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Che goes up again in my estimations 

After an early start of dragging what felt like a dead body in my case across half of Trinidad (ok so we were the closest possibly but pulling a case on the cobbled streets at stupid o’clock in the morning = not my idea of fun and made the whole short walk feel endless!) we headed out to a scenic viewpoint of the surrounding area and posed for a quick group photo before heading on to Santa Clara.

The whole group (with out Marlon – our guide)

Santa Clara is one of the largest and liveliest cities in Cuba – so the guide book tells me – essentially owing to its large student population I guess. It is also the sort of main place of pilgrimage for any Che Guevara fans too as it is here that his body was finally laid to rest. It’s inland from Trinidad in a sort of north west direction almost in the centre of the island of Cuba (that would be of course, Linda, the infamous LANDLOCKED island of Cuba!)

The main focus of the city now really (bar the University) is the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara. Its on the south west side of the city about 1km from the centre and it is here that gigantic, no seriously, MASSIVE monument (pretty classic Cuban revolutionary style – big, bold & concrete!!) to Che lies. There are grey steps leading up to four big chunky monoliths atop the tallest is the impressive, dominating statue of Che – dressed in his usual military gear and on the move with his rifle in hand. Spreading out in front of this is the Plaza de la Revolución – similar to that in Havana and mainly just an open space with two huge poster boards the far end of the square to the monument with revolutionary slogans inspired by Che himself.

By far the largest Cuban flag I’d seen was flying here

Me with the mural of the march from the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara & the eventual victory over Batista’s troops

You can just about squeeze me in the bottom of the picture when trying to get the whole monument in one shot!

Trying to show just how big the monument was at one end if Plaza dear Revolución

Underneath this monument and sort if behind was where you entered the Mausoleum and the Museo and Memorial al Che. No bags and obviously no cameras were allowed at all in either of these and in the mausoleum itself, clearly no talking. The queue was long and it appeared that those of us wantibg to go in, pay our respects and so on were all lined up according to tour group and were being called up a group at a time.

The mausoleum is a softly lit (and cool which was very much appreciated at this time if day as I was melting) the atmosphere of respect and reverance was moving. Che’s remains lie in a kind of tomb in which has an eternally flickering flame, also here are the remains of several of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans that died with him in Bolivia, each of whom are commemorated by a simple stone portrait which has been set into the wall.  An ideal place of remembrance for such an icon in Cuban history and indeed culture.

The small museum dedicated to his life was fascinating with a whole load of photos on the walls showing Che from his early childhood through to his life as a rebel in the Sierra Maestra to his role as a Cuban statesman in the early years of the revolution. It was amongst these photos that I spied him playing rugby and it transpires that he once played for Argentina! This made me chuckle a lot. Other than photos there were other bits and pieces that he had owned and worn throughout his life as well as a plethora of his guns, I’d switched off by this stage as while interesting, I’m not sure I wanted to see lots of the guns that he used in combat but still it gave you quite a good picture of his entire life rather than just the sections linked to the  revolution.

Once we had finished looking around there I popped out to see the memorial cemetery which was further back behind the monument. Here were the memorial graves of a number of the casualties of Che’s rebel column – Column 8 which he led from Sierra Maestra at Santa Clara. As they pass away even up to now they are being added with their rank and dates of their life to the cemetery. Quite moving.

Our next stop before we carried on to Havana was another monument that is key in the history of the city. The Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. Essentially it’s the derailed wagons of an armoured train that have laid in this spot since they were toppled off the tracks during the Battle of Santa Clara back in 1958. That was between the dictator of the time – Batista‘s forces and about 300 rebels led by Che & is believed to be one of the last military encounters of the Revolution. Batista had sent over 10 thousand troops to the centre of the island from Havana to try and prevent the rebels getting any closer to the city – one of the main components of the defensive manoeuvre was an armoured train. Che took the upper hand by using only a small number of his troops to use a bulldozer to raise the rails of the tracks where upon the train crashed and they advised 408 officers & soldiers within it who soon after surrendered. The train it’s self was used by the rebels as a base for further attacks. It’s quite a weird monument for such a historic moment as it’s essentially sort of strewn all over the road with traffic passing close to it and almost as if it’s a stumbled upon monument rather than a site of huge significance to the Cubans. Clearly a must for a photo or two – it literally has been just left where it had fallen.

Even the bulldozer was still there!!

Obviously a few additions to the scene to remind people of the significance of the location

Traffic gayly passing by as if this were just another piece of road with no historical significance?!

From here we headed to the same hotel as we were in for our first few in Havana a shower and some severe repacking was needed before I went anywhere or did  anything! We had our last meal altogether with Marlon as well of course and no trip on the bus was EVER going to be without another rendition of Bilandos and so we sat – right outside the hotel all of us partaking in one final sing song before heading in (or out!).

 

Hen Party

As soon as I arrived back at the flat yesterday I spent a while stuffing the gift bags for today and putting all the bits and pieces out ready for the big event today. 25 bags all sorted with the Hen bag all sorted too – all of the pieces out of my main luggage and in one bag so I didn’t have to faff around this morning.

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The labels on all the bags – a labour of love I can tell you!

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All of the contents of the Hen Party bags as described in the blog

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The empty frame ready for the lip prints

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The Guest Book for the Hen Do

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The CD List that I pulled together from suggestions from others

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The wine charms and the saying attached, another labour of love!

We were off early to see Lauren’s dress for another fitting and also a fitting for the Mother of the Bride’s outfit which was being made by the same lady. It was beautiful. I had no idea what to expect and I thought it was simply stunning and stunningly simple. I was extremely privileged as it has only been myself and La’s Mum who have seen her in the dress.

Finally the day had come. I was as nervous as hell with all of the months of preparations and little bits that I have been working on and completing over the past few months I suddenly got really nervous that Lauren wouldn’t like anything I had done. I managed to keep a surprise until this morning the colour theme as I had told her what I wanted her to wear – all black – and she was going to see all of the accessories when I went out?!!

Lauren’s friend Tam, who I’d been Whatsapping with since mid Feb, picked me and the multiple bags up and we headed over to the Botanical Gardens where we were holding her Hen Party/Picnic Lunch. It was more than ridiculously hot & I was indeed sweating from every pore of my body. It was a similar sensation experienced while on the Great Wall in China. I took a change of top and to be honest I wasn’t even going to wear the hot pink bolero and hot pink shoes either but it was just WAY too hot.

