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IMG_2247Beautiful Waiheke Island is just a short and picturesque ferry ride from downtown Auckland, making it a justly popular weekend and holiday destination for many North Islanders in the summer.  It’s even an easy visit from east coast Australia – an easy 4 hour flight to Auckland, jump on the 30 minute airport bus to the wharf, onto the ferry and then you are there – ready to get vertical and relax! Take note of the welcoming sign at Point Kennedy!  There are hundreds of small bays and hidden beaches tucked in around 20+ wineries, restaurants and artists studios, so even on the occasional cloudy day, there is plenty to do. There are artists studio trails and gourmet food and wine trails to follow, as well as regular sculpture festivals. Absolutely don’t miss the Connell’s Bay sculpture property in the west of the island, which you must pre-book. Reflecting this, in summer, the island population swells to 30,000 from its permanent resident population of 8,000 though to be honest, the beaches still feel blissfully empty.

IMG_2282We’ve just spent a great week there over new year, staying with friends close to the main village of Oneora, and just minutes walk from lovely Oneroa Beach.  If you can bear to drag yourself away from the water, there are plenty of short walks all over the island, many of them passing across headlands to reach secluded bays.  This one from Little Oneroa Beach (popular with the locals) heads up over the headland to Fishermans Rock and Divers Rock, where local teenagers test their mettle clambering up and leaping off 4m and 8m high rock shelves into the ocean below (at high tide only please!). Most of the island is hilly, so it’s a great place to build up your calf muscles.! The local tourist information centre has a range of free brochures with short walks you can do all over the island.

Overlooking Calypso Bay on Motuihe Island, nr Waiheke Island, NZ

Overlooking Calypso Bay on Motuihe Island, nr Waiheke Island, NZ

If you have a friends with a boat, sail across to one of the many small islands around Waiheke – we headed to uninhabited Motuihe Island for the day, moored at picture-perfect Calypso Bay and just hung out. There’s a one and a half hour circuit walk mown into the island’s grasslands, which takes you from Calypso Bay, around to the wharf and back again – there’s no shade or facilities so take a hat and plenty of water, but the views are incredible the whole way, and if you get too hot, you can always detour for a quick swim! Stealing from a well known Queensland marketing campaign ….. beautiful one day, perfect the next!

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ImageSometimes you forget that the nicest walks are in your own backyard.  After a very hot 30C day yesterday, and just before the first clouds of mozzies descended, the kids and I headed out for fish and chips down at Station Pier in Port Melbourne, then walked along the promenade past Princes Pier where many of our soldiers embarked for northern wars in the last century. This beautiful sunset was showing off to everyone across the old pier’s pylons, and plenty of people were out walking, enjoying the gentle evening breeze. Further along and the walkway continues past quiet Sandridge beach, which is marked by recovered pier timbers engraved with the names of the old boats which sailed into Melbourne, bringing hopeful new immigrants arriving at Station Pier, eager to start a new life. Sad that we seem to have forgotten that, with notable First People exceptions, we were all boat people once.

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View from Arthurs Seat ridge, south-west to Sorrento and Port Phillip Bay (c) JP Mundy 2013

Time for a day out. Too much work and not enough walking, makes for a dull life, so Deb and I skived off yesterday and bit off a biggie – The Two Bays Walk: 28km from Dromana, on the Port Phillip Bay side of the Mornington Peninsula, up and over Arthurs Seat (for non-locals, that’s a big hill, not a chair, in case you were wondering!) then down through glorious bushland to Cape Schanck lighthouse overlooking the Bass Strait.  It’s only an hour’s drive from Melbourne, but feels like a million miles away. We started from the carpark at the Bunurong Track, at the corner of Latrobe Terrace and Bayview Road. Purists might want to start from the Dromana Visitor Information Centre, which adds another 2km of suburban road walking to the start of the track, but that didn’t appeal to us, as we were here for the bush, and we thought 28km was enough for anyone in a day! The walk is very well signposted with the ‘Two Bays’ fairywren emblem and arrows along the way, the only potential point of confusion being the high numbers of kangaroo superhighways (no seriously, there are a LOT of kangaroos) which criss cross the second half of the track as you descend towards the coast.

