Thursday, July 19, 2012

Settling into Newcastle June 2012

Settling into Newcastle again Settling in has gone pretty smoothly (except for getting the phone and internet - but it is finally on now!). Fi’s mum sold us her car (the hatch version of our old wagon). The house was partially unpacked and there was food in the fridge and cupboard :) We’ve unpacked all our boxes and are gradually getting back all our belongings which we loaned out - but we’ll be waiting a long while for our things from Stellenbosch (waiting for the container to be filled, then sailed to Aus).
The kids settled easily into school - Jesmond Public School was very happy to have us back. Connor’s friend, William, said “Where have you been? I came back to school and you weren’t there!” (we did tell him we were moving but it’s a bit much to take in as a 5 year old). Connor is in the 2/3 class and Laura in the 5/6 class. It is great to be back at Jesmond Park Uniting Church again and seeing lots of good friends there. Niall commenced his PhD at Newcastle University. Fiona went back to work at GHD 3 days a week (to have some money coming in again!). And we’ve managed to get the kids into their activities - piano lessons, tennis for Laura and hockey for Connor and swimming for both (and Fi & Niall can do laps during the lesson). Both kids got a merit award at the second assembly and were in the top of their class for speeches (only a few days to prepare!) - they had plenty to talk about after our adventure! So as we settle back in here, we think of all our friends back in our other home, Stellenbosch. We miss them all terribly - which hasn’t been helped by our lack of communication with the outside world (yes, even in Australia it takes over 2 weeks to get a home phoneline!). But now we’re on school holidays and we should be able to talk to some of them a bit more frequently.
Connor had his 8th birthday on 8 July at Blue Gum Hills Regional Park and enjoyed celebrating with his friends with an apple pie birthday cake (with Connor spelt out on top) and playing in the maze and riding bikes. His special birthday present was our new pet guinea pigs, named Coco and Splodge.
We won’t be travelling far these holidays - just up to Gloucester to visit Niall’s mum’s house for a short relax before school starts. Our family has done enough travelling for a while now! We’re still working out what we want to do with our lives as we settle back in, but giving ourselves plenty of space to do that. Niall is looking for part-time ministry, computers or teaching work and Fiona is looking at options for singing (Chamber Choir is currently on tour in the USA at the Choir Games). We’ll both be back into church music this week, so then we’ll really feel like we’re home. Fi made a collage of many of our friends and family from SA which will adorn our wall and remind us of the adventure we have taken (it sometimes feels like a dream). If you’ve made it through this whole saga - well done. You’ve travelled with us! Keep in touch so we can keep travelling with you. Lots of love, the McKay Family.

