It wasn’t easy to sell Red or Dead the brand we created, Gerardine (wife and co founder) said it was like selling one of our kids but I was determined to “cash in” on 18 years of bloody hard graft, to have a crack at something new and very importantly to have more time with our 4 kids, who back in 1999 were still pretty young. We had travelled as a family and had realised that travelling (rather than spending time on a crowded beach) as a family was a wonderful bonding experience and an unparalleled gift that any parent could give to their kids. On extended holidays to Central America, The Middle East and Australia which ate into school terms we would get into trouble with school and even social services who I challenged to prove that school could teach my kids more about life than 3 weeks travelling in a van around Guatemala… they sensibly backed off.
9 years on and we have created some more successful businesses that keep us busy, 3 of the kids are not kids, two are in their 20’s and don’t live at home, only the 10 year old is totally dependent on mum and dad but for as long as the eldest still want to be with us, we are determined that we continue to spend those 4 weeks at Christmas and new year travelling together. Over the last few years we had become a bit complacent buying a wonderful home on The Swan River in that most liveable of cities, Perth WA. Perfect for mum and dad and the 10 year old who just wants to play cricket, cycle and play with the kids of our mates who teach at uni in Perth. Not so perfect for the others who love London and the adventures that we have given them or maybe spoiled them with.
So we are off doing some proper travelling again. Gerardine is bravely putting her collection of travel mementoes; the phobias to snakes, crocodiles, vertiginous mountain passes, street food, dodgy accommodation that she has collected over the past 9 years to one side (she refuses to take of her “Health and Safety Officer” badge though) and for the price of our normal economy return to Perth we’re off on a round the world ticket.
We can’t resist Perth though so the first two weeks are spent there. The 21 year old has bought his girlfriend one of those” 3p a minute “international phone cards so he seems happy enough at midnight or 7am on the phone for those marathon chats that fresh love seems to be able to sustain. Add to that a winter tan, Daft Punk playing an outdoor gig with the Perth’s thrusting skyscrapers as a suitably futuristic backdrop and shops selling some topical cheesy 80’s vintage printed clothes that would be snapped up in London and of course mum and dad paying for food at restaurants that they would be hard pressed to afford at home and its more than a bearable 2 weeks for them.
After twenty years of regular visits to Australia I still considered New Zealand to be Australia’s neighbour who spoke with the same accent but it takes 2 flights to get to Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island and 8 ½ hours in the air and they really do talk like Murray from Flight of The Conchords. The youngest couldn’t wait to pick up the 6 berth campervan that was to be our home for the next week. He ‘d been asking how many toilets and showers it would have and if it would have a TV. For the $3000 dollars we had paid to hire it we were expecting a big f-off Winnebago (maybe with a couple of kayaks on top, some bikes and a fully stocked fridge. Instead we got a cramped, smelly, tatty specimen with 250,000 on the clock that would barely hold our bags nevermind the 6 of us. No time to dwell on the disappointment though, it was Christmas eve, we had to stock up with basics and book up some activities. If you are on, Queenstown must be an adrenalin junkies dream, you can book every kind of terrifying activity imaginable. Mr and Mrs Hemingway were content to watch people paraglide and bungy off of the mountain ledges that overhang the town centre. he town is beautiful, full of quality cafes and shops and the lakeside and the mountain setting is hard for any town to better. As most of the activities were closed on Christmas day and rain was forecast we decided to make that our travelling north day. Within minutes of the climb out of Queenstown the sheer scale and magnificence of the landscape hits you like a sledgehammer. Snow capped mountains, enormous lakes, empty roads, you know you are very lucky indeed to be able to visit a place like this. We overnighted at Lake Wanaka, worked out how to make the van liveable, hung up a few Christmas decorations and the giggles and noises came from all the junior Hemingways from the 21 year old down. Camper vans are a true test of “family” and so far this family was passing.
I woke on Christmas morning at first light (only 6 hours after it had gone dark) enjoyed a run with views that will live with me forever. Santa had managed to deliver a couple of presents finding the 10 year old on the other side of the world, 13 hours before he would have done at home and had managed to creep into a space that we had trouble moving around in, without disturbing us. We cooked salmon and eggs for breakfast in beautiful sunshine, enjoyed a 3 hour trek watching the “weather” move in off the mountains and then we carried on up north. Within a couple of hours we entered the rainforests and watched streams and waterfalls erupt everywhere as 350mm of rain fell in an afternoon. This third of a metre or rain might have the long journey north spectacular but the campervan soon started to sprout serious leaks. But regular stops to see “Jurassic” beaches being lashed by violent waves, to dodge swarms of biting mossies that only seemed to come out in the rain took our mind off what was likely to be a wet night in the van. On the 5 hours up to Fox Glacier nothing was open, not even a petrol station. We were relying on the hotels and cafes of the small town of Fox Glacier to provide Christmas Dinner but no such luck, so it was 1 packet of chicken soup, some grated cheese, a tin of beans, white sliced bread, an avocado, banana and chocolate for Christmas dinner. The rain smash onto the roof of the van, the” rustle up” went down a treat and we realised that this was a Christmas Day that would live long in the memory, how could the Queens Speech and the “same old same old” beat a day like that.