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Eastern Greys on the ‘Kangaroo Super Highways’ near Bushrangers Bay (C) JP Mundy 2013

The first part of the walk is a steady but not too harsh climb up a well made path with spectacular views across Port Phillip Bay, which winds up, around and along the ridge-line of Arthur’s Seat. You can make detours to pretty Seawinds Gardens (you could start the walk from here if you didn’t want to walk up Arthur’s Seat) and the summit along the way, but are soon descending down from the bushland, past a lovely dam for a quick 30 minute walk through some quiet suburban streets, before heading past vineyards and bucolic farmlands to enter into the first of a series of joined reserves and national parks for the remainder of the walk.

ImageBeyond Arthur’s Seat, the walking is fairly easy – mostly flat or gently undulating and following through lush ironbark, blackwood and banksia forests.  The Greens Bush section contains some of the biggest healthiest stands of grass trees I have ever seen, and their towering flowering spikes (up to 4m+) are just glorious, though occasional ones are perplexingly wonky!

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Apart from the magnificent bushland, in full flower at this time of year, we came across an echidna and fairy wrens, plenty of parrots and a good collection of fierce bull ants on the sandy parts of the track. Some of the string of reserves have been reclaimed from old grazing property, so we even came across drifts of blue forget-me-nots and canna lilies along one of the fern tree-lined gullies, though hopefully the fantastic local ‘Friends of’ groups are seeking to clear the introduced species over time – for now it feels like walking through English woodlands in places.Image

There were a number of delicate native orchids popping up but also some flowers neither of us could recognise.  Do any readers know what this spectacular plant is?  it looked a little bit like a ‘chicken and hen’ plant, but was a 1.5m high and 3m high shrub just drenched in 1cm wide flowers. Gorgeous!

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Oh… and there’s also kudos for anyone who can tell me what type of caterpillars make up this seething mass: they were each about 15cm long and crossing the track en masse beneath our clomping feet!

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The final leg of the walk brings you out above magnificent, isolated Bushrangers Bay, which is apparently where two convicts from Tassie landed in the 1800′s after commandeering a schooner, using it as a base for their maraundering. From there, you hug the coastal scrub above the seacliffs, the waves of Bass Strait pounding below you, before coming out at Cape Schanck light station.  We’d pre-ordered a taxi (Peninsula Taxis in Frankston) to collect us – as it’s a darn long walk back if you haven’t arranged a car shuttle. A warning that Optus phones don’t have any coverage for the last half of the walk, though Telstra 3G seemed fine throughout.

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A welcome sight at journey’s end: Cape Schanck Light Station (c) JP Mundy 2013

If you have a few more days and you’re just getting warmed up, you could prebook to stay overnight in the lighthousekeeper’s cottages at Cape Schanck, then set off west along The Coast Walk in the morning, through Point Nepean National Park for a further 30km to Portsea.  From there, it’s a walk out to Point Nepean and a further 30km back along Port Phillip Bay via the more pedestrian Bay Trail to Dromana by which time you’ve completed the 100km triangle which makes up the Mornington Peninsula walk!  If you don’t have the time (or energy!) to do the full Two Bays walk at once, it can be broken into lots of short and easy walks.  The walk into Bushrangers Bay (6km return), accessed from the car park on Boneo Road (Rosebud-Flinders Road), or the walk into Greens Bush (accessed via Greens Road) would be a perfect short day out – the tracks are easy and interesting for kids too.  None of the Two Bays walking is suitable for dogs though (even on-lead), as it passes through a number of national parks and protected areas, where dogs are not allowed, and for good reason when you see the beautiful and delicate flora and fauna along the way. There are also no water stops, shops or toilets along the way, so you’ll need to be self-sufficient. In terms of time you need to allow, you’ll know your own pace – if you’re a fit marcher, you’ll get through in 6 hours.  An average walker used to reasonable distance might take 8 hours.  The delightful Deb and I are dawdlers (or rather, I am, and Deb is just incredibly long-suffering and patient!), so with lots of stops to gawk at the scenery, flowers and fauna along the way, a good half hour for lunch (and for me to huff and puff up the stairs!), we took 10! Whichever way you do it, just do it.  It’s a perfect walk.

