Ningaloo Reef Road Trip

Stuck in suburbia, it is easy to forget how vast and incredibly beautiful this marvellous land of ours is.  Caught up in nonsense of our own making, we lose sight of what really matters. While the news is full of sorrow and hate, of ideologically motivated distrust and ego driven politics, nature proceeds onwards, as it has done for millions of years, and, through utter happenstance, leaving spaces of spectacular beauty that we are able to enjoy and appreciate – should we so choose.

That’s why it’s good to get out and experience the true nature of life itself.  To feel the sand, ground down and pooped out by parrot fish, between your feet.  To watch the beady eyes of a stonefish, and remind yourself that the malevolence in his gaze is a story of your own making.  To dive into the cold embrace of a turquoise sea, brilliantly blue and teaming with life, and see a turtle emerge from a cleaning station.  Another reminder of how life is a synchronised evolution, a beautiful ballet of adaptation and balance played out over millennia.

This is what our trip up the coast of Western Australia was about.  An immersion in nature.

Travelling to the Ningaloo Reef from Perth is an exercise in patience.  In our camouflaged campervan, we motor through a round trip of 3000 kilometres, down endless stretches of road through an often monotonous landscape to find the gems strung out along this small portion of the Western Coast of Australia.

The highlights are endless.  It’s a trip that needed a month, rather than 12 days.   But there are several standouts that live in my memory and bring a smile to my face when I think back to them.

Coral Bay

This small beach town had no space for our campervan, so it was a day trip affair.  We overnighted at 14-mile beach beforehand, and returned to Canarvon the following day.  It’s a tip worth noting if you are heading there to camp.  You need to book months and months in advance in the school holiday season.  Despite the campsite busting at the seams, the reef is largely empty, and we feel like we have the place to ourselves.  The staggering colour of the sea is a thing of exquisite beauty.   Below the waters, coral bommies team with life.  We spend the day on the water with a passionate crew from Ningaloo Reef Dive.  The display of nature is spectacular, but what warmed my heart more than anything was watching the kids discover a joy for being beneath the sea.  Snorkelling like professionals rather than first timers in a coral garden teaming with fish and turtles and sharks.  And no, they didn’t freak out.  They swam closer for a better look.  (Clearly they don’t have my freak-out genes).  Our once in a lifetime experience was snorkelling with a Manta Ray.  A thing of magnificence and glory, gliding effortlessly below us along the white sandy floor of the ocean.

Shark Bay and Monkey Mia.

We stopped on this peninsular for three days and enjoyed every moment of it.  Learning about dolphins at the early morning Dolphin Feeding, and watching the smile on my son’s face as he was chosen to feed one of them was a standout experience.  But it was the peace of the place that really settled my soul.  From the beach, the water is clear enough to see through, and its almost impossible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins.  It was so still and flat and shallow, that the paddle board was put to good use by the kids, who headed far into the distance on concocted tales of adventure and discovery.  Along the way they found a turtle and saw dolphins, and it was only later that I realised they were lucky not to encounter a Lemon Shark.  It is called Shark Bay after all, and while they wouldn’t have been in danger from it, it would be a scary thing to have swim underneath you.  Visiting the very quaint Ocean Park Aquarium and learning about sharks and stonefish and the sobering reality that our inability to clean up after ourselves will render turtles extinct within 20 years was yet another highlight of the trip.


The Kalbarri is closer to Perth, and bordering on the open ocean.  The wind whips off the dancing sea and although the sand is white and the sun is shining, we found it a bit too wintery for a dip in the sea.  However, the scenery in this part of the world is gorgeous in a completely different way.  In the Kalbarri National Park, red rock formations and deep gorges have been carved out of the landscape by the Murchison River.   Natures Window was crowded, but we headed further in and clambered down to the river itself through rocky crevices both wide and narrow.  A sunset walk along the cliffs from Grandstand Rock Gorge to Island Rock, not only gave us spectacular views of the rock formations out to sea, but also the chance to spot a parade of whales, water from their blowholes dotting the horizon.   At this time of the evening, as the sun dips towards the horizon, the whole world turns a warm and dusty orange.  With a glass of wine in hand, we watch as it sinks into the sea, the sky turn purple and day turn into night.