Canada 2012

Our next destination was Canada. We made it through our very full flight (kids shared one screen as Laura’s wasn’t working and no spare seats to move to - but we did get a free meal to compensate) and arrived in Toronto. We stayed in a hotel in North York on the outskirts of the city, but right above a subway station. We set about going around town, seeing the Bata shoe museum (thanks Caroli!), walking around the city and enjoying the train system. We met up with Fiona’s Newcastle choir friend, Anthony, for dinner one evening, and bought an e-reader ready for our train journey. Fi enjoyed checking out the local grocery store - a huge underground shop with everything you could imagine. Breakfast supplies, lunch, fruit and munchies were purchased.
After killing some time in the city and a late dinner, we boarded our VIA rail train at Toronto at 9.30pm and quickly set up for the night - carriage 121 (near the back of the 21 carriages). The kids had a bed each on the top and us adults slept on the bunks below, facing into the aisle. The beds were quite big and very comfortable, although we found it hard to sleep the first night. In the mornings while we had breakfast they folded up the beds into two 4 seater booths. The kids enjoyed exploring the train, listening to the talks in the activity car and eating! Boy did we eat. So much food and it was really nice. The landscape continually changed from trees and lakes to prairies, oil rigs, lakes and finally snow-capped mountains which we could watch from our carriage, a ‘dome’ carriage or later in the journey the panoramic carriage. Time went so quickly as we were continually eating and looking at the views. There were also nice people to talk to (lots of retired people and train buffs who were there to enjoy the journey). Occasionally we stopped and could get out to stretch and feel our landlegs again! We stopped in Winnepeg for a morning and explored ‘The Forks’ (where 2 rivers join) and the shops - we found a wonderful toy shop where we bought a very apt game - ‘Ticket to Ride’ (the North American version with some of our train stops of course!). We’d played the game with Niall’s cousins in Stellenbosch and it was a big hit with the kids - so we just had to buy it! After 3 days of travelling we disembarked at Jasper and stayed for a week with our friends, Ray and Diana and their 2 kids, Pascale and Mikaela. We met this wonderful family on our holiday to Vietnam in 2010. They made us feel very welcome with our own unit underneath their house and lots of planned activities! Jasper is a very beautiful place within a national park, surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains. Elk and bears roam through and nearby the town and there are so many lovely lakes and walks nearby. We came on the long weekend, so got to spend a number of days with the girls before they returned to school. On our first morning it snowed (lightly, but there were actual snow flakes!); everything had a dusting of snow - so beautiful! This was the highlight of the trip (other than Legoland) for the kids - they were desperate to see real snow AND touch it!
Some of the places we visited were the glacier, hot springs, Five lakes, tramway (cablecar, complete with Aussie guides!) where we had snow fights and amazing views and then Lake Maligne, which was still half covered with ice. All the lakes were crystal clear, and most and no vegetation as it’s too cold - glacial water! Our walk around Lake Maligne was half in snow, which the kids mostly enjoyed. Many snow fights were had - but there was not enough snow for a snowman! Hot chocolate was a welcome relief at the end of our 3km snow walk (Connor still wanted ice tea though). We didn’t see any moose or goats, but we saw mountain sheep, a grizzly bear and 4 black bears, very close to our car. We visited a museum to see some more static versions of all the animals in this area.
Our hosts made sure we tried the local cuisine including ‘poutine’ (basically hot chips with gravy and melted cheese curd), and we had plenty of great home cooking as well. We made an enormous bobotie for dinner one night, bringing our South African influence in, and bolognaise another time. It’s great to be able to cook in a well equipped kitchen when you’ve been travelling! The kids had a wonderful time playing together and jumping on the trampoline, sitting in the hot tub and playing with Laddie the dog (Lassie lookalike). We also enjoyed the hot tub - it was light until 10pm, so you could sit and watch the mountains from the tub. Eventually it was time to get back on the train. The train was delayed slightly so we did some last minute shopping in town and waited for the train to arrive. What a sight to see when the train came in with the snow-capped mountain backdrop and the station full of excited passengers (many Australians and a few Canadians) straining to get a look at the train, keen to board. I managed to get in quick to the reservations to get an early dinner sitting (9pm is too late to eat for us!) and soon we were on the train again.
We wanted to make sure we got a good spot in the ‘dome’ car where you can see all around. We soon found some vacant seats and set in for a spectacular afternoon viewing Mt Robson and the lakes. Niall and Fi watched until sunset (while the kids played in our bedroom) with the car to themselves. We briefly stopped at Kamloops and stretched our legs before bed, then had a nice shower and slept. We arrived on the outskirts of Vancouver while we were having breakfast and soon after alighted and collected our luggage. We were very sad to say goodbye to the train. A quick taxi trip to our hotel, and we were able to check in early to our hotel and get out and about along the river to Stanley Park. Such a gorgeous sunny day! We decided not to hire a bike ($40/person/day!) and instead enjoyed walking around town eating our left over snacks from the train. At night we headed into Chinatown for the night markets and caught a tram home again (we’d had enough walking). Next day we spent at the Granville Island Markets (a short walk over the bridge from our hotel) and by chance ran into Noel and Margaret from our Newcastle church. The weather was just warm enough for the kids to use the free waterside, which they virtually had to themselves, so wore themselves out going up and down in the waterpark. Then a quick trip back to our hotel and we were picked up by Sheila, the mother of a friend of ours, for a visit to her neighbourhood. After meeting the family, we took a quick trip to the swinging bridge and walked through the huge, mossy forests to see the waterfall, then a home cooked roast dinner and conversation about Australian friends and visits. On our last day we spent shopping in Vancouver - buying another e-reader (everyone was wanting to use it, so 2 were necessary!), last minute presents and seeing around town (Niall spotted Aussie swimmer Stephanie Rice) and at the waterfront, we flopped down to kill a few hours in a huge bookshop where the kids devoured some books! Dinner was at a seedy bar, which turned out to have excellent food (only $5.95 each, plus tax of course!). Although we’d checked out of our hotel, we managed to have showers at a nearby gym and then pick up our luggage from our hotel lobby ready for our midnight flight back to Australia. After a few hours waiting to board, we were on our way to Australia - a very full flight - not one seat free! Kids didn’t eat, but managed to sleep enough (Connor threw up a few times, so just as well he didn’t eat!). And soon we were back in Sydney seeing our family again! Niall’s mum and Jeff and Fi’s mum and Hilary and Fi’s sister, Ange, met us with big hugs and then we quickly headed back to Newcastle to our old house. Waiting for us at our house were welcome signs made by Laura’s friend, Lara, and some cupcakes! And most of our unpacking had already been done, so we could move straight in. The kids were keen to stay with nanna, so Niall and Fi had the house to ourselves for the first night.