We initially set up in a location right by the top entrance on Sydenham Road so that everyone could find us easily as none of us knew each other!! As soon Kirsten arrived the sun had made quite some appearance and so we shifted over a little further and were in the shade.

Lauren arrived with her Mum but we told them to dump their contribution and go for a little meander in the park whilst more people arrived. I only recognised some of the ladies by what they were bringing! I was relying entirely on them introducing themselves to the relatively bossy Brit who has been barking orders since before Xmas as what she wanted from them all. Thankfully they did and everyone looked fabulous in their black and hot pink outfits it was awesome I was most pleased. The amount of food that we had in the end was absurd!! We could have fed an army!

The cupcakes that Lizelle brought were absolutely spot on for what I was hoping. I know I shared images of what I wanted with Kirsten but I really couldn’t send them on to her too 😉 they really were superb and, having tasted them, utterly delicious.

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Once people had started eating and mingling a little I started handing out my gift bags to everyone and they certainly went down very well. The Mother of the Bride and the Mother of the Groom loved their sashes and little Survival Kit for the wedding. Once people had been looking at their bags I gave Lauren hers, you know, just so she didn’t feel left out and all! She started putting all of the bits I had got her that she had been so worried about for so long. Thankfully, as I knew, she loved them all & found them all hilarious, the glasses especially!

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Me, Lauren’s Mum, La herself & Lyn (Ray’s Mum)

I knew that she didn’t want a stripper and to be honest I really couldn’t bear the thought of one either. But every Hen Party is not really complete without one, and so of course, I couldn’t disappoint!! I introduced him and brought him out, all wrapped up, much to a very bemused and worried Lauren as to what the bloody hell was happening. She opened the following to many giggles. It was PERFECT! And Lauren LOVED IT.

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Lauren’s Stripper

We packed up as it all wound down and popped everything back in Tam’s car who dropped us back off at home to change and ‘freshen up’ good god I was so hot, so drained and so relieved. I think my late night was starting to catch up with me and the stress of today going well for my La. But it was a success in my book and I was thrilled. It was just what La wanted, and she was I think more than relieved that there were no nasty surprises.

We headed to a bar close to the flat where we met up with the guys and Ray was looking somewhat shabby after being plied with shooters galore on top of beers. He could actually hardly stand! We sat and watched the rugby and chatted and had a few drinks & some food. It was a lovely evening but I was fading rapidly and so when Lauren’s parents headed home after the rugby I joined them to then try sleeping. We left La & Ray partying on, fair play it was their evening a once in a life time!

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Ray & Charles from after I left

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Lauren with Andre from after I left

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Venice: Balls, budgies & BIKEs

Venice is perhaps not the first place you think of as the destination for a rugby match. However, such is the beauty of the European destinations that we seem to end up in on our Challenge Cup away weekends! A small price to pay for not being in the Heineken Cup!

Hotel prices in the city do not cater for the price range of many and as a result we found ourselves staying in an area called Mestre in a very respectable hotel with an outdoor pool, gym and multiple waiting areas. Perfect also, it seemed, for the team who were also staying in our hotel. With a 10 min coach journey to the ‘stadium’ it was an ideal location all round & Venice was easily accessible by public transport.

Our first evening meant a walk into ‘downtown’ Mestre. A fairly hairy walk along a fairly major road was the only option to make our way in and, in time, along the cycle path. My word they cycle like loons. Trying to walk anymore than two across was nay on impossible and you seriously needed to be hugging the white line at the side of the road. Luckily you could hear bikes as they approached thanks to the frantic ringing of their bells, always followed by the first person who heard the faint tinkle screaming ‘BIKE’ only for us all to follow suit & move in.

The Compeed Queen, for the first time in AGES, forgot her miracle patches and of course it was the inevitable blister hell after walking in the walking boots on Friday. Saturday prematch was spent hot footing into Mestre Centre to the pharmacy we had passed the previous night. Thankfully I didn’t even have to try with severe pigeon Italian as there was a ruddy great stand of them, all shapes & sizes. It was quite alarming as to how much the site of the little green packs excited me!!

We seemed to leave for the match incredibly early and the ground felt more like a sort of Sunday league club that had a bit of money and so built a stand?! Here is what it looked like on arrival!

The Mogliano Pitch/Ground

The Mogliano Pitch/Ground

However, as expected, we were not the first of the travelling fans to arrive at the ground. There were in fact at least 50 bodies wrapped up against the elements all with varying amounts of blue, black & white poking out from somewhere. Some familiar faces, some unknowns but none the less all greeted like long-lost friends, the beauty of the camaraderie of European Bath Rugby Travel! Take the whole situation & put it in the UK, never would the chatter be quite the same. It’s strange! Getting food and drink took a while to comprehend until we realised you don’t actually pay at the bar but a little wooden hut where you buy vouchers to then swap at the bar for the food & drink. Savvy to this, queuing for one ticket at a time became a little daft!

The arrival of the players was wonderful. Having only just wished them well when we saw them in the hotel & rumours were flying all over the place of a change of ko and even that there were issues at Gatwick & the initial ref booked couldn’t actually make the match. (Think this actually turned out to be true!) From the coach to changing room they had no option but to walk past the now swarming bar, the tables at which were now all full. Rapturous applause erupted and those seated rose. Watching from nearer the pitch than the bar it was interesting to observe the players faces as they walked through this fairly unfamiliar scene. Some looked downright awkward walking through, embarrassed I guess, smirking in appreciation but eyes glued to the floor in front of them. Others a quick nod of acknowledgement and appreciation before upping their walking pace. Finally you had those that had clearly seen this reaction before, namely our captain, who not so long ago would have fitted any of the previous descriptions. But here we saw a different person acknowledging more openly the Bath presence, taking stock of faces and thanking supporters with a beaming, welcoming smile. Used to the travelling numbers, it would have been unsurprising to him the numbers overtaking the outside bar area.
Conscious that the seating area, like many rugby grounds of the smaller towns in Europe, was a stone cold slab of concrete, an investment in a small round plastic cushion was going to be the most worthwhile €5 of the weekend. Once carefully positioning your rear end to ensure maximum coverage the cushion was so deflated we might as well have sat on two pieces of plastic! But watching others standing at half time to rub their bottoms warm – we thanked our lucky stars we’d invested.

