Taupo to Tauranga (Bay of Plenty, New Zealand)

After a late night completing the puzzle we are both slow to get going in the morning. Besides, the bach is so peaceful. We drive into Taupo to use some wifi and confirm the address of our Couch Surfing host tonight. Later we will discover I wrote the address down incorrectly but, for now, we feel secure in knowing where we will sleep tonight and set off north out of Taupo.

Not far out of town we pick up a British man who is hitch hiking his way to the Bay of Plenty. We offer to take him as far as the coast and then he will need to find another lift for the final short drive south to the town he is headed to. He accepts and our drive becomes quite a social affair. I never used to pick up hitch hikers because, in Australia, we are taught hitch hikers are dangerous and likely to murder or rob you. In fact, in any states, hitch hiking may even be illegal. But I changed my mind in Hungary some years ago when I met a man who had hitch hiked the world and told me of how fun it was. Since then I have met other lovely hitch hikers and now have no qualms if the person looks okay. It helps out the hitch hiker and it creates new human contacts for us in a disconnected world.

Rotorua comes and goes. We had thought about stopping but it looks like the sort of town that has worked out how to take our money quite quickly for relatively little reward. That’s the thing about New Zealand, it’s an expensive country to travel. Food is expensive; even vegetables are more expensive than in over priced Australia. Accommodation is not too bad if you stick with Air BnB, which is a thriving industry here. But everything that can be seen and done is captured by tourism operators and, because people pay, the cost of paying is quite high. That said, if you stay away from the Rotoruas of New Zealand you can still enjoy a good budget holiday like we are.

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We see a sign to Okere Falls. With all the rain we’ve experienced that sounds like a promising prospect.  And it is. The walk to the falls is relatively short. This used to be a place Europeans came to in the early days of tourism. And we still come. It is possible to book a rafting trip here or to watch the rafts descend the falls. But none appears to be departing for our viewing pleasure today. Possibly due to the high water levels after Cyclones Debbie and Cook. We explore the paths and walk down to a cave right near the base of one of the falls. Maori people used to hide in this cave to escape battles, particularly women, children and elderly who were not fighting. It’s loud in the cave as water rushes under the rock. Further down the path we come to a pool where water is churning a rope swing hangs from a tree. I wonder whether this is for rescue purposes or whether locals swim here. Surely the former I still more likely.

We drop our Englishman at the motorway and turn north while he travels south.
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Before long we are in Tauranga parking near a beach on a beautiful sunny day. It’s only about 21’C (70F) but feels like summer. It’s amazing how quickly the body adjusts to new surrounds. While we don’t swim we do take a short walk along a rocky outcrop to take in the views and watch the surfers riding waves. It feels good to be at a white sand beach again after the black sand ones we’ve been to. Somehow it feels more “normal” and safe. That’s silly because volcanic sand itself doesn’t make a beach more or less dangerous than any other. But still, black sand beaches feel somehow more dangerous. Probably due to the colour of the water and a perception of what could be lurking below the surface.
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We eventually find our Couch Surfing hosts’ house after writing down to the incorrect address. Rachel is an awesome host. We spend the night sharing stories and eating food. Paul and I commandeer the kitchen, for which we are grateful because we have lots of left over groceries we won’t be able to use for the next two days and it feels good to share with our hosts who are so generous to let us stay in their homes and share their lives for a night or two. And, in this case, to share the most amazing ocean views.

While we didn’t do much sightseeing today, we did share the day with two awesome new people and that makes it a pretty special and awesome day.

Goreme to Samsun (Black Sea, Turkey)

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I wake again to the sight of balloons. But today the sky is blue and the colours of the balloons more vibrant. I watch as they bob higher and lower on the air. A flash of flame illuminates the balloons from within and changes their altitude or direction subtly. Some balloons fly high while others almost scrape through the Red and Rose Valleys. They are so close today and many fly straight over the camping ground. One so low that the passengers are waving and talking with us on the ground. It’s absolutely magical. The start to what will be a magical day.