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View at the end of the day – back at Arthur’s Seat – Sunset across Port Phillip Bay (c) JP Mundy 2013

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Crazy gorgeous streetscape, old city, Hanoi, near Hoan Kiem Lake (C) JP Mundy 2013

Crazy gorgeous streetscape and a conga-line of scooters, Hanoi’s old city, near Hoan Kiem Lake

It’s 10 years since I have been to Hanoi – which is a travesty, as it’s one of my favourite cities in the world – and though it has changed so rapidly since my first visit here in 1993, it still retains its essence – that eclectic and alluring mix of Vietnamese-French colonial-Russian-market-communism welcome that is entirely unique. In the 1990′s the city was incredibly peaceful – there were only bicycles on the street and the odd old Russian sedan which ferried select government officials around in a rather menacing fashion behind curtained windows. In fact, I recall a very slow trip down Highway 1 (which travels the length of the country) in one of those low-riding sedans in the mid-1990′s, as our car had to stop on a number of occcasions and wait for the locals to clear their game of cards they had set up in the middle of the tarmac!!! Back in Hanoi, with the opening up of the economy, bicycles were soon displaced by the ubiquitous motor scooter, and weaving across intersections became a work of art and of faith! Closing your eyes also took some of the stress out of the situation I remember!

And yes, there is a bike under there! Hanoi September 2013

And yes, there is a bike under there! Hanoi September 2013

Here I am today and the traffic is still mental and further complicated now by private cars, but the motorbikes still rule, and ferry between one person and a whole family at any given time. Bicycles are still in the mix, laden impossibly high with produce being ferried to and from markets. The wonderful architecture of old Hanoi still survives amidst the craze for modern buildings – with impossibly narrow confections of gravity-defying buildings jammed against each other, topped with tile roofs and a mess (no other word for it) of internet and electrical cables in an occupational health and safety officer’s nightmare. Add to this a very friendly and welcoming people, fabulous food, a lively art community, interesting shopping, easy walking around the city’s lakes … no wonder it’s at the top of my list!

Taking in the view of the Tortoise Tower, Hoan Kiem Lake, central Hanoi

Taking in the view of the Tortoise Tower, Hoan Kiem Lake, central Hanoi

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Amber (Amer) Fort, Amer Town, near Jaipur, india

Amber (Amer) Fort, Amer Town, near Jaipur, india

Last week I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon wandering around the incredible 400 year old Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort), on the hills outside Jaipur, in India’s desert state of Rajasthan. Talk about atmospheric! Set into the side of a mountain, overlooking a decorative lake with paterre garden island and surrounded by Great-Wall-of-China spines of defensive walls, the fort is a maze of rooms, twisting stairs, courtyards and vantage points over four storeys, and is built of red sandstone and huge slabs of marble.

Cool marble sitting galleries, used by women at Amber Fort, Jaipur (and yes, that's solid marble!)

Cool marble sitting galleries, used by women at Amber Fort, Jaipur (and yes, that’s solid marble!)

It wasn’t hard to imagine what it would have been like at the height of Raja Ram Singh I’s powers, as there was an outrageously over-the-top Bollywood film being recorded the day I was there, with huge men in cardboard armour and swirling, dancing, martial arts performers doing their thing, while the local audience ooh’ed and aah’ed. Pretty surreal and pretty memorable.

Central garden courtyard and audience pavillion, seen from the ramparts of Amber Fort

Central garden courtyard and audience pavillion, seen from the ramparts of Amber Fort

On the walk up into the fort, I also passed a somewhat underwhelming, though no doubt, trusty, local police car, ready to leap into action if needed – I guess it was parked at the top of the ramparts slope so it could get a run-up to catch the invading hoardes….

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Local squad car, ready for action, at Amber Fort, Jaipur

The surrounding heritage town of Amer, is also worth a wander – it’s small windy streets are jam packed with artisans producing everything from Hindu carvings and miniature painting to gleaming copper pans, and there is a surfeit of temples – apparently the Maharajah’s mother took a keen interest in building temples throughout the township. If you arrive early in the morning, before the heat of the day, you will also see the parade of hundreds (literally) of elephants, their faces painted in bright powders, as they carry the tourists up into the fort. Unmissable.