At this point we are approaching the end of our holiday.  We are relaxed and the sense of peace that comes from being away from it all is palpable.  We are in the company of people we love, soaking up the beauty and wonder of nature, formed and reformed tirelessly over billions and billions of years.  This moment will pass, like life itself, but resting in the moment, being in the moment, is peaceful.  I find great capacity for calmness in accepting that despite being a momentary blip in life’s inextricable story, we have the, perhaps unique, capacity to appreciate the world around us.  To enjoy it.  If only we make the time and the choice to do so.

Sharlene Zeederberg

Winter Wonderland, Kiruna, Sweden.

In the far north of Sweden lies a little town called Kiruna.  A small town it might be, but it is home to the biggest iron mine in the world, and, more importantly for us, the staging point for three days’ worth of arctic adventures.

As the plane descends, the heavy cloud cover gives way to a magical landscape beneath us.  An endless white canvas, criss-crossed with black forests of trees huddled together in the cold.

IMG_9012We land on a snowbound runway and taxi up to the small red wood building that serves as airport.  A cab takes us along snow bound roads to the town centre for lunch. The driver is not local, apparently.  He’s only been here for 40 years.  First stop, some lunch at a café, where the menu board is hard to decipher and even google translate struggles.  But, the young staff behind the counter happily switch to English, and go out of their way to provide allergy friendly food to my son.   He gets tacos, which seems a bit ironic.

In the settling dusk (around 2pm), as the world glows pink, we walk back to our lodgings, a delightful B&B not far from the town centre.   This town has a unique feel to us, different to anywhere we have visited before.  The roads are wide, the buildings a mix of soviet-flavoured symmetrical blocks and more traditional two story wooden houses.  Everything is expansively spaced apart, and there is snow everywhere, piled on everything, mounds of it swept up into mini-mountains at intersections.  Remnants of Christmas twinkle in star-shaped candles in uncurtained windows.  It’s a cultural thing, these exposed interiors of people’s homes, a throwback to a puritanism that demanded people be able to see inside your house as they liked.  Apparently this helped inhibit sinful desires, like having sex on the kitchen counter.  Doors are kept unlocked for the same reason.

You might wonder what there is to do in such a place, out on the edge of the arctic, where the temperature dips to -26 degrees?

IMG_9027Firstly, you go dog-sledding.  This was by far our most delightful experience, and I suspect choosing your provider wisely makes quite the difference. We opted for a drive-a-sled tour with Husky Voice.  Stephanie takes out a maximum of four people – which meant it was just our family on this trip – the sort of tour we much prefer.  The kids ride up front with Stephanie, taking turns to stand with her and drive the sled.  Mike and I drive behind on the second sled, attempting to obey the two-second rule, which applies as much to huskies on the run as trucks on highways.

Before we begin, Stephanie suits us up in her utterly delightful wooden cabin, bedecked with fairy lights, heater roaring.  Thick overalls, even thicker boots, balaclavas, fur lined hats and gloves get added to the top of our existing ski gear.   This is despite her assurance that at -8 degrees, it is a warm day.  We look like blue marshmallows, warm and fat.


The dogs and sleighs wait for us in the forest, a winter wonderland of snow drifts and Spruces, branches drooping heavily beneath the weight of the snow that continues to fall.   It takes a while to harness all the dogs correctly, there are a fair number of them, and they bark and yip incessantly with excitement.   The womb like silence comes as somewhat of a surprise once we set off.  The dogs cease their cacophony of howls as one, intent on their task and all we can hear as we glide through the forest is the slushing of the sleds and a rhythmic panting from the dogs.