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I pack the car, plot some geocaches in the Love Valley that I might like to pick up and set off towards Bogazkale where I have read there is a 4,000 year old Hitite ruin. It should be a 3 hour drive north. But then I see two hitch hikers with heavy packs thumbing for lifts on the road out of Goreme. I’ve never picked up a hitch hiker before because I’ve always been told it is dangerous. But Peter from Budapest (maybe you will remember him; he is the man behind Epic Adventures in Hungary) hitch hiked the world when he was younger and he’s a really top bloke. So I decided to take the plunge. Besides, my travels always go best when I walk through the random doors that open for me.

I stop and ask the two women where they want to go. “Mahmet” they say. It’s a town at a crossroads about half an hour from Goreme. As they talk they tell me they actually want to go to Samsun but this is about 400km (250 miles) away and is not on a direct route from Goreme. I invite the to come with me to Bogazkale, which is closer to Samsun. They agree and off we go.

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My new friends are from the Ukraine and Russia. They have been traveling together all over Asia and are now hitch hiking Asia Minor. As we drive I learn about life in Ukraine and Russia. I learn about their simple yet complex style of travel; taking lifts with randoms, staying with Couch Surfing hosts and sleeping wherever opportunity allows. These girls are the real deal. They are the Crazy Russians who I so admire and always tell everyone about. To be honest, the young Russians I have met and heard about on my adventures probably inspire me more than almost any other nationality of traveler. I have seen them all over the world with their “throw caution to the wind” approach to extreme budget travel (I have now learned the reason is because salaries in Ukraine and Russia are low. Unlike Australians for whom almost every country is cheap, to these young Ukrainians and Russians almost every country is expensive). I feel honoured to be part of their adventure, even in such a small way.

We reach Bogazkale and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a great place. The Hitite ruins look like nothing and the town itself is tiny. We all realise that the hitch hikers will not be able to take a lift from here easily and it’s not really a place that I need to see. So I suggest that we continue together to Samsun; their desired destination on the Black Sea.

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But on one condition; we stop for lunch. So that’s how we come to be sitting in a field near a water spring enjoying the sunshine eating bread, salami, fruit, honey and cake. It’s probably going to be one of my most cherished memories from Turkey. Just feeling the sun on my skin, eating food that we have conjured from our packs, watching the girls waving at trucks to make them beep their horns or wave, and feeling small in such a vast landscape.

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It takes all day to drive to Samsun. By the time we reach the Black Sea’s hills the sky has grown grey, the wind started to howl and the temperatures plummet. We stop for coffee at a petrol station and I realise we still have an hour to drive. It’s already after 5:30pm and we left Goreme around 9:30am. I book a small hotel in the city centre and my new friends mark the address of their Couch Surfing host on Google Maps so we can navigate there.

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I drop the hitch hikers off at their host and drive the 12km back into Samsun city centre to find my hotel. It is literally in the middle of the city and I can tell already that I will love this town. It is to Turkey what Daegu was to South Korea, Lumangjan to my first trip to Indonesia, Chiang Mai to Thailand, Ipoh to Malaysia, Mito to Japan and Szeged to Hungary. It’s the city where I feel relaxed and comfortable and at ease. A place to just take in the atmosphere of the country. I can’t put my finger on what I like about it. But I feel instantly content here.

I check into my hotel, drop my gear, leave the key to my car with the owner so that he can move it between the daytime and night time parking arrangements they have with the local parking yards and set off to see what I can find. I start with plate of chicken at a local kebab shop (kebab in Turkey is not what it is in Australia). The owner shakes my hand and welcomes me to his shop (this is a thing here in Turkey; first shake hands then get to business). Another guest speaks a few words of English so asks where I am from and gets excited “Harry Kewel”. At first I have no idea what he means and then I remember there is a soccer player in Australia by that name so I smile and grin and nod. This place feels so great. It’s so local and low key. I stopped here because it’s right next door to the hotel and I am hungry. I pay 7TL ($AU3.50) for my plate of chicken kebab and a can of Pepsi. This would easily have cost twice that in the more touristed areas near the Mediterranean and Cappadocia.

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Wandering around the streets of Samsun I am struck by the true East meets West that is taking place here. Modern brand shops sit side-by-side with street vendors selling everything from cooked chestnuts and corn to fresh fruit. It’s so pretty.

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I indulge in Turkish-style ice cream and an apple. And enjoy a good two or three hours exploring the city centre. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the hitch hikers for bringing me to this place. It’s funny what happens when you open yourself to opportunities, even if they are the very things other people say you shouldn’t do.