Sweden and Iceland 2012

Sweden and Iceland 2012 After sad goodbyes, we flew to Sweden (via Germany) and caught the train to Uppsala to meet our friends Helena and Erik and their 2 children, Gabrielle and Elise. We stayed 4 nights at their house, tucked away in a small suburb outside of Uppsala. We enjoyed a short bus trip to Uppsala seeing the beautiful church, castle and university buildings.
One day we went to Stockholm with Erik as our guide. It was quite overcast and rainy at times, so we made the best of the day, seeing a recovered shipwrecked boat from the 16th century, wandering through the old town, catching the train and tram, visiting Skansen - seeing traditional Swedish buildings and trying swedish bread and meatballs, and avoiding the funpark and the teenage concert on that day! Last on our list was going to an Ice Hockey World Championship game - Norway vs Italy. It was an afternoon game, so not many people there - but it was fantastic! The kids were screaming and cheering for Norway - who won! We made our own way back home on two trains and a bus and had a quick dinner before heading to bed exhausted!
Helena took us on some lovely walks around the rivers near their house and we managed to find our way to the shops to buy supplies to cook dinner (bobotie and sticky date pudding!) as a farewell gift. It was nice to relax at their house and for the kids to play.
From Sweden we flew Iceland Air to Reykjavik, Iceland, for two nights staying at Inga’s Guesthouse. Thank goodness it was a self contained flat as food is so expensive to buy! 2 minute noodles and frozen vegies left in the freezer were our first meal - it was still light but well past our bedtime, so we crashed anyway! Not far from our house was a lovely bakery and a corner store to buy supplies ($8 for box of cereal!). We braved the cold, overcast and sometimes wet day on a day bus tour of the Golden Circle seeing so much (but no puffins!): - gulfoss waterfall (Hvítá tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 32 m deep), - Strokkur hot springs with the amazing geyser that shoots up to 30 m high. - beautiful church at Skalholt (plaques show ministers dating back to the 900’s), - Þingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year and where Icelandic people have met for important meetings for a thousand years.
Evidence of the ongoing ground movements are everywhere - tourist tracks that stop abruptly, rifts, gaping holes in the ground, volcanic rock and then the snow-capped mountains. Our tour guide firstly spoke in English, then translated into German and of course also spoke Icelandic. She sang several Icelandic songs as we travelled around Iceland. It was very enjoyable, but the kids were disappointed that we didn’t actually touch any snow (just saw it along the road in patches).
Our second and last full day we took a tour to the Blue Lagoon enjoying the hot spring baths, trying the mineral masks and then getting ready to fly out that evening. Connor didn’t like the lagoon - too hot! We had beautiful sunny weather, even though it was a little windy and chilly outside - the hot baths kept us warm! It was a very extravagant place with spa treatments and towels and robes you could hire (after paying lots to get in!) and a bar in the pool area. The colour of the water was iridescent blue - almost white, against the grey rocks and brilliant blue sky.

Spain 2012

Time to change countries with a flight to Madrid. Our friends from Stellenbosch, Ainhoa and Javier, met us and spent the week showing us around their hometown. Our hostel was right in the middle of the city in Puerto del Sol above the metro station, but it was very quiet inside and had everything we wanted (except a plug for the sink – ‘no plugs allowed’). There was an amazing bakery below us that had the most delicious pastries and cakes!
We went by fast train (200km/hr) to the town of Toledo, a historic city not far from Madrid. It has many historic buildings and they are still discovering more layers of history beneath. One museum had a Roman road below a Islamic mosque, that then became a Christian church. We nearly had to stay the night when we accidently got the wrong train time - luckily the guard was kind enough to let us stand up for the journey home!
Back in Madrid we met up with some friends from Newcastle for dinner - traditional Tapas - yumm! Then the next day the adults went to the Prado and saw the most amazing art I’ve ever seen while the kids and Ainhoa had an adventure on the metro (choose your own adventure)! We finished the afternoon with Churros and Hot Chocolate - a must for any visitor - thankfully Ainhoa could order for us. Very rich thick hot choc with donut-like light deep fried churros to dip into the chocolate.
After sharing in this delicacy we said goodbye to Caitlin and Tim and had a rest! Javier’s family invited us for lunch so we enjoyed some traditional paella (no seafood for Niall) and overcame the language barrier with some games and lots of laughter! We survived a red bus tour during a downpour (with no proper covers on the top level!) and managed to get our washing done at a nearby laundromat (while chatting to another Australian, of course!). Another interesting town we travelled to (by bus this time) was El Escorial where we saw the fantastic Royal Palace and Monastery with so much art work and beautifully manicured gardens. We hiked up to Felipe’s seat and could see snow on the mountains in the distance. Such a beautiful day - and it was Mother’s Day!

