Dunedin

The day we left Akaroa the sun finally showed its face. As we were headed for Dunedin, at least a five-hour drive away, we made an effort to be up and out at a decent hour. After leaving the steep hills and winding roads of the Banks Peninsula, the coastal Canterbury plains, south of Christchurch, were flat and the motorway straight. We made it to Timaru and pulled off into the town for some lunch at a café overlooking the waterfront. It felt odd to see Christmas decorations lining the main street. Further down the coast in Oamaru, we stopped to buy a soft sided cooler and to stock up on groceries. Our last stop was in Moeraki to see the boulders on the beach that are so often written about and pictured in guide books. They are a geologic feature that fires the imagination and we found them amusing, but not quite the big deal we anticipated from so much publicity.

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A boulder broken open, showing the inner structure

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Dinosaur eggs? Giant’s marbles?

As the day wore on and we got closer to Dunedin, the weather deteriorated and we encountered some rain. Nevertheless, we made it to our rented house in St. Clair, a beachside suburb of Dunedin, and were pleased to find the views from it just as spectacular as we had hoped. The house overlooked the beach at St. Clair as well as the harbor and city of Dunedin, with the Otago Peninsula in the distance.

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Dunedin harbor with city center just off to the left

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Dunedin harbor to the left, Otago peninsula straight ahead, St. Clair beach to the right

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St. Clair Beach

It was nice to spread out and relax for a few days, cooking for ourselves, and enjoying our own space. We had some decent weather and some mixed weather in Dunedin. It was windy, but that seems to be the norm there. We never tired of staring out at the view! For a lot of tourists in New Zealand, Dunedin doesn’t quite make it into their itinerary. It’s just a little further out of the way if you are trying to visit the biggest and most popular attractions, and with so much to see in the country, it often gets left out. That’s a shame as it is a lovely, manageable city, and there are a variety of things to do and see. For one, there are excellent botanic gardens. The Dunedin Botanic Gardens are easy to access on the north side of the city, and on our first afternoon we went for a visit. Much to our delight, once again, the rose garden was in full bloom!

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We also enjoyed other areas in the gardens, including the impressive Rhododendron Glen. There was even an aviary with parrots, parakeets, cockatoos, and many other interesting birds, many of which are native to New Zealand. Unfortunately, the birds were difficult to photograph due to the visual interference of the enclosures.

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The Rhododendron glen

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A local resident

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On the way home we passed by the iconic Dunedin Railway Station. I managed to snap a photo from the car.

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The beach at St. Clair is known for its surfing, which is one reason we chose to stay there. Michael was hoping to get in some surfing, even if we were about as close to the Antarctic as you can get in a surf spot! Our first day in Dunedin, we checked out the esplanade in St. Clair and he found a surf shop and browsed their boards. We also found a nice seaside saltwater swimming pool. So our second day there, Michael went off in the morning to swim in the pool for exercise and came back a couple of hours later with a surfboard! This wasn’t so surprising because his plan all along was to purchase a surfboard to use in New Zealand. Since it was a beautiful sunny day, we set off to explore the Otago Peninsula with the thought of stopping so Michael could surf on the way back.

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St. Clair beach on a sunny day from the house

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The Otago Peninsula creates a well-protected harbor for the city of Dunedin and is known for its wildlife. The road out to the end follows closely along the shoreline on the harbor side. As we drove out, we stopped to admire the birds on the flats. There were White-faced herons, a Royal spoonbill, Shags, seagulls, Oyster catchers, and Black swans among others.

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Heron and Oystercatcher

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Black swans with goslings

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I loved this Royal spoonbill!

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Like the Banks Peninsula, this one also had steep, grass covered hills, and lots of sheep. At the end of the peninsula is the Royal Albatross Center. The only land based breeding colony of Royal albatross in the world is located here, along with a colony of Blue penguins. The center has a museum and exhibits about the albatross as well as Fort Taiaroa, an historical military installation. They study and protect the birds, and run tours where you can observe them from a protected location. We decided to skip the tour, but we did have a look at the exhibits. It was extremely windy at the end of the peninsula. Nevertheless, we walked over to a viewpoint where we could see hundreds of birds wheeling in the wind off the cliff tops. Most were gulls, but we did catch sight of one or two albatross gliding over the water, which was exciting. The wind was so strong, however, that it was all we could do to stand upright!