We woke up cold and damp, and that fetish I have for vintage campervans (and there are some wonderful ones to photograph in New Zealand) didn’t extend to this 90’s lump of sh*te. But the Boxing day weather defied the forecasters and we moved the camper into the warm sun to dry out and prepared for our trek to the glacier. You need a guide(they outrank our resident “Health and Safety Officer”) and all the equipment they provide to get you onto Fox Glacier itself, tough on the legs but it’s a must, there are only 3 glaciers in the world that sit in a temperate climate. At Fox Glacier you rise out of sub tropical rainforest and within minutes you are strapping on your crampons and negotiating the crevasses.
We stopped along the West Coast on way back to Queenstown and started to realise our trip was far too short. We wanted to visit the brooding Milford Sound, get to beaches and the the seal colonies that no road can take you too, get to mountain glaciers and tarns that take 4 days to walk to. There’s just so much to do and see and its just too bloomin far away to pop back that we decided to indulge in a 9 hour charter of a helicopter. Landing on a 7000ft mountain peak, making snow men in pristine snow in shorts and short sleeves, being landed next to a boat that would take us through Milford Sound when others had to sit on coaches for 8 hours, visiting beaches that are inaccessible without helicopter were just part of a day that we will never forget. It cost £2500 for 6 of us but compare that to money some spend on flash cars, designer clothes and swanky restaurants and the Hemingways know where the real value is.
The campervan dried out, it was so comfy we had trouble getting the kids up (or maybe it was the thought of the 8 hour hike along one of the worlds top ten walks, the Routeburn Trac, maybe it was the eldest realisation that yet again we were taking him out of range of phones). We reached stage 3 of the route, you can’t beat Pot Noodle and views across snowy peaks at 4000 ft. It costs nothing to “tramp” the Routeburn and that’s part of the joy of Queenstown. There are great restaurants great shopping, a myriad of excursions and adrenalin adventures, but you can also get out and hike and the moderately fit can experience true mountain wilderness, amazing views and tranquillity within a few hours of thigh tightening walking.
We finished off with a spot of fishing, ate trout within an hour of catching it, hired bikes to indulge our designer brains by taking pics of some of the coolest modern houses in the world that are being built on the mountainsides overlooking Queenstown.
Next it was a flight back to the North Island and on reading Lonely Planet it looked as if 4 days at The Bay of Islands would be our best bet for beauty. It was a major disappointment. Maybe we had been spoilt by The South Island and despite the 8 hour round trip we cut things short and headed for Auckland. Aucklanders are spoiled with beautiful islands within 45 minutes of the city centre. We spent a day on Waiheke Island, with its beautiful coves, beaches, lush vegetation and bohemian restaurants and shops and amazing properties. If it were closer to home we would have bought a hillside shack and added to our annual carbon footprint. Another day visiting the surprisingly cool shops, the delightful suburbs and city beaches of Devonport all whilst listening to the best soul and dance music radio station these music loving Hemingways had ever found anywhere in the world, George FM and we realised that we have been daft not to visit New Zealand before, its got everything, jaw dropping beauty, tons to do, great food, cool modern housing, culture and some brilliant old camper vans and shacks to photograph!
There are pluses and minuses of a “round the worlder” in a month. You are never in one place too long to start twiddling your thumbs but endlessly checking in and out, unloading and loading, unpacking and packing does become a little trying and with six of you who all go at different paces and who cant all be guaranteed to be in the best of spirits it can be trying.
There’s a week to go and whilst we all enjoy the thought of leaving Auckland early evening on Wednesday and crossing the international date line,arriving in Rarotonga on the evening before, Tuesday! The forecast of 3 days of cyclonic torrential rain is prompting a few comments of I wish we were on our way back home.
Maybe I’m an optimist but I was convinced we would be met off the plane in Rarotonga by hula girls bearing garlands. Instead it was as a dash out of the rain and an arrivals hall full of the sound of a not so exotic concoction of Chas and Dave, John Shuttleworth and The Black and White Minstrels in the form of a white guy playing karaoke classics on a ukulele.
