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…which is, you've guessed it, even further north (I've given up on this whole 'south' option people keep telling me about). Yes, for those of you who I haven't yet seen or spoken too, I am now once more back in Merry Olde Englande, arriving back in London 8 months to the day after I set out. I have been rather delayed in updating everyone on the final few weeks of my travels but better late than never, eh?!
So, cast your mind back if you will to mid August. After two days skiing under a stunning blue ski, I hightailed it back up to Rotorua to rejoin Doni and Roy, the Dutch people I'd met in Taupo. Whilst home to a pervasive whiff of rotten eggs, Rotorua also hosts many more pleasant attractions from thermal geysers that shoot 10m up in to the air to Maori Culture Evenings, where tribal dancing and story telling is followed by a huge hangi - a feast of chicken, lamb, kumara (sweet potato) and much more, all slow roasted underground on heated rocks. However, one of the highlights for me was Zorbing. For those of you that have not yet heard of this fascinating new 'sport', it goes something like this: Take one hamster ball and enlarge in to human size. Add 30cm warm water and up to 3 people to the inside. Seal off the entrance then roll down a hill. I tried to stand up but it was impossible, it was very much like being in a moving flume and the three of us just tumbled down the hill, slipping and sliding all over the place; I couldn't stop laughing for 10 minutes afterwards.
Katherina had been skiing for an extra couple of days but she joined us the night before we left Rotorua for Waitomo, home of a seriously big network of caves and a seriously rich farmer who charges £5 per person every time someone goes caving. We joined Rap, Raft 'n Rock to spend half a day exploring an underground river and a few of the caves around it. After rappelling 27m into a chasm in the earth, we waded upstream then diverged from the river to squeeze into a few very narrow and extremely muddy passages. We turned our torches off and floated downstream on inflatable rubber innertubes, staring up at the glowworms covering the ceiling, then squeezed through a few more tiny holes downstream of the opening before rock-climbing back out again.
From Waitomo we drove a long way up to Paihia for a spot of sailing around the picturesque Bay of Islands before continuing all the way up to the northern tip of New Zealand: Cape Reinga, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea, clashing together in waves of spray. The weather was bizarre; we exited the car and in 2 minutes were absolutely soaked to the skin by a horizontal downpour, driven by a gale force wind. Five minutes later though, the rain stopped, the sun came out and by the time we returned to the car I had completely dried off. The cape and surrounding coastline is one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand and someday I would like to return to walk a three day track around the coast. Unfortunately, Doni, Roy and I all had flights to catch over the next couple of days, so we had to head back down to Auckland. We did, however manage to fit in sand rolling (a bit like sand boarding only cheaper - you basically just climb up a huge sanddune then roll all the way down) and a flying visit to a kauri tree with a trunk the width of a small sky scraper (OK, I exaggerate slightly).
In Auckland we went our separate ways. It was almost time for me to return home but first I had 5 days to enjoy the delights of San Francisco. Coming from New Zealand, America seemed very expensive so I did all the cheapest activities I could find: walking through Golden Gate Park, hopping on a cable car and walking around the tourist-o-licious Pier 39 and of course a visit to Alcatraz, a strange but interesting place which has basically been left untouched since it was abandoned as a maximum security prison back in the 1960's. Walking through the cell block with the commentary from former prisoners and guards gave you a chilling insight into life locked away on a block of sandstone, tantalisingly close to civilisation with the sounds of Christmas parties drifting across the mile long stretch of water if the wind was right. Despite all the films, only 3 people ever managed to 'escape' and all are believed to have drowned in the frigid waters as they attempted to swim back to the mainland.
America is famous for many things, one of which is of course the ridiculous drinking age; at 18 you can die for your country but if at the end of a hard day in Iraq a young American soldier has managed to avoid being hit by friendly fire, then they can't celebrate with a beer if they're under 21. Despite this, I did go out to a bar one night with some people from the hostel and had no trouble getting served but it felt very strange to be underage again after being legal for almost 2 years everywhere else.
And then, finally, it was time once more to return home. Eight months seemed such a long time when I set out but after the first few months it just absolutely flew past and before I knew it I was back in Nottingham, with only 4 volumes of diary, 4500 photos and a pile of dirty washing to show I'd ever been away. But you have to return home at some point because after all, until you get back you've never really been away.