View across the lake from one of the corner ramparts at Amber Fort

View across the lake from one of the corner ramparts at Amber Fort

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Finally! Melbourne for Dogs is finished and off with my fabulous editor at Woodslane who will work her magic. Did you know it takes up to 5 months for a guidebook to go through the editorial/design/cartography/printing process once it leaves the author’s hands and before it hits the shelves? It’s somewhat akin to having a baby, though at least you get to sleep through the nights. Anyway, to celebrate, I have hauled off to Italy for some summer sunshine and a week of walking around Lake Como. The weather is perfect for walking just now: in the 20′s and cloudless skies. I only have a short time in between other commitments, so I have headed off on the 34km, 2 day ‘Dorsale’ walk, which goes along the spine of the mountains edging Lake Como, from Como in the south of the lake through to the tiny town of Bellagio, which is poised in the centre tip of the upside down Y of the lake.

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It’s a great solo walk: with a reasonable map and guide notes from the local alpine club, and the extensive (if somewhat confusing at times) array of signs, you basically keep the lake on your left and head north. The walk starts with a welcome leg up the first 900m of ascent, courtesy of a vertiginous funicular railway from Como up to the tiny alpine town of Brunate. From there there’s another 700 metres of ascent for the day, but it’s not all in one go, and the huge views give you plenty off excuse to stop and gape when you need to catch your breath. The walk takes you past mountain refuggios, tiny roadside chapels, grand old Italian villas, through beech forests and eventually up above the treeline into glorious mountain pastures, absolutely heaving with wildflowers, bumblebees, grasshoppers and butterflies. I expected Julie Andrews to appear, twirling around and singing ‘the Hills are alive…..’!

I passed only 8 other walkers the whole day which is remarkable when the lakeside towns are just heaving with people at this time of year. However, when I descended into the 1100m Pian del Tivano valley at the end of the first day to stay at the Alpetto del Torno mountain Refugio (for the best gnocchi I have eaten eaten in my whole life, thanks to Ugo the super chef/host), the valley was also heaving – not with people, but with dairy cows with bells around their neck, making music as they ambled around the pastures. Perhaps I’m not in a sound of music ad after all, but one for luxury milk chocolate! It is very close to the border with Switlzerland after all! More tomorrow in Day 2.

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Have just spent the past week getting out and about with the Geelong Walks book – so exciting when all your work comes to fruition and people start to use it! Now, though, my plate is clear so I can knuckle down on Melbourne for Dogs, which is due to the publishers at the end of April.  From that point, it is still around 5 months of editing, designing, cartography etc until it reaches the shelves – I find the whole ‘hidden’ processes behind books quite fascinating.

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Indie, Seagull Lookout, St Kilda Marina

Meanwhile, my co-author on Melbourne for Dogs, a.k.a. Indie, is just kicking back and contemplating the seagulls from her window seat on the front of my kayak, down at St Kilda marina yesterday – a great way to cool off after the longest lasting run of 30C+ February days we’ve ever had in Melbourne.  Needless to say, we’re enjoying doing the beaches chapter of the book just now.  West St Kilda Beach is a favourite – close  by and off-leash for dogs all year round – plus the kite boarders who favour it provide endless hours of entertainment for dogs who run after their enormous, colourful kites in the shallow waters. Dog heaven.

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ImageBack to Planet Oz to find my new book waiting on my doorstep. Yay! A year in the making and it feels like an elephant pregnancy, but finally Best Walks of Geelong, the Bellarine and the Brisbane Ranges is here. I think it looks great – but I would do! It should be in bookstores, newsagents and Tourist Info Centres in the region before the end of the month – let me know what you think!  You can also buy it direct through Woodslane’s online bookstore or other online booksellers.  It retails for $29.99 and includes 40 great walks. Alternatively, if you are in a cafe or other outlet and would like to stock it, let me know and I will put you in touch with the publishers. Now, finally, onto Melbourne for Dogs….