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I could barely hold the camera still to take this photo!

On the way back down the peninsula, we stopped to have a picnic and then took the high road the rest of the way. The views were spectacular as we wound along the tops of the ridges and looked down to the outer side of the peninsula.

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As planned, we stopped at Smail’s Beach, a local surf spot, so that Michael could try out his new board. The wind was howling and the conditions weren’t ideal, be he got wet anyway. I enjoyed the flowers along the path to the beach. The extreme wind made it very difficult to catch waves. Still, at least the sun was shining.

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Michael waxing his new board by the car

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Setting off down the path

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Smail’s beach

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Waiting for the right wave

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That evening we had a gorgeous view of the city lights from the house.

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The day we left Dunedin we went into the city center to poke around a bit. We walked around an area of the city known as The Octagon and enjoyed the architecture. Having parked by a coffee shop which provided delicious coffee and other treats, we found that there were also some murals nearby. Dunedin has a collection of murals by various artists sprinkled around the city. Another time, I would make a point of searching them out on a walking tour. I guess I’ll just have to go back!

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A Dunedin street

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The café with our car and surfboard in front and murals

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As we left Dunedin headed for Queenstown, we both agreed that we liked the city and would willingly go back to spend more time there. It has a down to earth vibe, is unpretentious, and the people we met were friendly. We were glad we chose to go there.

Next stop is Queenstown, so stay tuned for more!

See you down the road.

 

 

 

 

 

Chistchurch and Akaroa

Our journey around the South Island of New Zealand began in Christchurch. A morning flight from Auckland went smoothly and our luggage arrived without mishap, so that was a good start. Interestingly enough, no one checked our identification even once during the trip! As the car rental company I had chosen didn’t have a desk at the airport, we telephoned them and their van came to pick us up without delay. About New Zealand is the slightly lower budget version of Apex Car Rental– same ownership and facility, just slightly older cars. Our Toyota Rav 4 was a little scuffed around the edges but seemed in decent working order. I had requested a vehicle with side rails on the roof to make carrying a surfboard easier, but that wasn’t to be. Michael assured me it would be fine and he could cope, so off we went.

The last time I had been in Christchurch was in February of 2009, almost two years before the devastating earthquakes in September, 2010 and February, 2011, which shook the region and caused extensive damage in the city. Though the city has progressed mightily in its long, slow recovery, some things will never be the same. In particular, ChristChurch Cathedral, a major landmark, was severely damaged and its tower later demolished. However, the Botanic Gardens are alive and well, and as I had so enjoyed them the first time, we set off to pay them a visit.

With cloudy weather and occasional threats of rain, we found the temperature much colder than on the North Island. None of the trees, flowers, or birds seemed to mind however, and the gardens were looking lovely. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens form a spacious city park with walking paths cradled in a great u-shaped bend of the Avon River, which borders it on three sides. One thing I like about the Gardens is the trees. The park is as much arboretum as garden, with huge, mature specimens of trees from all over, including California Redwood and Giant Sequoia. We wandered the paths for a bit until we came to the rose garden, which was in full bloom. It might have felt more like spring than our hoped-for summer, but we had arrived at the perfect time to enjoy the multi-colored splendor of this large and well-tended display. The sights and smells were delightful!

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After enjoying the roses, we stopped in to the gift shop and café to poke around. The café was too busy, so, feeling peckish, we wandered out the other side of the Gardens into the city center to find sustenance. We found a cheese monger who provided delicious, bespoke cheese sandwiches on fresh rolls, and also went next door to a Spanish delicatessen where we found some outstanding Salchichon salami. Armed with our picnicn and some steps to sit on, out of the wind, we munched happily. Lunch was followed by a bit of wandering, a look in a few craft shops, and a peek at the Canterbury Museum. We enjoyed more trees and birds on our stroll back through the Botanic Gardens to the car again.