Tries came in all over the shop and the win came in smoothly. The sun had started to make its journey away & the cold Italian evening air was starting to come in. The hot wine was perfect! The players adorned some spectacular excuse of a coat to keep them warm while on the bench. Rustling past us as they walked down to the dead ball area in their long gilets! Most appealing!!

Final score

Final score

Post match it was getting pretty chilly waiting around for the bus to take us back to the hotel with time for a very quick pit stop before heading out again on the same bus to be dropped off at a vaporetto stop to make out way into Venice for our pre booked evening meal. Enough time thankfully to nip up to the room to dump the two seat cushions & pick up my cable for the mobile to give it some charge in the hope of snapping away at some of the sights at night as we hotfooted around the city either to or from the restaurant.

We alighted the vaporetto at Rialto Bridge & my previous trip came flooding back to me as I saw my current travel companions eyes light up at the sight of the beautiful marbled bridge, her eyes darting everywhere trying to take everything in. I remembered back to the first part of my previous trip, which could possibly be around 15 years ago now, visiting everywhere in thick fog. So thick that you could stand in the middle of San Marco square and not see the colonnades surrounding the square. We went over the bridge a few times window shopping and photo snapping as the buzz of the city centre & mass of tourists appeared – somewhat different to the area surrounding the hotel!

Rialto Bridge by night

Rialto Bridge by night

The Grand Canal by night

The Grand Canal by night

The food, whilst delicious, was somewhat of a let down. Having been unable to eat the set menu (well apart from the Tiramisu!) owing to allergies I was served gnocchi with tomato sauce as a starter & my main was spag Bol. The disappointing bit was that we had around possibly a minute between courses to digest. Absurd. We made reference to this & immediately service stopped. Completely. It was as though they were looking to get the group in and out as fast as possible. People were flagging left right & centre & the very idea of wandering around the beautiful city at night was by far the furthest thing from our minds. Thankfully the feeling was unanimous & having scooped up the eldest member of our group who was feeling a little unsteady on her feet we were a crocodile winding our way through the back streets of Venice to get to Piazzale Roma to find the bus home. It was not as quick a walk as expected. Multiple bridges were passed & beautifully lit buildings & I felt somewhat narked that I wasn’t able to take photos along the way, however, we were needed elsewhere & that most defo took precedence. Thankfully other David Baileys popped up along the way who have already been approached for copies.

The evening plan once back at the hotel was to catch up with the world thanks to the free wi-Fi, partake in a night-cap and disappear to our room – shattered from a long day & conscious that tomorrow would be worse! That never happened. Owing to the team not flying home directly there were several of the back room team floating around & catching up with us supporters & enjoying the forthcoming banter, some more than others! Whilst thankfully I didn’t wake with a hangover (not quite sure how) I drank enough to have the barman wink at me the following evening & ask if I was having a Disarono. Enough said. Many giggles, much piss taking observed & bed at 2am but banked as a hilarious evening not to be shared – well, after all, what goes on tour, stays on tour right?!

Sunday was our free day to see the city sites. Lucky in the fact that I’ve been before, for me it was all about ensuring my room-mate, who hadn’t, saw everything she needed & had the most fantastic day.

Our morning was spent on the island of Murano, the world-famous island of the beautiful glass. After ambling & window shopping for quite some time we found a factory which was showing free demonstrations and we were captivated as we watched a vase being blown & shaped in a matter of moments, but slide – and this impressed us far more – a horse being created in the same short amount if time. The heated glass was made to look like putty thanks to the suppleness of the liquid glass. It was astonishing.

Impressive glass sculpture on the island of Murano

Impressive glass sculpture on the island of Murano

Once back on the mainland we had around 4 1/2 hours until a possible route home en masse. You could tell we were all exhausted as the majority of us seemed to be looking at that option rather than staying on longer in the city. Dropped near San Marco Square, head buried in the guidebook to remind myself & explain to Kat the roles of the buildings as we passed them. Admiring the beautiful Italian architecture in glorious winter sunshine, thanking our lucky stars that we had been so lucky with the weather for the duration of our weekend.

The Doges Palace looked incredible in the sunshine, disappointingly the Basilica had a fair amount of scaffolding on top of it for restoration I assume as it could not really be appreciated in its full glory. I had totally forgotten how amazing the ceiling was with all of the marbled scenes in every alcove & adorning every wall backed in gold to really emphasise the majesty of the stories depicted. We paid to head up to the museum near the loggia where the bronze horses were and I’m glad that we did as we were closer to the mosaics & could see just how small each tiny little patch of colour was. Despite the huge signs saying no photography, there were several people doing so. Not I however. I felt far too guilty even trying to do so, no image of them would ever be able to do the views justice anyway!

Doges Palace

Doges Palace

San Marco Square

San Marco Square

View fromt he loggia of San Marco Basilica

View fromt he loggia of San Marco Basilica

A close up of the mosaics on the exterior of the basilica

A close up of the mosaics on the exterior of the basilica

Walking through San Marco Square was quite a feat in itself. What with the mass of pigeons in great swarms waiting to be fed by tourists, some of whom were actually choosing to have their photo taken surrounded by masses of them, some even encouraging them to climb on them. Mental. Certainly not my idea of a must take shot of Venice I have to say! Then there were the flower men. Blokes that would randomly walk up to you without saying anything and shove a single red rose in your face. Dude, I’m walking around with Kat (no offence Budge!) & have my head buried in a guidebook & you think I actually want a red rose?! After about the 4th time of politely declining the oh so tempting purchase I did start to mutter ‘jog on mate’ when presented with one.

I’d forgotten the somewhat pungent aroma in the city thanks to the sewers and whilst meandering down little back streets was often hit by a massive waft of unpleasant stench infiltrating my delicate nostrils. I hate to think what the smell would be like in the summer months here. The water all round the city was a rather bizarre sort if chalky green colour – certainly not a tempting colour to take a dip in. I guess it’s that colour by the nature of it being a lagoon? I’ll have to review that.