There is something magical about this monochromatic, ethereal landscape of muted sound and diffused light, like we’ve stepped through the back of the cupboard and into the land of Narnia.   We travel through the forest on recently cleared trails, the snow thick on either side.  Near a lake, frozen, we pause to watch a distant reindeer, eyeing us cautiously.  We plough through deeper drifts that require us to help out our furry friends with a scooting push.  Towards the end of our run, we fly across the ice-bound river and come to a rest at Stephanie’s river hut – a clever invention pulled out onto the snow each winter, and returned home for the few months of summer when the river runs.  While she lights the fire and cooks some delicious sausages we commune with nature, play with the dogs, throw snowballs and wallow in the snow up to our knees.


The dogs are magnificent beasts, gorgeously attired in their fur coats, intelligent, affectionate and patient.  They are the masters of this domain, and happily share it with us in return for pats and cuddles.  When we finish lunch, the sky is softly bruised with the mauve tinge of returning twilight.  This stark landscape feels the epitome of majestic beauty.


Next up, the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi.  Despite being an utterly touristy (and breathtakingly expensive) thing to do, it too is a magically different experience.  The hotel itself is fascinating, with its “snice” (snow and ice) walls, towering ice-blocks and ice-chandelier, but the real magic lies in the artist-rooms.  It is a little like exploring a very cold art gallery.  In several of the rooms, artists have spent two weeks carving fantastical creations out of ice – from astronauts to an ice-queen, a bar of drunken block men to a bed in the arms of King Kong.   You can pay to sleep in the ice-hotel, but I can’t imagine how one would get any sleep at -5 degrees on a bed of ice.  The visit was enough for us, rounded off with a drink in the ice-bar.  Champagne ice-glass, with bubbles?  Don’t mind if I do.

Just down the road from the Ice Hotel, we visit the Sami Museum Sami are the indigenous peoples of this region, and this outdoor museum provides detailed information on the traditional Sami way of life.  In the dark, we tromp through the snow peering into various tents which have different functions depending on the time of the year.  I start to appreciate the value of reindeer skins, which are waterproof and warm as toast.  We learn about the reindeer rhythm to which Sami life adheres.  All the reindeer in the arctic belong to the Sami people, and life revolves around the reindeer and their breeding cycle.  They keep some reindeer in an enclosure, so we get a close up view of these comic looking animals who can sniff out food at a hundred paces and aren’t afraid to come and take it from you.

Next door, free to enter, is the Jukkasjärvi Church.  I love churches (although only when empty of preachers), and this one is storybook gorgeous.   The red, almost barnlike structure is simple yet striking against the whiteness of the snow.   Apparently it is the oldest church in Swedish Lapland.  The Sami religion, through the usual application of threat and coercion, is now mostly Christian.  Gone are the drums and ancestral rituals that were once used to commune with the dead, but a sense of that wild spirit communing with nature still resonates in the pictures on the walls.  No realistic European depictions of devotion, these are vibrant explosions of colour, cartoon-like.  They remind me of similar paintings in Cusco, Peru.

We also visited Kiruna Church, which is a spectacular building, beautiful, red and angular, apparently designed with a traditional Sami tent in mind.  It is a series of triangular shapes that converge into a central soaring apex, creating space and light inside.  There is an impressive organ, an abundance of dark wood and the smell of pine forests in the early morning.  We have it to ourselves, this calm and peaceful space, and end up in a deep and meaningful conversation with our children, about life and why people buy into beliefs that make no moral or logical sense.  A peaceful way to pass half an hour before heading out to dinner.

On the advice of Lynn, who runs the B&B we are lucky enough to stay in, we hire a car and spend a day driving along the frozen river towards Nikkaluokta in search of wildlife.  What a luck to encounter three clippity-cloppity reindeers trotting down the road on their multi-jointed legs.  They look just like Disney has sold them to us, and all that is missing is the red nose.