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Song thrush

Having navigated our way out of Christchurch’s city center, we drove out to the Banks Peninsula and the town of Akaroa, our destination for two nights. The drive is beautiful as the peninsula is made up of undulating hills which provide lovely views down to the many coves and inlets that form the coastline. Akaroa is situated on a natural harbor, well protected from the open ocean. It was settled by French colonists who claimed the area for France around the same time it was being claimed for England as well. Consequently, the area retains some French influences with place names and cultural identity. Unfortunately, since the weather was not cooperating, it was cold and damp while we were there. Instead of going out on the water on a sailing tour as I had hoped, we chose to stay closer to shore. We did venture out to Okains Bay on the other side of the peninsula and enjoyed spectacular views on the drive over.

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Akaroa Harbor stretches a long way into the body of the peninsula.

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Okains Bay is a small settlement with a sandy beach on a bay. We checked out the beach and thought it would have been quite inviting in warm weather. On that day it was mostly deserted, except for some Variable oystercatchers.

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Mussel beds

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A shopkeeper in Akaroa had recommended the small Okains Bay Museum, so we stopped to have a look. This turned out to be a real find! The museum contains artifacts and displays of both the Maori and colonial history of the area. There was quite a variety of things to see and we had the place all to ourselves. One building contained a collection of Maori waka, the traditional ocean going canoes used by the original settlers of New Zealand. There were other beautiful exhibits on Maori life as well.

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Of particular interest to me was a display pertaining to some of the early colonial era settlers in the region. As in Russell, the area was frequented by whalers. I noticed mention of one Seth Howland and felt reasonably sure he was probably some distant ancestral relation of mine!

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Then, when we were talking to the curator of the museum about my family’s connection to whaling history, she asked if we had seen the scrimshaw of the Charles W. Morgan, a whaling vessel built in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841 by my ancestor, for whom it was named. This surprised me as we had missed it! She had been doing some research while working on renovating the exhibit and had learned quite a lot. Michael and I had been on board the Charles W. Morgan when it was visiting New Bedford in 2014 on its historic 38th voyage. The Morgan, which today is the only wooden whaleship left in the world, frequented New Zealand waters from 1846, calling into the Bay of Islands and Mangonui on the North Island for supplies and Maori crew. Talk about a small world moment! We went back in to see the scrimshaw and managed to capture a few photos to share with you.

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After our museum adventure, we drove back over to Akaroa enjoying the views again. It might have been chilly while we were on the Banks Peninsula, but it was still beautiful, and Akaroa is a pretty little town.

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More roses!

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Next up will be Dunedin, so stay tuned!

See you down the road.

 

Island Life

N.B. We are now in New Zealand and having a marvelous time. To my great frustration, I have had trouble finding reliable connections with which to upload photos and work on blog editing, not to mention computer programs that are making me do extra work. Hence the delay in posting about our time in the Cook Islands. Rest assured, I am working to keep the story going. Thanks for your patience and I hope you enjoy!

Our time in Rarotonga was spent alternating between walking the beach, swimming, lounging in our apartment, napping, and various activities out and about. We enjoyed our accommodation at the Tree House B and B. I found it on Airbnb, but it’s also on Tripadvisor. There are two one bedroom apartments in the ground floor of the host’s home. They can also be rented as one larger unit. Ours had a bedroom, bathroom, small living area and kitchenette with microwave, mini fridge, and two-burner electric hob. There was also a shaded porch with a gas bbq, and a small table and chairs. It was well supplied with cutlery, plates, glasses, and pots and pans, so we were able to do a bit of cooking for ourselves. I think the other unit has a full kitchen, but I’m not sure as we didn’t see it. A real bonus was the filtered water from the bathroom tap and the Brita pitcher in the fridge. Elsewhere, we were told not to drink the tap water in the Cook Islands and so had to purchase bottled or filtered water. But at the Tree House, this was not an issue. I could refill my water bottle to my heart’s content!