From soaking in the splendour of San Marco we dived down a side street off the square and started winding our way towards the Guggenheim Museum. I’d forgotten quite how insane the signage is in Venice. In theory you could get around without a map here as all of the major bridges are ‘signposted’ but it’s like going on a treasure hunt at times if you rely on them! You walk in the direction of the sign and are constantly searching for the next one to move you on in the right direction, often these never actually materialise and many a wrong route is taken as you end up at a dead-end with just the canal in front of you – ah!! Some of the routes came flooding back, but as I was taken round by Paul last time who was familiar with the city I was more following him than the signs!

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is all modern art which feels almost out-of-place in what to me feels more like a renaissance infused city. Set on the banks of the Grand Canal sort of between Academia bridge & San Marco, it was the residence of Peggy before she passed away. It had been done up quite considerably from what I remembered and now holds a rather larger collection than I remembered. There was also a temporary exhibition of Impressionist works too and Monet’s Waterlillie was quite something to stumble across in there! From here we chose a different route from the one that we had taken previously to see a different area of Venice on foot and I’m glad that we did. We walked past some very majestic looking churches and some beautiful little bridges crossing the canals. Constantly counting our lucky stars that we had totally amazing weather for all of this exploring. Soaking in the majesty of this beautiful city befre the darkness appeared once more before we flew home.

Outside the Guggenheim Museum

Outside the Guggenheim Museum

View from a bridge on way to the Guggenheim

View from a bridge on way to the Guggenheim

San Marco square as the sun was starting to set

San Marco square as the sun was starting to set

Just managed to squeeze in a glimpse of Rialto bridge in daylight

Just managed to squeeze in a glimpse of Rialto bridge in daylight

The Final Test

After hitting a massive brick wall of tiredness last night I slept fine but also decided not to do anything too extensive this morning so I headed back to bed to try another couple of hours sleep before heading out to stock up on lunch before the warm up for the final test began. I also sorted everything out for the early morning start tomorrow, laid out the clothes, put the piles ready to put in my handbag in the morning. I couldn’t have been more organised if I tried!!

Headed down to Darling Harbour with Sophie’s folks & met her there as we did our usual pre-match ritual of a plate of pasta before heading to meet any of the others, this time for Kangaroo Court in the bar close to where we were boarding the boat. Sadly only part of the group was on time and as we had to help out with wrist banding everyone before they boarded the boat we missed out on it and the court was disintegrated pretty much. Tho I did later see one of the group with his shirt on back to front – I guess not everyone got away without any punishment then!! (Perhaps I should have found some proper rules and set them up prior to ‘court’ such as the ones here)

The timings for boarding & disembarking were very tight due to the sheer volume of people that we had to get on. Loyally all my lot could be seen near the front of the line as it swelled with a mass number of people all joining at once. Finally having got all 351 of us aboard we set off around Sydney Harbour all aboard the Majestic 2.

Majestic 2 - our mode of transport for the evening!

Majestic 2 – our mode of transport for the evening!

The lights of Sydney by night

The lights of Sydney by night

I excitedly collected my ticket off Fliss on the boat, got a drink & headed up to the very top deck where I could see the majority of my group had set up camp. One of them, it transpired, had left his ticket behind at the hotel hence the delay in their arrival! As a result he was, of course, dually trialled! Sophie was also presented with her punishment for her multitude of foot in mouth moments on tour – none of them will be shared as the saying goes ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour!’

Sophie with her punishment for the foot in mouth comments - repeatedly!

Sophie with her punishment for the foot in mouth comments – repeatedly!

Sandra and Chris (with his shirt back to front as part of his punishment!) 8.6 - that's all I'm saying

Sandra and Chris (with his shirt back to front as part of his punishment!) 8.6 – that’s all I’m saying

Nick's punishment leaving his ticket behind & having to go back and get it!

Nick’s punishment leaving his ticket behind & having to go back and get it!

The night soon set in as the boat left the dock and the view from top deck was spectacular. Back over the view of the lights of the CBD and the Harbour Bridge all lit up. It was stunning, simply stunning. The breeze set in quite heavily and soon I was alone with my thoughts. I stood there still pinching myself that this was all happening, and had happened. How lucky had I been? How grateful was I to my checking twitter & seeing that tweet back in May?!! I soaked the sight in, taking the mental pictures in my mind to ensure that they would stick, somehow I don’t think that my photos would come out of the views from the boat. It felt weird that this time tomorrow I’d be part way through the flight home, that the most amazing time would all be over.

As we docked it was a case of directing the passengers in the direction of the right bus. Lots of shouting pointing, smiling & waving and success! Off we headed, in what can best be described as old style school buses. Not quite what was expected, but they actually worked quite well as, being shorter backed it enabled a more relaxed and chatty atmosphere and so it’s really hardly surprising that the songs started up – in force!! Hilarious as we had a few Australian supporters on the coach too & our driver was only on his second ever drive in the bus! Classic. The journey went by quite slowly, or it might be that it was actually longer than planned – either way we got there and after explaining in no uncertain terms were they to hang around after the match in the stadium. We were on such a tight schedule with the mooring for the boat for the journey home we really wouldn’t be able to wait for anyone. Frustrating if we win, yes but sadly we could do little about that.

So in everyone ran, I had to find a loo before I went in which I managed to achieve – always the epitome of relief at every level! I had a feeling I’d be walking for quite a while once I had gone through the gate before I found one.

I took stock once more when I finally made it to the gate that I was due to go in. I paused for a fag & took in the mass of the stadium. Soaked up the moment. This was the third test of the Lions & win this and this evening, that boat home is going to be rocking!!

The exterior of the stadium - taking stock of where I was and what I was about to watch

The exterior of the stadium – taking stock of where I was and what I was about to watch

Having gone through I realised that I had quite some climb ahead. Like the car park at Cabot Circus – I listened to the noise from inside the stadium as I slowly made my way up in my own little world as everyone else had gone ahead. (mas was I glad I’d ‘powdered my nose’ when I did!) I was sat on my own too but – you know me – that’s not going to stop me enjoying it!! I was on my own for the RWC ’07 final after all!!

I finally made it up top and was only about 3 entrances down from the rest of the group. I soaked it all in, took the photos of the stadium on camera & iPhone to be able to savour this for years to come, hopeful at this stage that it would be for the right reasons!! Thankfully the kick off was delayed by about 10 mins and so in my slow moving state I managed to miss not a second of the match.