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Volcanic cones of Mt Etna, Sicily, in winter

Volcanic cones of Mt Etna, Sicily, in winter

I’m on the last leg of my trip before heading home, and my son and I are staying in the ancient town of Ortygia, Siracusa, at the southernmost tip of Italy.  Today we headed north for a close up look at the largest volcano in Europe: Mt Etna. At over 3300m tall, Mt Etna hasn’t once stopped erupting in its 200,000 plus years of existence, and what looks like a symmetrical cone from the coast (very much like Mt Fuji) is in fact a grumbling, steaming, spewing volcano with hundreds of different cones all over the place.  The most recent major eruption was in 2001, and the cafe we had lunch at, which is about 2000m, was partially covered by the lava flow from that eruption, which stopped at its walls – literally:

A CLOSE shave for the Mt Etna mountain refugio cafe

A CLOSE shave for the Mt Etna mountain refugio cafe

We did a short walk around the rim of one of the smaller cones, in a group collectively called the Silvestri Craters which are 2000m above sea level, and despite it being mid winter, noticed the air was ‘simmering’ down one slope, adn the ground was in fact very warm to the touch – nice to keep your toes warm on a cold winter day!

Getting up to Mt Etna is easy if you have a car – it’s only a short drive from Catania – which has been covered in lava flows numerous times through antiquity – though the resulting fertile soils bring people back, and Etna is now famous for its wine, pistachios, honey and lemons grown around its base. You drive through the most extraordinary rugged lava fields: an incredible moonscape which stretches as far as the eye can see once you are above the tree lines, and the steam which bellows from one of the top cones bulges across the skyline.

View across Mt Etna lava fields (my son's photo!)

View across Mt Etna lava fields (my son’s photo!)

As far as walking goes, you can either walk up the cones from the refugio at 2000m, or catch the cable car (when it is operating) and then 4WD truck.  Above 2900m you are required to be accompanied by licensed guides, as despite extensive monitoring, the volcano is still unpredictable and very active with new fumaroles and lava vent explosions happening with no notice.  In addition to the higher level walks, as you come to expect anywhere in Italia, with its extensive networks of hiking paths, there are a large number of signed ‘nature trails’ throughout the national park, which also take in the native chestnut groves and wild birch forests at lower levels. Covering an area of over 300 square kilometres, there are a number of quite distinct geological and floral zones on the volcano, and each cone has its own characteristic activity – be it flows, steams, smoke, ash or occasional lava explosions.  You could happily spend many months exploring and walking here – one day certainly wasn’t enough.

Lava formation, Mt Etna, Sicily

Lava formation, Mt Etna, Sicily

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Merrivale Standing Stone (menhir), Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy 2012

Merrivale Standing Stone (menhir), Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy 2012

My wanderings around the UK this (northern) winter, have brought me down to very wet, but always beautiful south Devon countryside, to visit friends.  The only solution for socialising in the current inclement (think floods, driving rain, more floods) is to meet up at some of the country’s gorgeous pubs, so we had every excuse we needed to find our way to the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale, high up on sodden and windswept Dartmoor. Just behind the Inn is the old Merrivale granite quarry which once provided the stones for London Bridge.  Just a short walk from the Inn across the saturated moor, are some remarkable groups of standing stones (think Stone Henge but smaller and wilder) and double stone rows thought to have been placed there over 4000 years ago, though noone is really sure what prupose they served: celestial alignments to help with planting, burial sites or other sorts of ritual seem to get the most votes.

4000 years old and counting: Merrivale Stone Rows on Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy

4000 years old and counting: Merrivale Stone Rows on Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy

Dartmoor itself apparently has more than 70 stone ‘rows’, standing circles and towering standing stones on various sites. Merrivale is the largest and most diverse site on the whole moor with a number of parallel double and single stone rows, a stone circle, menhir (standing stone) and burial chamber.

As fascinating as all the stones were, probably the most interesting part of the walk was coming across a Dartmoor ‘quaver’, surely the nominee for the weirdest bog-effect in the world: somehow the dense peat matted together in places to hold bubbles of water under its surface, and walking on it was somewhat like walking on a bubbly water bed.  Utterly bizarre.

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