Category Archives: Pacific

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Central Plateau, New Zealand

Mount Tongariro is one of several volcanos in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s the northernmost of the three volcanic cones just to the south of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake.

Mount Tongariro is also the location of one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is a 19.4 kilometre hike that climbs over the Tongariro massif, past the summit of both Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.

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Map is © Copyright Tongariro Alpine Crossing Please visit that site for more information.

A group of us decided to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing towards the end of the season. We made arrangements and drove down from Auckland on Friday night with the intentions of climbing early Saturday morning. The four-hour drive turned into five and a half as we left during Auckland’s rush hour. We arrived late in the evening and bedded down for the night with alarms set.

A Bad Start
When we awoke on Saturday Morning it was raining and didn’t look pleasant. We went for breakfast and waited to find out if the we could still do the walk. The answer came back a resounding no. The rain and strong winds meant the mountain was closed. All we could do was hang out for the day and hope for better weather on Sunday.

What Tongariro should look like, apparently…
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Ominous News
We were up and had breakfast early on Sunday but the weather still didn’t look great. The mountain was still not visible from our lodgings and when our driver arrived he had bad news. He believed the mountain was again closed and wouldn’t take us, leaving us a little downhearted. We asked the owner of the lodge and he was unconvinced. He rang another driver who confirmed the mountain was in fact open and would take us up.

We were driven to the trailhead in the rain with trepidation, but with the number of other vehicles heading up, it seemed others would also be braving it.

Trailhead – Mangetapopo Carpark – 1100m
We began at the Mangetapopo carpark in a slight drizzle. There were no views of the massif or much else due to the low cloud. The trail was a mix of mud, stones, wooden platforms and people. There were hundreds of others doing the track with us. If this many were doing it on a bleak day, who could guess how busy it would be on a clear one.

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The walk was easy and for the first seven or so kilometres we barely noticed the 250m climb towards Soda Springs. I walked in a quick dry sports singlet, my hiking zip-off shorts and boots. The drizzle was constant but not heavy and I was fairly warm. Others wore long pants and full Gore-tex jackets.

Soda Springs – 1350m
At Soda Springs there is a warning sign: STOP! Are you really prepared? It suggested it was going to get difficult and to turn back if you weren’t prepared. As I waited for my group, I watched several people get to the sign, stare at it for a while and then turn back. With the drizzle picking up I put on a rain poncho over my singlet and began the climb.

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It became more rugged, with a rough dirt trail and steps weaving up the side of the mountain towards South Crater. The drizzle continued and the climb became more a little more difficult, but not by much. After a while of steady climbing we began seeing people returning along with trail with warnings of how bad it was higher up.

With the constant drizzle and the warnings I was tempted to turn back. Why do a climb when you can’t see anything the entire time? You climb for the views and the experience, but the only experience would be a wet cloudy one. I put on a jumper under my rain poncho and we continued on.

South Crater – 1650m
We climbed onto the area described as South Crater and out of the wind. With visibility around 20m we walked on the flat for a while, happy for the rest from climbing.

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Red Crater – 1886m
After the mud flats of South Crater we began up the ridge and discovered the wind that had been putting everyone off. It was blowing an absolute gale and you could see the drizzle sweeping over the ridge into the cloudy nothingness. I was not surprised people had turned back but since we’d come this far it seemed silly to head back. We pushed on, dodging between rocky outcrops so as not to be blown off.

We reached the top but couldn’t see anything so just kept walking, beginning the plunge down the other side, some members of our group going arse-over-tit on the slippery silt.

Emerald Lakes – 1730m
The small Emerald Lakes would have been amazing to view from higher up but they only appeared out of the gloom when we were 10m above them. It was still good to see something other than dirt, rock and rain. By now we were completely soaked, we continued on down.

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Not far below the Emerald Lakes we came to the Blue Lake covered in the same clouds.

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Ketetahi – 1456m
After several switchbacks we finally emerged from the clouds to see the Ketetahi Hut. The drizzle let up but the wind did not. We stopped briefly for a snack before pressing on.

For the next part of the trek we were in open ground along a winding trail. Since a great many people had turned back, we only saw two other groups on the way down. Then having spent much of the day hidden in clouds we finally got some views. Lake Rotoaira appeared and we even got the occasional glimpse of Lake Taupo beyond.