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The atmosphere was electric. I can’t even begin to describe it. Nothing like that will I ever feel again. The anticipation of what was possible, the nerves – oh god the nerves. From all the jumping up and screaming when we scored in the match and the points totted up. I’m glad my nails are fake, they would have been gone! I didn’t relax fully until the last 5 mins of the match – anything could happen still. Dreams could be shattered. But they weren’t, they bloody weren’t!! I hugged & kissed & screamed with those around me come the final whistle. Close to tears, still not really believing that I was actually here, that this was all happening. That we had done it. We had won!!!

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I left the stadium a few mins after the final whistle, I saw the initial cheers and celebrations – everyone running on. Halfpenny deservedly winning man of the series but listened to the award ceremony as I battled my way out of the stadium against the Australians heading home with a humongous grin on my face. We’d done it. We’d bloody done it, & I was there to witness that amazing moment.

I LOVED that the first person to text me as soon as the whistle blew was Linda. Without her input & support I would never be here walking back to the coach welling up with excitement & tears, desperate to see someone that I knew to bounce around & celebrate with. Getting back to the coach there were the Australian contingent already aboard but watching everyone else roll in jumping smiling & cheering, was something I’ll never forget.

Thankfully the coach trip back to the marina was shorter as we were at a different location to board. The crush of getting everyone on in time was insane but we managed to do it. Even if we had to take a slight detour on route home to pick Vic & a few clients up who were left behind. Fliss, Sophie & I celebrated the win together & the tour success in general with a glass of bubbles before heading onto the boat to share the win with the rest. It’s safe to say that the boat home was indeed rocking!

The Hamster and the mad Irishman with the face paint

The Hamster and the mad Irishman with the face paint

VU girlies enjoying the post match celebrations on the boat!

VU girlies enjoying the post match celebrations on the boat!

Happy Sophie - first 3 live rugby matches and she watches the winning test series - does she realise that there is no going back?!

Happy Sophie – first 3 live rugby matches and she watches the winning test series – does she realise that there is no going back?!

I HATE taking 'selfies' but this. This is funny!

I HATE taking ‘selfies’ but this. This is funny!

Disembarking it was a multitude of hugs saying goodbye to everyone, with my ridiculously early transfer to the airport in the morning I was not expecting a leaving party!! It was so rushed & so sad but still so exciting to have won. I just knew that the come down when I eventually made it home would indeed hit, and hit hard.

We headed into a bar in Darling Harbour with Vic, Fliss, Sophie & Rachel (the official photographer) for some bubbles to celebrate. I can only assume that the others that had said that they would be in there didn’t make it in due to their lions shirts. There were very few (none) in sight in there, that’s never bothered me before why would it now?LIIIIOOONNNNSSSSSS

I headed back to the bar opp the hotel to catch up with a few if my group before eventually hitting my bed at around 4am after final packing & quadruple checking the alarm was set for 730am the following morning. What a three weeks in such wonderful company discovering a small part of a beautiful country I am sure I’ll be back to see more if at some point. To bed, the early morning start & the absurdly long journey home awaiting. One last excitement in the morning of catching up with the Parsons on the flight home.

Thank you Australia. You’ve been amazing. I have 3 weeks of superb memories that will last me a lifetime. Bring on New Zealand in 2017!!

Baby Jensen Parson in his Lions shirt - CUTE as!

Baby Jensen Parson in his Lions shirt – CUTE as!

The Parson Family

The Parson Family

With Tim & Jensen at Singapore Airport (fellow Bath fan living out there & on same plane out of Oz as me)

With Tim & Jensen at Singapore Airport (fellow Bath fan living out there & on same plane out of Oz as me)

Sydney Harbour Bridge

With such little time in Sydney I was at a loss with what to actually do that I felt that I had used my time sufficiently. Others were talking earlier in the week about wanting to do the Harbour Bridge walk, something that was definitely on my list to do. Not one to miss an opportunity I offered to book it on my iPad ahead of heading down there & so we did. It transpired that we had booked a time slot that was just after some of the others in our group that had booked it separately, almost like we were doing it together!

We arrived at the pylon where the booking centre is well ahead of schedule to ensure that it was all sorted to avoid any bitter disappointment. At this stage I had not seen the iconic harbour view or indeed the actual bridge. As we walked down to grab a coffee and soak up the scenery as it was a simply beautiful day. We have been so so lucky with the weather in general it is ridiculous. For the last 14 days or so Sydney has had the most vial rain which has been very persistent and heavy.

It was on the way down to The Rocks that I actually first caught sight of not only the bridge but also the Opera House. Wow! What a sight! They are both massive! It must be one of the most iconic landmarks in the world & here I was, little old me, standing looking at it. I took a few moments just to soak it all in. Pinched myself that this was all real!

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The way in which they sort out all of the kits that you have to wear to comply with the obvious health and safety precautions was incredibly well set out and very clear. We had pretty much everything that we could possibly need attached to our belts which went on top of the really in attractive onesie – but needs must and all that! I led the way behind the guide just in case I was going to need my inhalers which she was carrying as I was not allowed to carry anything. Even all of our watches and bracelets needed to be taken off?!

Kitted up to the nines, off we went. For some stupid reason I thought that we would be walking all the way over and then back rather than up one side to the middle and then back down the other side. Being first meant that I had my photos taken first and then had to wait for the rest of the group to catch up and be done. Good shout. Meant that I had a few moments all on my own each stop to take in the sights before me. I could have spent all day up there soaking it all in. I cleverly tout not to put the lenses in this morning, if I was struggling with them drying out on my eyes normally with the 65km per hour winds up there, I think that they would have literally blown out of my eyes!! It wasn’t really cold as such, just pretty bloody strong. The day was beautiful with an amazing blue sky in the background to make the pictures look even more extra special. Well, sadly they didn’t exactly come out beautifully as we were looking into the sun when they were taken my hair was blowing ALL over the place and my eyes were watering like mad!!

At the start of the Bridge Walk - easy to stand up with out being blown over here!!

At the start of the Bridge Walk – easy to stand up with out being blown over here!!

