – day 1

So after relaxing for a full day in Queenstown it was time to begin the hike that was the whole point of coming to NZ in the first place! I had decided on the Routeburn Track as it sounded like the perfect alpine hike with incredible views of mountains, lakes and forests – the type of scenery that is as far removed as my life in Perth that you can get!

Now if you had read the previous posts, you would know that my planned hike back in September of the Cape To Cape Track had fallen through. When it came time to make a decision on another hike I had left it quite late… so late in fact that I could not get a spot on the DOC (Dept of Conservation) website for a hut on either the Milford or the Routeburn tracks. These spots need to be reserved months in advance (especially the Milford). I was very despondant, thinking that it just wasn’t going to happen for me… but then I discovered a company called Ultimate Hikes.

Now Ultimate Hikes is luxury hiking at its finest. At the end of the day they have their own private lodge usually situated quite close to the DOC huts. They have hot showers and toileteries to use! Rooms were cozy and comfortable, with mattresses and bedding. Dinner was a three course meal, and alcoholic drinks could be purchased at the bar. All of this comes at a very expensive price…. and I really wasn’t sure if I should spend such a large amount of money for 3 days, if I would even like hiking in a group setting, or if my experience of hiking in the wild would be somewhat tainted by such luxury. Time would tell and I will share my experiences in the final post at the end of my day 3 write up!

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Looking fresh and eager!

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Climbing up Key Summit

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patchy views were still magical

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it felt weird being at cloud level!

The days hike began at ‘The Divide”, a carpark on the Te Anau-Milford Road. It was a cloudy but quite warm and humid muggy day… weather that I hate! I do not cope in humidity very well, and within 10 minutes I was sweating like a pig and cursing the gradual uphill trail. After about an hour the trail smoothed out a bit, and we got to a sign that showed the way to a sidetrip to Key Summit. The fact we could leave our packs at the base of the walk determined that I would do it, and I was glad to be rid of the pack as it was a zigzag steep up hill to the top. It was actually cold up there! We were amongst the clouds, and there was even a few sprinkles and a strong wind. The views were not the greatest as they could be, but it was still worth the hour side trip up, and it was great to watch the clouds come and go, with the mountains peaking from behind.

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lunch at Lake Howden

From Key Summit a short walk got us to Lake Howden Hut, where we sat and had a packed lunch from Ferg Baker back in Queenstown. Talk about luxury! It was a lovely spot for lunch, but I could see the sandflies around and I felt good so I continued on ahead from others in the group. From here it was a good stretch of heavy forest, which resulted in humidity once again. Luckily there are so many streams around with glacial water that does not even need to be treated, so I could drink heaps and not worry. The forested section really was amazing, I just loved all the moss and undergrowth, and how dark it sometimes was when totally encased in trees. For a trail that is so busy I didnt see anyone in this section for ages… I was totally alone in a creepy looking forest and I loved it!

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a huge chunk of todays trail was through magnificent old growth forest

At the 7km mark you come to Earland Falls, a beautiful waterfall that cascades into a very inviting crystal clear pool. Some of the brave opted for a quick shower under the falls, but there was no way you would see me do that, I’m such a wimp with cold water! It was a nice place to sit for a bit, but once again, the weather can be deceptive up here. 5 minutes earlier I was sweating it up in what felt like tropical jungle conditions. 10 minutes later sitting on a rock watching the falls and I was cold from a cool breeze blowing through. Time to start moving…

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Earland Falls

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Couldn’t get the height of the falls in one shot!

The next couple of kilometres saw us walking gently upwards, into more alpine like conditions. The views to the left were of the magnificent Hollyford Valley, while on trail we passed over small footbridges over gushing streams and waterfalls. It was truly magnificent, and there were often times I said to myself “what a day to be alive!”.

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stunning views as we got further in

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views of the Hollyford Valley below

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The Orchard – named so because it is a regenerating native forest

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finally at Lake Mackenzie – 12km in from the start.

At the end of the day we got to Lake Mackenzie Lodge, approximately 12km in from our start at the Divide. It had been a great day – this trail offered up so much in only 12km! While we didn’t have the most perfect of weather at least it didn’t rain on us. It was a mild pleasant enough day, and it was wonderful to be out and finally walking one of the great walks. I couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow would bring…. although with the dark clouds in the distance I knew that we might not be so lucky weatherwise tomorrow….

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How to fall in love with a place….

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What a sunset!

When I first had booked my ticket to Queenstown and saw that my flight landed at 8pm I presumed I would be just taking a taxi/shuttle straight to my hotel as it would be dark (in Perth the sun sets at 8pm in summer). When I arrived I was a bit confused – it was still so bright! Well of course, I realised, we aussies do sometimes tend to forget that NZ is quite a bit lower than us, so the sun ended up setting at 10pm! Which was great, because I went and dumped my bags and headed out to explore straight away. I’m so glad I did – it was a glorious evening, nice and warm with no wind, and EVERYONE was out enjoying the town!

 

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The crowds gathered on this perfect night.

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Sunset

The next morning due to jetlag I presume, I was up bright and early at 5am! Lol. By 7am I was out, grabbed a coffee and went to explore early. I decided to explore Queenstown Gardens, which was a great choice as it was so peaceful in the morning, and the small trail looping around the peninsula was only shared with the odd runner. It was a fantastic morning and the weather gods were smiling with a calm and beautiful day.

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Early morning stroll without the crowds

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Queenstown wharf with the hilltop gondola in the background

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Bench with a view

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A walk around Queenstown Gardens

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A calm morning

After walking around the gardens and the town I decided to go up the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak. The day was hot, and the lines were long, but after about a 20 minute wait I managed to get up to admire the absolutely breathtaking views of this amazing place. For $35 you can take the gondola up, explore from the viewpoints, and head back down. For more of a cost you can luge down on a track and a little cart thing, which looked like heaps of fun but would be more fun to experience with someone (after being so excited to holiday solo I was actually missing my husband and girl a bit when I saw the families having so much fun sliding down. A reason to come back with us all together right??). Anyway the gondola is a must, especially on a beautiful sunny day!

After walking hours in the heat and feeling the effects of the previous days travel, I went and had an afternoon nap before meeting up with friends who I didn’t know were in town until I saw a facebook status while playing on the phone at Sydney Airport. It was so great to meet S & S, whose daughter was in the same kindy class as mine in 2016 before they had to move to Brisbane for work reasons. They invited me over to their apartment villa and we had some wine and cheese while watching the sun set over Queenstown. It was also lovely to see how grown up their kids had gotten in the year since I had seen them last. Anyway at 11pm and after a few too many vinos it was time to walk (a bit clumsily mind you!) back to the hotel. I had a 5.30am wake up the next morning to begin my hike of the Routeburn track…..

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The colours of Lake Wakatipu

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View from the Skyline Gondola

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