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Ketetahi Car Park 800m
With 4km to the car park the trail dove into rainforest and grew warmer. We crossed a river on a wooden walkway and eventually arrived at the trail’s end after what seemed a lot longer than 45 minutes the sign had suggested.

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Overall, due to the weather, out Tongariro Alpine Crossing was disappointing mainly of the lack of views. In the rain and cold, the hike didn’t feel overly difficult. It took us only 5.5 hours of the suggested 8 hours and of the 2.5 litres of water I took with me, I came out with more than 2.

Perhaps it would have been more difficult in direct sunlight, but I’ll have to come back another time to see. Maybe the next time I’m in New Zealand.

The Trail Wanderer

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The Volcanoes of Central and East Auckland

For the past few months I’ve been hibernating in New Zealand, working and resting from my travels. But next week a group of us will be doing the Tongariro Crossing so I figured I’d get in a bit of mild training by climbing six of Auckland’s volcanoes.

Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, was built upon the Auckland Volcanic Field which contains around 53 dormant volcanoes. While many have been mined flat, some still protrude from the suburban landscape and offer great views over the city (and mild climbing experiences).

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From Mount Eden and looking east there is Mt Hobson to the left, Mount Saint John (vaguely) to the right and in the distance Mount Wellington.

Mount Eden – Maungawhau – 196m
The tallest of the six volcanoes is also the closest to the central city.

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For this reason it is a very popular mountain among tourists providing great views of the city and Auckland Harbour.

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Mount Eden has three craters and has easy access with car parks in several locations up the mountain. I began at the lowest point I could find to get the most of the climb.

Mount Saint John – Te Kopuke – 126m
My second volcano for the day is a lesser known one barely visible until you are virtually right on top of it. Compared to Mount Eden’s busy tourist vibe, I was alone on Mount Saint John except for a solitary family enjoying a picnic and a number of sheep. There is no car access to the peak and only a single crater.

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The rim of the crater gives excellent views to the east and south, with other directions blocked by trees. There is a good view over the motorway to Mount Hobson near the summit.

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Mount Hobson – Ohinerau – 143m
Directly across the motorway from Mount Saint John, Mount Hobson is perhaps one of the more human modified of all the volcanoes. It has been used for several things over the years, including an advertising medium. Due to its closeness to the motorway, signs and statements can often be mowed into the grass.

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Mount Hobson was my favourite volcano of the day with a short steep climb with few other people around. It also provided perhaps the best views from all sides but especially of Auckland Harbour and Rangitoto Island, the largest volcano in the region.

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One Tree Hill – Maungakiekie – 182m
One Tree Hill is the most famous “mountain” in Auckland and was once a special Maori landmark. Over the centuries it has had a tree growing at the top, thus its name, but due to attacks on the tree at various times, it was removed.

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One Tree Hill sits near the middle of Cornwall Park and is a very popular family area on sunny weekends. Today there were many people in the park and at the viewing area at the summit.

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One Tree Hill is the southernmost volcano of the six and provides great views out to Manukau Harbour.

Mount Wellington – Maungarei – 135m
Mount Wellington is the largest volcano in East Auckland and is a popular weekend spot with a deep cone that provides ample climbing for those keen enough. It is the youngest of Auckland’s volcanoes and like most of the others it is not expected to erupt again.

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From the summit it provides excellent views over Auckland Harbour to the Bucklands Beach peninsula.

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Pigeon Mountain – Ohuiarangi – 55m
The smallest and most eastern volcano of the Auckland Volcanic Field, Pigeon Mountain sits behind the house where I grew up.

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I have spent many an afternoon climbing the small peak which gives excellent views in all directions especially along the Bucklands Beach Peninsula and south towards Manukau City.

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While the climb up Mount Tongariro next weekend will be close to twice the height of the volcanoes I climbed today put together, it has given me some training towards what should be an epic climb. See you next week.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Vava’u – Swimming with the Whales

Today is my last day in Tonga and I must admit that I’ve rather enjoyed this little backwater Pacific Kingdom. While Vava’u has been the most commercialised of the islands groups, it’s not really that commercial at all. Tomorrow I face a flight to Tongatapu, a long wait at the international airport until my midnight flight to Auckland. I arrive at 2am and sleep in the airport until my 7am flight to Brisbane and home, well what home I have left there.