My poor eyes were not doing so well on the top of the bridge where the wind was blowing at around 65kmph and I was looking RIGHT into the sun for this photo!

My poor eyes were not doing so well on the top of the bridge where the wind was blowing at around 65kmph and I was looking RIGHT into the sun for this photo!

Coming backdown was a little more traumatic than going up to be honest. The ladders were vertical and the winds had grown, coming down the first two sets were pretty hairy. The worst part by far was sort of shimmying across from one set to the other as part of the handrail sort of disappeared. By the time we had got to the bottom it was all just a distant memory. It’s sad that you can’t take photos from up there to be fair but I guess the website will hopefully show you what some of the views looked like. I was tempted to buy half the shop out of souvenirs but in the end I just got a fake Pandora charm for my bracket as I have one space left, it seemed only appropriate that I filled it with that.

A day in the rainforest

Our second day in North Tropical Queensland took us up to the Rainforest, something we were all very keen to see – again there were 10 of ‘my lot’ as well as a few others too. The day was beautifully sunny and warm, just what we were expecting from the weather up here. Very handy having them pick us all up from the hotel I have to say, the location of the hotel (the Shangri-La!)being right in the middle of the marina was wonderful.

We headed up to Kuranda on the sky rail and booked to come back on the train – another day trip with a good 10 or so of my group members joining. The village is tiny with only a population of around 1,500 people but it is a set of markets selling pretty much anything that you need as a tourist. A total tourist trap in my opinion but it was more the travel to and from the we were all going for.

We headed up in a cable car which stopped off at a couple of points on the way up so that you could get out and walk in amongst the rainforest on one of them and see the breath taking views out. One of the things to look at was Barron Falls, as you would expect from the name – a waterfall. It was merely trickling at the moment owing to the time of year but you can tell at it would be quite a spectacular sight.

This youtube video (not mine!) gives you an idea of the sights as we went up. I’d suggest turning the sound down though as the wind is pretty much all you can hear – there is no running commentary!

Ed, Kay & Steve in our 'pod' on the way up & over the rainforest on the Skyrail

Ed, Kay & Steve in our ‘pod’ on the way up & over the rainforest on the Skyrail

Me with Sandra & Chris in the pod

Me with Sandra & Chris in the pod

The first look out on our way up gave us a great view out over the top of the rainforest

The first look out on our way up gave us a great view out over the top of the rainforest

One of the massive trees that we saw whilst walking along the boardwalks at the first stop on the cable car trip

One of the massive trees that we saw whilst walking along the boardwalks at the first stop on the cable car trip

Barron Falls - one of the stop on the way up on the gondola (as it was called)

Barron Falls – one of the stop on the way up on the gondola (as it was called)

Just slowly making our way up and over the rainforest was simply amazing, with a birds eye view of the place as we all soaked in the views back over Cairns as well as just looking down into the actual rainforest itself. I didn’t see as many birds as I thought that I would though, which I found rather odd (unless you of course count the turkey which was gobbling around at the Barron Falls stop?!). We saw quite a few very large butterflies including the impressive Ulysses butterfly which is a bright turquoise colour.

After a pint at the top a little meander around the town and a snoop at some of the markets and shops we headed to the train station as we were going to be getting the scenic railway back to where we were dropped off. The station in Kuranda is a very quaint little place, I could almost see a Miss Marple or a Poirot being filmed here! Of course the train that we were on was a very old fashioned one, with very old school carriages, I most definitely would not like to do this trip in the scorching heat, it would be seriously stuffy. It’s a 34km stretch that seemed to take forever to travel with 15 tunnels but most importantly some pretty spectacular views out into the rainforest and back over Cairns. We were all tho definitely looking forward to disembarking when the time came.

An art gallery in the shapre of an old boat selling (but I didn't buy) Aboriginal Art & decorated didgeridoos!

An art gallery in the shapre of an old boat selling (but I didn’t buy) Aboriginal Art & decorated didgeridoos!

The train station at Kuranda - very quaint!

The train station at Kuranda – very quaint!

The Second Test

Match day came around once again and my nerves were in full flow! The not knowing for definite if I had a ticket for the match combined with the actual nerves for the big match itself was making my tummie rumble something chronic. I had a catch up call with Fliss on how the day was going to work and what we have been up to and checking in that all of my group are ok. Thankfully she confirmed that we definitely both had match tickets for this evening – one less thing to be nervous of! She also said that we are two tickets short for the final test and that as Vic wanted us both there I needed to go out and find two.

Cue MASS panic.

Down I went to concierge to find out where the Australian equivalent of Ticketmster office was so that I could go down and buy two on the credit card. They also looked up for me that there were some available but that they were single tickets and couldn’t see from the online booking system where they were, as in how far away from each other. I found out where it was and, in Challenge Anneka mode, off I went searching the streets of Melbourne for the office. Well it wasn’t where they had told me but I went into the theatre where I had been told it was to find out where the office really was, they pointed me in the direction of the office that is located on the edge of China Town which shut at two.

Now most of you already know I don’t do running as a rule. But if it was a case of getting a ticket for the final test or not, running it was going to have to be! So I ran, and I mean RAN (like running for my life ran), across town to make sure that I got there before anyone else got the tickets and the place closed for the rest of the weekend. I was possibly the actual colour of the Lions shirt by the time that I reached the shop and dripping with sweat & gasping for breath. On further looking it transpired that the two single platinum tickets that they had were not only one behind the other but they were also both on the aisle. Could not be more perfect if we had tried. Done. Bought. I confessed my undying love to the elderly gentleman behind the counter who did look somewhat bemused with my admittance. Tickets in hand I gently strolled back to the hotel, taking in some very big breaths to try and recover from the over exertion of the trip to buy the tickets! Happy to have the tickets not only in my pocket but also confirmed for the final test. Once back at the hotel I had to have a lie down to try and recover and get my heart rate back down to something resembling a normal rate!

Pre match hospitality was in a venue space in the Docklands area which was pretty much bang next to the Ethiad Stadium. It was rather a random place and not the easiest to find – I was very glad that Fliss had given me a few directions as to where it was once we got off the bus as it was not easily labelled! We had an open bar for 2 hours before the match and some sensational nibbles including individual portions of fish & chips. As Sophie & I had fed up with pasta pre match I was not really wanting much to drink. I got very edgy as I didn’t have my ticket in my hand still whilst we were in the Black Sail Bar until very late. The obligatory photo of it was of course taken and posted on Facebook!