We find a bridge across the only part of the river that doesn’t freeze over, and step outside the car to take a photo.  A quick photo.  Very quick.  Somehow, here were the water still runs, it is colder than further down the river.  I take my gloves off to take a photo of the distant mountains, and in moments cannot feel my fingers.   Back to the car post-haste, heater blasting.  It is easy to imagine dying from hypothermia.

Of course, the main reason we came up with the mad-cap idea of visiting this part of the world was the allure of the Aroura Borealis.  Although it is a low point in the solar cycle, and it was cloudy for two of the three nights, as luck would have it, on the night I booked us in for a snow-mobile adventure, the sky cleared.  We were lucky enough to get a glimmer of the aurora.  Just a shadow of its marvellous self, but enough to say we have seen it and we want more.  It is the only redeeming feature of the snow-mobile trip, which was our least favourite thing we did.  We did it as part of a tour with about 16 other people, the drive was slow and stop-start and it was utterly freezing.  To drive along with your nose peeking out of your balaclava at -26 degrees isn’t fun, and we all ended up with bright-red frost-nipped noses at the end of it.  Still, we saw the green glow in the sky, and for that it was worth it.



Snowy lessons in Christmas.


Christmas Day dawns quite unceremoniously in Cervinia, nestled in the outstretched arms of the Italian Alps.  While this quaint ski-town is bedecked with sparking white lights, and the odd decorative reindeer, the shops will be open today and people shall go about their business with, apparently, scant regard to the occasion.

This was the first year the kids have openly acknowledged us as Santa 1 and Santa 2.  But, they still wanted stockings (which we told them they weren’t getting for reasons of logistics) and a sense of seasonal specialness. The kids went to bed last night with a little less wide-eyed wonder, remarking that it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Happier this morning, waking up to the surprise of secretly packed stockings at the end of their beds.


It is a lesson about the value of rituals, and the feelings of well-being they give us.  Rituals matter far more than beliefs in creating a sense of place and a sense of belonging.  In my pursuit of intellectual honesty, it is perhaps worth remembering that.

Still, here we are in this beautiful place, doing beautiful things.  The scenery is spectacular.  The village is covered in snow, which made arriving in our heavy cars without snow chains a somewhat farcical event.  The kids are caught in wonder, and immediately launch into snowball fights and snow cave making.  The food is, as one would expect, simply gorgeous.  We eat “typical products” (like cheese and smoked meats) by the bucketful.  For dinner one night we try a fondue specialist.  Yes, even with the dairy allergic son.  He gets to cook his own steak on a sizzler, declares this his favourite restaurant.  Excellent it was too.


To get to the ski-fields, we have to take a gondola up out of the village, over the first range of peaks and onto the mountain itself, where sunlight dances off the freshly ploughed, brilliantly white snow.  Above us, the backside of the Matterhorn, Toblerone triangular all the same, rises into the bluest of skies, and just across the saddle of sharp peaks criss-crossed with ski lifts lies Switzerland.  All across the horizon, a sea of mountain peaks shimmer in the haze.  It is unbelievably picturesque.


I am most definitely a beginner skier, and it is only on day three when I finally get the hang of it enough that a glimmer of pleasure overtakes the abject terror.  This is, of course, the moment I take a spectacularly inelegant tumble off a ski lift and twist my knee in a direction it definitely wasn’t designed for.  And that’s me, done for the moment, three days into a ten-day holiday in the snow.  So much for improving my rather shaky skills.  On the upside, I got attended to by the Italian Red Cross, and got a ride on a skidoo down the mountain – siren going all the way.

Today, Christmas Day, we are having lunch at a restaurant that is only accessible if I ski in.  It is going to be interesting.  Let’s hope the over-priced knee brace works, and I haven’t forgotten how to turn.  Snow ploughing down the mountain is going to be a painful endeavour to say the least.