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Every year as part of their breeding migration, Humpback Whales arrive in Tongan waters. This has led to a commercialised ‘swim’ with the whales all throughout the kingdom. No trip to these islands should be done without going on of the swims. I’m not sure I agree with the idea – some of nature’s creatures should be left to just get on and live, not be harassed by we humans. So, I’ve held out from going for most of my stay. But on my second to last day – yesterday – I caved and organised a trip. As I said, you can’t come to the islands without swimming with the whales.

The first objective of the captain is to find where the whales are, then get up ahead of them and send the swimmers into the water. The whales will often hang out and ‘play’ but if they move away, we get back on the boat and try again. We only try twice before ‘getting the hint’ and finding another set of whales. Because there are many operators, they often work in conjunction with each other to locate the animals and to share time with them.

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We headed out to the west side of the islands and quickly located a pair of juveniles playing. We hung out around them for a while, watching them and getting the boat into position before getting into the water. In our snorkelling gear we were able to watch these animals go past. It’s magnificent to see such huge animals in their native environment. They weren’t that playful, however, and moved off. So back on the boat, we followed them and had another go. They moved away quickly again, so we left them alone.

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We received a call from the other side of the islands. A crew working in conjunction had spotted a mother and her newborn. Like a tag team crew, we arrived at the specified location as other boat and it’s cargo of swimmers and they headed of – they’d been swimming with the whale for an hour – so it was our turn. We were in the water as the great juggernaut of the mother flowed past us with it’s baby – only a few days old and twice my size. The beauty of the mother just hanging there in the water was immense and we swum for a few minutes watching her interact with her baby before they swum off. Back on the boat, we followed and tried again. This time we managed only a glimpse before they give us the hint.

While I would have liked to have swum with them for longer, the mother and her calf were the last set of whales we saw for the day. We did a bit more snorkelling around the coral gardens and Swallows cave. It was a very sunny day today and the coral just shines in all its colours in the sunlight.

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Not many photos of this, unfortunately, as I did not have an underwater camera today.

Back to Brisbane tomorrow and time to organise more trail walks.

The Trail Wanderer

Vava’u – Kart Safari

Today the sun came back out and the mugginess kicked in again. Having acclimatised to Queensland, I was thankful for the heat. While it hadn’t been cold, just not hot.

Today was a day I’d been looking forward to for much of my time on Vava’u… the Kart Safari day! It started in the afternoon, so I spent the morning just hanging out and relaxing in the backpackers.

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I headed down to the Kart Safari place for 1pm and met with the guy who was taking me on the tour. We waited for a couple from Melbourne to arrive and then 5 of us headed out on the tour in 3 carts. I was pleased as I had one to myself.

After a very brief training session: this pedal goes forward, this pedal stops, this is how you turn it on. And that’s it, easy! We strapped in and headed off. We followed the sealed road for a while taking a road I had not been along which quickly turned to dirt…

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Then to track:

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We drove to one of the most northern lookouts of the island. Great, because I had not been to the north as yet. As I had expected, the lookout was amazing, vast cliffs in both directions, hidden beaches and the raging blue of the sea.

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After a while at the lookout, we headed off back along the track to the dirt road to the sealed road and to the east, heading to Keitahi Beach – a place I’d been on the scooter tour. There is a steep hill leading down to the beach that was crazy on the scooter, but awesome in the buggy.

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We sat for a while and chatted to the guy who had leased the entire beach front and was building a new resort. Back in the karts, we headed up the hill and took a track which headed along the cliffs to another lookout. Again with amazing views.

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And the raging seas:

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We watched flying foxes circle in the air – I love these beautiful creatures having worked in a bat hospital over christmas.

We headed out and drove down the dirt road to ‘Ene’io Beach again – I’d been there on my scooter tour also – for a beer. Then we returned to the backpackers.