Just a little excited to actually have the ticket for the match in my hand!! (with thanks to Lesley for the photo!)

Just a little excited to actually have the ticket for the match in my hand!! (with thanks to Lesley for the photo!)

Having played ‘heavy’ on the door for the majority of the evening it was lovely to be able to mingle for a little for the last hour or so before the match. Shared the joyous news that I had in my hand the ticket and if I recall was to be seen stroking it and kissing it at one point! There’s always one!! Lovely to see some of those that have been further afield and to catch up with the couple that I was sat next to at the welcome dinner on the first Friday night in Brisbane, which now seems months ago.

The advert that caused a lot of controversy out in Australia

The advert that caused a lot of controversy out in Australia

Ethiad Stadium, Melbourne

Ethiad Stadium, Melbourne

We headed on over to the Ethiad Stadium, a short walk along the dockside and the masses swelled as we got closer with the atmosphere booming and becoming more intense the closer that we got. It was amazing. There were loads of people handing out #seaofred try signs and red face paint – a brilliant idea I have to say. But I’m not sure that it will quite top my face painting efforts in South Africa?! We managed to pick up a few of the Australian bright yellow hats that were being handed out in a hope of stopping the Stadium being the sea of red again! The chants coming in had me in stitches – #you’reonlywearingyellow’cosit’sfree. We purchased the desired programmes and made the trek up to our seats stopping off at the facilities first – the ladies I never had to queue for in the stadium, but the men’s were absurd!!

In my seat I just soaked it all up again. Looked at the sea of red, took in how little effect the yellow hats seem to be having. Pinched myself that I was actually here, that this is all very, VERY real and savoured the moment. I still, even though I am in the middle of it, can not believe that this is all happening to me. That I am actually doing this, it’s all still very much like I am in a dream and that I am going to wake up every moment to Geri nuzzling into my neck as my early morning wake up call like she does.

Then the photos for the mementoes started.

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I was sat next to Soph for the match which was fabulous. I was so nervous in anticipation about what was about to happen on the pitch in front of us, just in the bottom of my tummie I could feel this horrible notion that we weren’t actually going to be able to do it. I could see it being like so many of the Bath disappointments that I have seen over the years. When on paper we should be able to, but when it comes down to it – nope. Just wasn’t pulling together.

This was the last kick of the match I think - not at all into it or anything??!!!

This was the last kick of the match I think – not at all into it or anything??!!!

Sadly come the end of the match that was exactly what happened. We were unsuccessful & theres a stadium full of Australians that were over joyed. Man, was I thankful that I had actually run out this morning to go and buy the two extra Sydney tickets. There was no way that there would be any left now!

My group were all present, correct and waiting for the nod that the taxi was here, we had no stragglers or anything and I had them all on the bus and singing songs whilst we sorted out what the others were all going to be doing. All a job well done on the organisation front, lets just hope those on the field can be as well organised for the final test, hey!!

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Yarra Valley Wine Tour

Funnily enough this was the most popular of the tours for those wanting to book on with me. In total there were 10 of us that headed out of town and into the scenic Yarra Valley for a spot of wine tasting for the day. We had 3 Australians on the bus as well who were quite quiet initially but warmed up throughout the day as the tasting went on!

It did feel somewhat wrong to be starting a wine tasting tour at ten in the morning?! We tasted 12 different wines, but I was a little bemused that we weren’t shown how to taste the full flavour and so on. We were just given a bit in the bottom of the glass told what the grape was each time & carried on. I think at the first vineyard, Oakridge, we tasted a total of 12 different wines – 6 white & 6 red. I tasted them all, of course, but was not drinking all of the tasters of the reds.

Loosened up on we pressed to the delicious cheese shop from the dairy farm in the valley, little samples of goats cheese which, were I staying longer, I’d have purchased the full piece of. It was simply delicious, so creamy and fresh tasting.

Our second vineyard of the day was Coombe Farm where again we tasted around five or six of the red as well as the whites.

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The lady telling us the details of all of the wines was a wonderful character and full of great humour. I clicked part way through that Lord Vesty is one of the other syndicate members in a couple of the horses that Dad has had an interest in over recent years. His daughter as well, of course I was at junior school with – Flora, but hardly remember her to be honest. Small world and all that! She reminded us of all the horrendous bush fires of 2009 and showed us where the fires came up to on their property, many of the vineyards in the surrounding area were badly damaged but thankfully the wind changed JUST as the fires had come up to the edge of the property the winds changed and blew it in a totally different direction. It was not far from here that the picture of the fireman giving the koala some water was taken.

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We headed on to where we were going to be dining (the Rochford Winery). No buffet here, instead we were treated to a delicious choice of main meals of which I chose a slow cooked beef off the choices. First though we had another wine tasting session. This would have, in my view, been far better placed AFTER we had eaten as we were all feeling rather topped up on the old vino already! Kay & I for one were incredibly giggly at nothing much in particular & she couldn’t stop at one point!

The lady giving us the wine tasting session was teaching us the way of doing it and helping us through the whole process a lot more than previous vineyards. Smelling it, swirling it, swooshing it spitting it which as I am sure you can possibly gather had us in stitches even more!

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Our last stop was the Australian version of Moët & Chandon (the name escapes me at present & my guide book is not currently to hand) After a full glass of wine at lunchtime I was feeling pretty full of wine and so decided to be sensible and not actually taste all of the different ones here and only tried the first sparkling before passing quietly and nipping outside to soak up the sunshine and the views.

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On the way home we stopped in on a chocolate shop and partook in a few samples, but managed to refrain from buying any to take home! The views were still stunning of all the vineyards out in rows, ok wrong time if year to see them growing but you could imagine the scene in summer time and how very different but yet even more beautiful the scenery would be.

The Great Ocean Road

Thursday was my really long day with the 0710 pick up to head down the Great Ocean Road and see some of the stunning scenery down there that I had been told by several sources that I simply HAD to do. Thankfully the weather was fine, a tad overcast but the main thing was that it was not raining so I am not complaining one little bit. It was a smaller group than the previous day but a long old journey down to the sights.