Even without skiing, we are here with friends who are almost family, catching up on years of distance, sharing old memories and making new ones.  The kids form vibrant friendships, with giggles that overtake restaurants and dare my kids down slopes bigger and faster than they could have imagined possible.  And to me, this is what the spirit of Christmas is really all about – making time in our busy lives for family, friends and the small rituals that anchor us in our worlds.


Merry Christmas, everyone.

Going Bush… camping.

I am not a huge fan of camping.  It’s one of those things I like the idea of, rather than the actual, somewhat uncomfortable, practicalities of it all.   So, it came as a huge surprise to me just how much I enjoyed our recent bush camping adventure.  And by bush camping I am talking a shared porta-loo and no showers.  Sounds yuck, right?  Except, it was excellent.

It probably helped that the weather turned up and did the right thing – beautiful sunny days, crisp mornings and huddle-round-the-fire evenings.  In what might have been a first for me, it did not rain.  Not one little drop.  Nary a fluffy cloud marred the strip of blue sky we could see from the depths of our valley.  I suspect this made a massive difference to my opinion on this weekend, as none of the things I like about camping involve being cramped together, vaguely damp, in a shelter you can barely stand up in, playing endless card games with tetchy kids.

And although significant investments in the camping stash – good mattresses, a party-sized gazebo, tables and chairs – were positive improvements, it was the location that tipped the scales from “meh” to “wow” in the camping rating stakes.

A river runs through it

We visited Wollondilly River Station over Easter.  This unspoilt slice of nature, just a few hours south of Sydney (depending on the traffic) is reached via a somewhat jolting and slightly alarming 45-minute crawl down a bumpy, narrow, unsealed road that winds its way, somewhat precariously, down the mountain side and into a lush, river-runs-though-it, valley.

Although a popular destination, campers are spread out so that you feel, largely, you have a little slice of Australian heaven to yourselves.   By the time the tent was up, the evening fire prepped and the first Gin & Tonics poured, the stress of urban living had floated mysteriously away.


Here, the kids were able to run free, inventing battles and adventures, as they conquered new territory and laid claim to never-before set upon islands.   They canoed and swam, built forts and raced around on bikes without parental consent or involvement.  They tested themselves against the elements, and fizzed about fired up by their imaginations.   And all I needed to do, whilst dozing in the hammock, was cast a periodic lazy eye in their general direction to make sure they haven’t abandoned anyone along the way.

In search of adventure

Our campsite, nestled under trees, fronted a shallow river and gave us a beautiful view of morning mists hovering across mirror-still water.  In the afternoon, we were captivated by swooping swirls of red-tailed black cockatoos.


Campfires are encouraged at this campsite, and wood provided.  We had the campfire going early morning to stave off the cold and from mid-afternoon to huddle around and cook dinner on.  There is a rule in our house of Scouts, and it is this – a camp, is not a camp, without a fire.   For the kids making fires is an absolute highlight, and while we didn’t quite get as far as putting the billy on to boil, there were marshmallows melted on sticks collected during earlier adventures, and plans to make damper (even if they didn’t quite eventuate).    On the downside, everything smells of smoke, but sitting around a fire, with a glass of wine and a hearty meal, talking with old friends is what special memories are made of.

It turns out that bush camping, despite the potential horrors associated with unsophisticated ablutions, is where the joy of camping lies.  Because here, in these sorts of places, it feels like you really are communing with nature.  Out of commercially run campsites, with their individually marked sites, shops and free WIFI, you literally unplug and drop out, and it is a gorgeous feeling, and one we plan on repeating soon!

The art of holidaying

We have different holiday styles, my husband and myself.  His involves a lot of sleeping and reading and resting and relaxing, while mine seems to moving, doing, visiting, seeing, achieving.  I think he may have the right idea, but I don’t seem to have the skill set required for restful recuperation.  I am trying though, and sheer exhaustion is helping me get there.   Today, after I got up at 6am and walked along the beach for 4km, I fell back into bed and slept until 11.33.  Unprecedented.  Oddly – that feeling of lethargy and slight breathlessness that has accompanied me for most of this year  seems to have abated as a result.  Think my body is trying to tell me something.