It was midnight when we got to our cabanas by the beach and despite the rain, it was warm, smelt exotic, and the sound of waves breaking over the reef sent us off to bed excited about tomorrow, we needn’t have been, it rained solidly for the next two days .Were not a family that travels to the other side of the world to sit and play monopoly or read books, we like to be “doing”. However we tried we couldn’t “do” in Rarotonga in the rain. We tried snorkelling, but the grey seas were murky, and the youngest was convinced that during our uncomfortable beach walk in the wind and rain the dead fish on the beach was the one fish we saw. We considered re-enacting “Castaway” and attempting to build an escape raft but realised that just as in the film, the breakers on the reef would push us back. We tried all the things recommended in Lonely Planet. Hiring bikes drew a blank, there are NO bikes on the islands for 10 year olds. We visited the shops of the supposed bustling and cosmopolitan main town only to find fast food shops, video rentals and gift shops selling 90’s swimwear. The only food we could find that remotely appealed was Pizza from a café full of grumpy staff and it took over an hour to arrive. Where was this Polynesian Paradise promised by a Lonely Planet guide that we were starting to mistrust?
As creative people though it did get us thinking. Rarotonga is an island with one road running round its flat 32 kilometre circumference. Its perfect for cycling and walking round, yet every 500 metres there is a car and motorbike hire outlet. I know that you cant deny people entrepreneurial opportunity but in a rapidly changing world where, to many the internal combustion engine is not a desirable thing, surely a tiny pacific island shouldn’t be dominated by them and you should be able to walk around it without having to jump into the verge every 30 seconds? And surely we are not the only ones who don’t travel to difficult to reach places like this to sample European or American food, be it posh or bloody Fried Chicken and Coke when we visit a South Pacific Island. I wonder what the missionaries who brought western religion to the Cook Islands would think about the latter-day welcoming of its embracing of the western worlds worst unsustainable practices and unhealthy foods.
On the final day, the sun came out for a bit, we kayaked to atolls, snorkelled in a bay that is a natural aquarium, walked along white palm fringed beaches with the dogs that had befriended us and enjoyed the beautifully maintained and friendly Muri Beachcomber cabanas (well five of us did. The evening before we did find a restaurant serving local delicacies and the eldest lad ended up with 3 days of severe food poisoning.) It’s amazing how the sun can transform a place and the spirits.
Again we couldn’t help our marketing and creative minds from thinking how it wouldn’t be that difficult to start to shift this island into a sustainable 21st century “Pacific Paradise” and to ensure its long term prosperity and charm.
We arrived in our final stop Los Angeles, went shopping and gave up in torrential rain and with the eldest’s food poisoning still not abating. A chemist advised him to see a doctor and lo and behold he was diagnosed with a pretty severe stomach infection. He hadn’t eaten for 3 days and was put on antibiotics and told to only drink Gatorade and eat dry toast and plain rice. We had a family conflab and all but the 10 year old wanted to get an early flight home. He said he had been reading about Universal Studios on the internet and was really looking forward to it. Bless him, we stayed and what is more, fell in love with LA, this city of contradiction. LA is a city full of bad taste, and good taste, the extremely rich and down and outs seemingly everywhere, cheesy designer excess and the coolest most affordable vintage clothing anywhere, stupid bloody Hummers and sensible Prius’s in the same driveway of the domestic temples to excess of Beverley Hills and Bel Air (and yes those evocative names, Sunset Boulevard, Melrose, Hollywood, Venice Beach, Santa Monica et al), It’s a dysfunctional city, that this functional family enjoys nosing around, its funny, sad and exciting and after the contradiction of Rarotonga the successes and failures of developed cities readied us for London.
After two days of unbelievably good vintage clothes shopping, great healthy food, and domestic architecture ogling, course people watching and a half day for me and the young un @ Universal, we all said we would return to explore LA sooner rather than later.
So a month and a bit away together with offspring ranging from 21 to 10? We are all still mates, we have talked, laughed, argued (a bit!) Traveling like this throws a family closer together than you have time to be at home and you learn so much about your kids and how they are developing and how the family unit is developing. There have been times when individually and collectively we wished we were at home and that’s not a bad thing, appreciating home. But we are a family and these shared experiences help ensure that we remain a close one. Its difficult to get A level revision, university dissertations done, its difficult being away from girlfriends and boyfriends, but the shared experiences are invaluable, travel like this trip is the best education you can give to your kids AND a family that travels together stays together.
There may not be many more times when all six of us travel together…I’ll miss it.
Perth: cycling and walking the rivers, those beaches, op shops, Fremantle, Little Creatures (an amazing affordable restaurant) the cycle only island, Rottnest.
South Island NZ : just driving about in a camper, but don’t miss a guided tour on Fox Glacier.
South Island NZ: a helicopter charter to Milford Sound, deserted beach landings, pristine mountain and wilderness drops, otherwise unreachable glacier landings www.alpinechoppers.co.nz
South Island Pot Noodle at 4000 ft on a hike on The Routeburn Track.
North Island NZ: Waiheke Island, Auckland.
LA: the houses, the shopping for vintage, people watching.