The beach

The beach

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tree-house-signThe location of our accommodation was excellent. The Tree House is down a driveway just off the main road, about 5 or 6 kilometers out of the main town of Avarua on the western side of the island. There is only one main road on the island which follows the coastline right around the whole thing. There is also a smaller ring road that is a bit further inland, but it’s more of a side road. The whole circumnavigation of the island on the main road is about 32 kilometers, so it’s totally manageable, however you choose to travel. There is a very convenient bus service that runs in both directions around the island every hour. It stops anywhere you like – you just flag it down. beach-selfie-1-raroThis was our chosen means of transport. So the first morning after our arrival day, we walked out to the road and waited for the bus. Before the bus had a chance to arrive, a local woman pulled over in her car and offered us a lift! She was very nice and drove us into town where she was headed as well. It was a great start to our experience of the friendly, helpful, and downright lovely people of the Cook Islands. In town, we stopped at the iSite information centre to ask some questions, checked out some shops, had a delicious breakfast at Salsa Café, and bought a voucher for WiFi at the Bluesky telecom office. The Tree House has a Bluesky WiFi hotspot but you need to purchase a voucher to login. At the Foodland grocery store, we got some supplies and then found the bus again. Your choices for buses are Clockwise and Anti-Clockwise. We decided to take the long way around the island to get the lay of the land and see a bit of the scenery. The whole trip only takes about 50 minutes. Though there seem to be more tourists than locals on the bus, there is a mix of both. The drivers are quite accommodating and attentive to their passengers’ needs. One of them even likes to sing and tell stories while he’s driving! I think he fancies himself a tour guide. Though there is a written schedule for the bus, as you can imagine, sometimes it is running on island time. It really worked quite well for us, but you have to be prepared for some waiting if you plan to use it as your main means of transportation. That night we walked down the road to the Kikau Hut restaurant for dinner. It was a good meal, especially the gluten free, orange almond coconut cake we had for desert. We also enjoyed watching a gecko warm himself on a globe light while taking advantage of the tasty bugs the light attracted!

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At dinner

The next morning was windy and overcast, not the best beach weather. So we decided it might be a good day to do the Raemaru Track. There are several hiking trails on the island, including a cross island track which takes 3 – 5 hours and can also be done as a guided hike. We opted for a shorter hike to the top of a mountain, closer to home. We started by walking about 1.5 Km down the road to the trailhead. The scenery was very tropical. We passed pigs and goats in fields, saw many of the wild chickens so ubiquitous to these Pacific islands, admired the colorful flowers, and coveted the various fruits in the trees.

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Church with graveyard in front

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Pig and goat in a roadside field

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Then it was up, up, up into the jungle, along a knife-edge ridge, and finally, a climb with ropes and metal hand holds to the very top of Raemaru Peak. The sun came out making it a lovely day with spectacular views. We were grateful that the canopy of the forest provided shade for most of the trek as it was relatively steep and strenuous. Switchbacks were not an option in a lot of places, so there weren’t any! We were also glad to have brought along a pair of trekking poles, which we shared.

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Near the start of the trail, a tunnel of sorts

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“Jungle”

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I am not a big fan of the edge of any cliff, finding it to produce rather unsettling sensations, so the walk along the ridgeline with slope on both sides was a bit exciting for me. I made it though, and eventually we found ourselves, hot and sweaty, at the almost top of the mountain. When I first saw the ropes hanging down, and beyond them, permanent metal rungs for assisted climbing up the rock wall to the very top, I thought “No thank you! Not my cup of tea.” After a brief rest, Michael went up the climb while I stayed below.

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On his way up, he met some other people coming down. We hadn’t been able to tell there was anyone else up there! The others were a middle aged couple with a local guide. The guide was wearing flip flops! I can’t imagine how he did the trek in those, never mind the climbing! He was instructing the lady exactly where to place her hands and feet as she came down, so I got a tutorial from below. It really didn’t look so hard. So after they had left, I decided I should give it a go. Time to test my limits, suck it up, and not let fear rule my choices! I left my pack behind and started to climb the rock with the assistance of the ropes. As I went up, I heard Michael calling down that he was on his way back. I yelled back “No, no! I’m on my way up!”.