Overall, it was a fun afternoon in the Karts although it could have been longer. Tomorrow I will climb Mt Talau again, this time with my Canadian friend, then on Wednesday – my last full day in Tonga – I’m off to swim with the humpback whales.

The Trail Wanderer.

Vava’u – Mt Talau National Park

So, it’s Sunday in Vava’u and like everywhere else in the Kingdom of Tonga, Vava’u shuts down and everyone goes to church. I decided to have a partial relaxing day and just hang out in the backpackers for most of it. There’s a nice common room, I know a few of the people, so I grabbed a book, my phone and just hung out on the couch.

By lunchtime, I felt terribly lazy and decided to get out of the place and do something a little physical. Since I’ve not hiked on Vava’u, I decided to go for a walk. At the end of the harbour, Mt Talau stands quietly in all its mountainness. I’d say splendour, but at barely 132m from the base to the top, there isn’t any. But it’s close to town, so why not. It’s actually a fair walk to get to through the sometimes steep streets of Neiafu. By the time I reached the base of the mountain, I was sweating. A good start. I located the sign along the dirt track and kept following it.

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The track grew thinner and led into the bush. I kept walking until I ran out of track. Had I gone the wrong way? Instead of heading back, I chose to climb up the side of the mountain. It had mildly rained for the last few days, so the side of the mountain was a little slick and soft, but I went up anyway, hanging on to trees and roots as I went. It wasn’t difficult going and I soon spied a track when I reached the top. Heading in one direction for about 5 metres and I found another track that went to a set of steps leading down. I had obviously missed a track leading up the mountain. Nevermind.

I continued along the track and it lead around the top of the mountain to a small building with a satellite dish and then on to a lookout: a fantastic view of the harbour

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I walked on and found a track leading to another path down the mountain, this one with ropes to help with the climb. I guess I missed that one too. Ignoring it, I continued on to another lookout giving a view of the town:

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Then on to a third lookout at the end of the track on the north side of the mountain:

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I retraced my steps back to where I had climbed up and headed back the other way. I was hoping to find a lookout to the west, but the track petered out. So I headed back. (I came back again on Tuesday and redid the climb with my Canadian female friend. We pushed on into the bush and eventually found a lookout on the west side:)
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I headed back to the steps near where I had climbed up and headed down. The steps lead to a roped section of path that leads to a split in the rock that you climb through. Again the dirt was a little wet and soft, but I went down anyway.

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I have to say that the climb was more difficult than I expected. There were only a few places to hold on to and many places to slip. I took my time and came out of the bottom of the split in the rock to a short rock scramble down to the ground. I walked through some trees and came to a wire fence. On the other side was the original track I’d walked along.

I was heading past the Mt Talau sign when I heard voices on the side of the mountain. This must be the other way up. I headed into the bush and found the path, it actually starts about 10 metres before the sign. The good ole start the trail before the sign trick. So I decided to climb it. It was roped the entire way to the top and took me all of 5 minutes to get up. I then climbed back down – another 5 minutes – and then back to town.

Tomorrow, I’m off on a Kart Safari!

The Trail Wanderer

Vava’u – Snorkelling Tour

There are several places around the bay that I have been interested to see, so I thought a snorkelling tour would be the best means to see them. It’s with an experienced operator who knows the islands well – Hakau Tours. As it turned out, there were six of us going on the tour, all of them from the backpackers – The canadian girl I hung out with in Ha’apai, the kiwi guy from the scooters and three british medic students.

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The day started out rather shabby, with a constant drizzle, but lightened up. We met the operator at 9.30 and headed off into the harbour on his boat. The wind picked up quickly and rain threatened again. After about 15 minutes we arrived alongside an island called Kapa and around to the other side. The end of the island has short cliffs with jagged rocky areas along it that the water has worn away. Just beyond the corner are two caves. These two caves are the location of our first snorkelling swim. Swallow’s cave is the largest of the two and goes into the cliff maybe 15 metres by water, and a by the looks of it, more beyond. If I had the shoes for it, I would have gone further, but we were here to swim, so we swum around the cave where there was a large number of fish swimming in a school. We headed out and along the base of the cliffs, enjoying the small other fish and the coral until we got to the smaller unnamed cave.