McKay update - The long way home... Leaving South Africa and onto Germany

Our last few weeks in Stellenbosch were spent catching up with lots of friends and doing some last minute sightseeing. Lots of food, lots of braais and some beautiful scenery and great friends.
We really enjoyed driving along Chapman’s Peak to see absolutely stunning scenery (it was raining in Stellenbosch when we left and came into blue skies and sunshine!) along the coast. We also went to see an excavation in situ where we saw skeletons of the African bear, the short-necked giraffe and many other animals. Our final farewell was a lovely braai at Elaine’s house with many of our friends. It was very sad to say goodbye to everyone.
In mid-April we left Stellenbosch and flew to Frankfurt, Germany. Niall braved the German roads (right-hand driving!) and lack of sleep and drove us safely to Dilsberg, near Heidelberg. Dilsberg is an old castle town from the 1300s and the youth hostel we stayed in was on the edge of the town. The castle ruins were amazing and had a wonderful view over the valley and it’s meandering stream. We also ventured into Heidelberg by train and visited the castle, had a ride on the funicular for a spectacular view of the city (chilly at 1oC) and enjoyed Turkish for lunch! Fi had to try out shopping at Aldi, so we bought some supplies at the local store and had fun working out what everything was in German! On our way to Gunzberg we stopped at an Air and Car museum at Sinsheim. What a find! Mounted aircraft hung mid-air towering over us as if they were flying and we walked through them (mid-air). Our favourites were the Concorde and it’s Russian equivalent, the Tupolev (TU 144). The aircraft were so huge up close! We stayed in a youth hostel and spent a day at Legoland.
What an amazing place - so much lego everywhere - replica cities, underwater adventures, star wars. Then there was the lego factory, the aquarium, rides and of course building your own creations. We all had a ball at Legoland, even though it was very cold. Not that that deterred Connor from wanting to go on a water ride - we did wait until it stopped sleeting.
Next we moved on to a very scenic small village called Schönhofen, near Regensburg. Our cottage included a mini hydro-electric plant on the running stream underneath us. We looked out onto the river and some cliffs. Spring had just arrived and everything was blossoming. In between some wet patches we enjoyed some lovely walks up the cliffs - amazing views of rolling hills, blossoming flowers and the sleepy village below. We found our way into Regensburg driving, no thanks to the GPS, on a very icy wet day and saw some beautiful old churches, very ornately decorated and often gilded with gold. We came across a brass quartet from Russia playing beautiful classical music in the plaza - absolutely exquisite music (sounded like a CD) - should have been in the concert hall, not busking outside! Starting to get sick of pizza everywhere. We cooked our own dinner tonight! Nürnberg was our next stop, staying with Rosemarie and Hans, the parents of our good friend, Martina, from Stellenbosch. We had an amazing tour of the Staedler factory seeing how pencils and are made and the enormous warehouse which is totally mechanised - so many floors! White asparagus (spargel) had just come into season, so we walked to the town butcher and bought some fantastic bacon and his home-grown spargel, to be served with potatoes and a butter sauce. We also tried a traditional German meal of pork shoulder blade, knoedel (glutinous ball like a dumpling), gravy and salad. It was so huge! The Nazi history in Nürnberg is still visible with the unfinished Colosseum, steps of major buildings, the main parade and of course lots of plaques and memorials. But still lots of amazing churches, a castle and the Rathaus (town hall) to see. Next time we might do the underground tour where they kept safe from the bombings (and kept many treasures)! Our hosts guided us through their local church which was rebuilt after the war; many of the precious items were kept safe during the bombing. We were really impressed with the amount of windfarms and solar panels on so many buildings. Most farms were covered with them - obviously an alternate income source. After saying goodbye to our friends, we caught the ICE train to Berlin and stayed 3 nights. The day we left it was really warm - 29oC. Fi happened to find a matinee performance at the Konzerthaus, so we saw an exquisite orchestra perform (didn’t think much of the Soprano soloist though!) and we got a croissant and a drink - very high brow! We found our way around the metro and buses and booked our evening meal up the tower - 3 hours of revolving views of Berlin at sunset. A walking tour of Berlin was fascinating - the kids loved it, even after 4 hours of walking! It was amazing to see the Berlin wall and the Jewish memorial was very moving. So much history here and so many museums (which we didn’t go to). Our hotel, the Ibis, was fantastic - and had scrumptious breakfast buffets! Our favourite restaurant was Mexican, very close to our hotel - and so cheap!