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After the ropes and rungs, there was a steep bit of trail where I hung on to roots and trees, and then it opened up to a gently sloping, wide, open area with footpaths. The mountain had a little flat top! The view was indeed excellent, however I had left my camera with my backpack, so I didn’t get any good photos from the top. Sorry! We stayed long enough to admire the view and catch our breath. Then we started back down. I was a bit worried about the descent, thinking it could be scarier than going up, but it really wasn’t too bad. I had a huge sense of accomplishment as we geared up for the walk back down the trail and the impending sensations of jelly legs and sore knees. Even the ridgeline seemed like child’s play after my daring adventures on the rock wall! A rock climber I will never be, but I was glad I had pushed myself. At the bottom of the hill, we started up the main road back to our rooms feeling quite worn out. An ice cream from a local shop helped, and we also picked up a chicken to cook for dinner that night. Michael did an excellent job grilling it on our deck.

Raemaru Peak doesn't look so big from a distance, but it's deceiving!

Raemaru Peak doesn’t look so big from the road but it’s deceiving!

The rock climb to the flat top

The rock climb to the flat top

The next night we celebrated Michael’s birthday with a special meal prepared by our host, Carlo, who is an Italian chef. Carlo retired from a restaurant at a nearby, high end resort. He and Roberta, his wife, also had another restaurant on the island at one time. They have been in Rarotonga for fifteen years. A candlelit table was set on our porch where Roberta served us. For a starter Carlo prepared bruschetta with eggplant, tomato, and onion, followed by broadbill fish with lemon caper sauce and vegetables.

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For desert, he made a special chocolate birthday cake in the shape of a scallop shell. Delicious! I’m so glad I arranged this special birthday treat for us. After dinner we enjoyed talking with Carlo and Roberta for a while.

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Our next adventure was a 4-wheel drive tour of the island with Raro Mountain Safari Tours. I’m not really into a lot of tours, but this one was fantastic. We had a really special morning and it was a good value with the included lunch, given the price of food on the island. We met our tour guides next door at the Edgewater Resort and, after some confusion about where we belonged, ended up in a vehicle with 3 children and 3 adults who were part of a larger school group from New Zealand. In all, there were four vehicles. One of the other vehicles also had some Chinese, some Australians, and another American. Normally, the idea of going on tour with a bunch of kids might not have appealed to me (no offense to children). But as it turned out, sharing our tour with the Kiwi school group only enhanced the experience. They were from the Te Kao elementary school, which is the furthest north school in the country! It’s a small school with perhaps 30 or so students I think. The “field trip” to the Cook Islands involved the whole school. I think the youngest children did not come, but most of them did. They were absolutely lovely people. We had some good laughs with the ladies and children in our vehicle and all the children were really well behaved. At the end of our tour, they even sang a traditional song for us, all together, with hand motions too. We enjoyed spending time with them, and when they found out we were coming to New Zealand, they invited us to visit the school!

Gathering for a picture

Gathering for a picture

The tour itself was excellent. Our guide and driver was Captain Useless. They like to use nicknames here such as Useless, Hopeless, and Oops! It took some effort to tune into his speech patterns, but he was very knowledgeable, had a good sense of humor, and kept us entertained. On the tour we stopped at a waterfall, a beautiful beach, a couple of culturally significant spots, and drove up into the mountains to view the Needle which is a rock spire at the center of the island. Along the way we learned about the plants of the area, the local culture and history, and heard some great stories. The tour finished off with a bbq lunch of local foods by the beach. The food was delicious and our guides entertained us by playing guitars and ukuleles and singing. One of the things I hadn’t realized is the close cultural connection between the Cook Islanders and the Maori of New Zealand. One of our stops was at the launching point of seven canoes of Cook Islanders which sailed to New Zealand sometime around 1350.

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A wooden plaque commemorating the canoe launch

Since most of the school group appeared to be Maori, the guides did a great job of explaining and highlighting the connections between the Cook Islanders and the Maori. It was fascinating. There are similarities in language and cultural tradition, and quite a few common place names.

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Our beach stop – Bella beach. Michael saw bonefish in the water so we returned another day so he could fish.

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The island interior

The island interior

The Needle

The Needle

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Captain Useless

Breaking open a coconut

Husking a coconut

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Our vehicles

All in all it was a fantastic time and we were glad we did this tour. After 6 nights on Rarotonga, we took a small plane to another of the Cook Islands, Aitutaki. There we found an incredibly blue lagoon, white sand beaches, and a slow pace of life. I have many photos to share from that lovely place so stay tuned for the next installment.

Until then, see you down the road!