The traffic coming out of Melbourne, the daily commuters was horrendous and we were very thankful not to be stuck in that! When there is pretty decent public transport, certainly puts the UK to shame, in the city – I do wonder why people choose to sit for hours nose to tail on a motorway every morning.

The Great Ocean Road basically hugged the coast line heading south and reminded me of the road in South Africa where Dad had a freak out over the vertical drop over the edge of the cliff owing to his vertigo. There wasn’t that much of a drop though on this really. The road had been man made as in the had been a group of workers in the 1920’s that went along with dynamite blowing some of the rock face up to enable a smooth driving surface could be created along the edge.

As you can imagine, there were many stunning views along the way of the rugged coastline as well as some of the most sublime looking beaches, some of which had surfers on, I could imagine the area being absolutely heaving in the summer months as it is just so picturesque and some of the beaches just seemed so huge! The road would become a total nightmare when there is a rock fall as the road would be totally cut off and there were not too many roads leading back into the countryside that I spotted on route and so I can only imagine that the diversion could be a hell of a lot of miles!

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We stopped off at a spot that our guide for the day/driver, Max, knew there were possibly some koalas in the wild as well as some rather tame birds that he had brought some bird seed for. I’m not talking any old birds, lorikeets, parakeets beautifully coloured and they would come and eat put of your hand. Just as we came close and without any food in our hands they all started swooping down and landing on us – our heads, or arms, shoulders & hands. Incredibly scary at first until you got used to it as the feeling of them landing and there being so many it really was quite unnerving. Can’t help but shriek and swear. Once I’d got a little confidence up I asked for some bird seed and let them all descend on me as they fed from my hand. Amazing experience & I was lucky to come away with a clean coat & head!!

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We stopped for lunch at the Cape Otway Lighthouse, a quick sausage, potatoes and salad before hitting the road again before spotting some more koalas in their natural habitat just asleep in the trees, they just look so random! We headed on further down to first of all the Otway Rainforest which has som of the tallest eucalyptus trees in Australia in it. The peace and tranquility of just listening to the water trickling through was so serene it was blissful. We had about twenty mins or so walking along the broadwalk before it was back in the van and off to Gibson’s Beach, which would have easily been the Australian setting for Broadchurch!

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From there we headed down to Gibson’s Steps which lead down to Gibson’s Beach which is pretty much the gateway to the 12 Apostles. The huge foaming sea was very strong and you could tell that there were some vicious currents out there damned nearly got caught at one point!! The beach isn’t patrolled and so not recommended for swimming obviously, the tide seems to come in pretty quickly and so it was easy to see how people would easily get caught out there!! The steps were originally carved into the cliffs in the 19th century but have been replaced by concrete steps.

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From here it was on again to the main sight of the 12 Apostles. The weather over time has eroded away the limestone and has helped to create a wonderful series of blow holes, rock stacks, gorges and arches. Even though it is named so there are actually only 6 apostles that are visible from the impressive snakes of the broadwalks out to give us better views of the coastline.

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I once again bumped into the couple from the Royal Oak who were obviously doing a day trip too. But on the way back in to the bus and walking though the visitor centre, pretty pointless I have to ay, not a patch on the one at Stonehenge which is the same sort of thing., I bumped into a Pink Leopard from Dubai that I met out in South Africa on the Gulliver’s trip for the last lions tour. (Brian & Roger) my god it’s quite scary how small the world really is?! The views were amazing despite the slight sea mist that was starting to appear. The sea was still an amazing colour and I could, honestly have taken photos all day of that view!

We moved further on down again into Port Campbell National Park and visited the Loch Ard Gorge and again headed down to sea level. Known as one of Shipwreck Coast’s most notorious bits as it has taken out so many boats and the stories are the only thing that are left. We headed back after this one as it was by then a good 3 hours to head back into Melbourne. The vies today though will stay with me for quit a few years. I can really see myself coming back to this area to do a bit more exploring and just chilling out in the slightly warmer weather.

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Penguin Parade on Phillip Island

The morning after the Rebels match meant a lie in for me – perfect! Certainly needed after my only night of a fair few beers with friends & not far to walk back to the hotel on my own! I took it very slowly as I had a busy few couple of days coming up with a number of trips out booked for the following few days with some early starts!

The first was a half day trip which was concluded with a visit to the world famous Little Penguins of Phillip Island. After being picked up at the hotel just after lunch in a massive coach we picked up more on route and headed off to Churchill Island initially. The day was beautiful, blue skies and thankfully not too cold. We have been pretty lucky with it all things considered. The scenery was amazing with the water so calm and quiet – so serene. The photographic opportunities were a plenty with some beautiful reflections on the water.

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We headed to a Koala Conservation Centre which was very different to the environment that we last saw the koalas in at Lone Pines in Brisbane. This time they were in much more of an open environment and way up in the trees so it was a case of trying to spot them as there were tree top boardwalks around a specific area where they were living which was quite a way off the ground. They really are amazing animals and so seriously cute! Also spotted a Kookaburra and a Wallaby hopping around in the park.

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Our final stop of the day was Penguin Parade. Described as a world phenomenon, it is where the Little Penguins return from the sea to their burrows each evening at dusk crossing the beach at a waddle to do so. There are no photos to show of this as cameras etc are obviously banned so as not to disturb the penguins.

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Here is a YouTube clip as we weren’t allowed to take any photos or videos or anything.

It was an extraordinary experience which I feel privileged to have seen. It was pretty nipster as you sit on the pavilion overlooking the beach staring at the stretch of water in front if you awaiting the little things to pop up & start their waddle across the beach to the safety of their burrows. After watching this beautiful sight I then slowly made my way back up to the visitor centre where you could see, from the walkways, the penguins arriving back home and having a natter with their neighbours and friends.

They are so called the Little Penguin as they are all around 33cm high, literally tiny and simply adorable. Despite seriously feeling the cold I could have stayed there for hours just observing the beauty of nature in all it’s glory. Thankfully I resisted the temptation to buy a stuffed one to take home, as soft and cuddly as they were!

Decided to eat in the hotel bar as the price wasn’t too bad, I could catch up with any of the others from the group and I wouldn’t have too late a night as I had a somewhat ridiculous 0710 start in the morning!

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