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Back on the boat and we headed further out into the bay to Nuapapu island, the site of another cave – Mariner’s Cave. The entrance to this cave is underwater and to get to it, you need to swim through a short underwater tunnel – about 5 metres long. This cave is where the Tonga’s used to hide during the island wars when enemy ships came into the bay, then they would swim after them, climb on board and kill all the sailors. The cave is quite spacious when you get into it. I was second into the cave and while swimming through the tunnel, lost one of my fins and almost the other. I ended up scraping my foot on the tunnel – more war wounds! One of the others brought me the fin I’d lost and I swum out again. Swimming into the cave is psychologically more difficult, as you can’t really see where you are going. Swimming out again is more fun.

The water was warmer than the air, but we got out and froze as we were taken to the next place.

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At the far end of Nuapapu island and stretching over to Vaka’eitu island is a large area of coral reef known as the coral gardens. We were dropped off at one end and snorkelled our way to the other side. This took about an hour and was a lot of fun.

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We were then taken to a small island called Nuku where we stopped for lunch on the sandy beach. After lunch, we were dropped of a little offshore from the island and swum along its reef line. The coral was not as plentiful as the Coral Garden, but there are other things to see. A small school of barracuda swum past at one stage and at the end of the island I found a pair of clown fish. They were very inquisitive. Unlike the other fish, when I swum down to check them out, they swum up to check me out!

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The trip back only took 30 minutes, but the chilling wind and rain didn’t make it very fun. Back on dry land, we all rushed back to the backpackers for a hot shower, but were disappointed as they hadn’t changed the gas for the water heater.

Tomorrow is Sunday and the country shuts down, so it might be a good day for a hike, depending on the weather.

The Trail Wanderer

Vava’u – Scooter tour

The idea of my first day in Vava’u was to check out the township and get myself organised for my week here and to book myself some tours. Also while I was here, I hung out with a kiwi guy in the backpackers who asked if I’d like to do a scooter tour. Well, not a tour as such, we simply hire a scooter each and drive around the island. At 30 Paanga a day (A$20), why not!

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So, this morning the scooters were delivered to the front of the backpackers and with only a map and several hours, we set out. I’ve never ridden a scooter before, and it took a couple of minutes and some toe scrapes to get it. We stopped to gas up our vehicles and my scooter died – the accelerator would not engage. So, we called the owner and she sent out a mechanic, who got it going. We were ten minutes down the road when it started to play up again. So, after another call to the owner and a 30 minute wait, she arrived with another bike for me. And we were off!

The weather today was not the best, while I have seen the very occasional short rain during my stay, this was the first day where it actually rained. This happened while we were waiting for the lady to arrive and finished when we set out. We decided to head out to the north-east side of Vava’u to an island connected to the main one by a causeway, and a couple of beaches. We stopped for a chat with a resort owner at ‘Ene’io beach before heading off across the causeway to the end of the island.

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The people of Tonga are very friendly, and the kids just loved seeing us drive past on scooters. We then visited Keitahi Beach and my fellow biker went for a snorkel while I took some pictures of the beach and its surrounding cliffs.

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We headed back towards Neiafu to refuel. Then it was off in the opposite direction, to the south-west end of the main island where there is a large lake. The ride over there were great. Unlike most of the other islands, a large proportion of Vava’u’s roads are surfaced. And the roads between the villages are the best, as with less traffic, there are less potholes. Potholes are not the best in 4 wheeled vehicles, on scooters they are hideous but a lot easier to avoid.

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To ride around the lake, however, we needed to go on an unsurfaced track. This is where the fun began. Luckily it had not really rained too much in the last month, so the track was fairly dry. I say fairly, as there were some muddy spots that could not be avoided. Off road scooters! We got a little muddy and I came off a couple of times on the slippery track, but suffered only scrapes. At one stage we even had to carry the bikes over a fallen coconut palm.

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We finally made it back to surfaced road and headed back to the backpackers. This was when the rain decided to visit and it poured for about 10 minutes. Yay for being wet on a scooter. Thank god we were no longer on unsurfaced tracks. Back at the Backpackers and a well needed shower.

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Tomorrow I’m out on a boat doing a tour of the bay, caves, beaches and reefs.

The Trail Wanderer