Actually, combining our two holiday styles works best.  Rest day, Do day, Rest day, Do day.  I just have to remember it is okay to rest.  I think I have always been highly strung, achievement focused, busy.  I get itchy in my head after sitting still for too long (and by too long I mean about 25 minutes).  My mind pulls up the list of shoulds and coulds, things still undone, opportunities abandoned.  I literally have to get up and move about, make something happen.  Write something, bake something, fix something, think something.  Make a list, set a task, put together a plan.  I think resting is a skill and I don’t appreciate its value enough.  I have to learn to rest and appreciate stillness, rather than trying to fill the quietness with activity.

Which is what this Christmas holiday is about.  Here in Perth we aren’t on any mission to see new things.  We’ve done most of it before anyway.  We are beaching and chilling by the pool, eating too much, going to movies, playing board games, hanging out with family and sleeping.   Right now the kids are wallowing in the pool, making up games and playing together without squabbling, and with no device in sight!  (Now, that actually is an achievement!).   And, I am enjoying sitting here (okay I am typing, but with no sense of pressure about having to do it – despite the fact that Christmas Eve is almost upon us!) .  In fact, maybe feeling more rested makes us better able to enjoy and appreciate the wonderfulness of our lives. Maybe activity begets activity and rest begets appreciation?

Whatever it is, I am liking this feeling of peace – however momentary.  I need to remember to appreciate things more in 2017.  To slow down and focus on what matters, to do the tasks I choose well and mindfully and to do things for myself for no ulterior motive other than enjoyment.  Perhaps that is the best Christmas gift we can give ourselves – learning the art of appreciation 😉

Wherever you are in the world, thank you for being part of my extended circle of family and friends.  Wishing you all a wonderful, peaceful, restful Christmas and a 2017 full of hope and an appreciation of those moments of joy!

Game Hunters


There is something faintly absurd about rattling around the largely unspoiled African bush in a rickety, open land rover in search of wild life, when it would be much more convenient and reliable to see the animals at the zoo.

A game drive is an exercise in patience.  For 90% of the time all there is to be seen is the grey scrub-like bush and surprisingly lush Mopane trees desperately clinging to life in the red dust.  Although no doubt there are plenty of animals magnificently camouflaged just beyond our sight, the odds of seeing something is slight.  The area the animals wander in is huge, their number limited and to be in the same place at the same time as something more remarkable than an Impala is unlikely.


And yet somehow, almost always, there is something marvellous to see.  And when you do, when you come across a leopard or an elephant, it is an adrenaline fuelled thrill.  It occurs to me that this is perhaps what hunters feel, and that perhaps we are modern day hunters, armed only with a Canon and an iPhone, and without the flawed ego that requires the kill.  The big five – named that way for being the hardest animals to hunt – remain in our sights because they are elusive and majestic to see.  When we find one of these marvellous African animals moving freely we are breathless with excitement and nerves, awed by their beauty and power.

We are spoilt here, in this beautiful parcel of land grand-hearted people strive with difficulty to maintain against the tide of human self-interest.  Here where the efforts of the passionate have carved out a little piece of Africa that is, almost, as it once was.  Here on the border of the Kruger, where they do battle with poachers, we rattle about in our dusty land-rover desperate for a glimpse of a rhino before they are wiped out completely.


And that is what game drives are about, for me.  Appreciating the importance of these creatures in their natural surroundings.  Looking into an elephant’s eyes, or being pinned to your seat by the steely glint of a lioness and knowing that they have as much a right to this land as human beings do.





Skiing in Australia

Skiing is not something I naturally associate with Australia.   Despite being here for 15 years, the beach-stereotype is still firmly entrenched.   But in the winter months, Kosciuszko National Park plays host to a vibrant ski season, and thousands of Aussies trek down here to spend time cavorting in the snow.

IMG_8259 IMG_8261

We went for a weekend.

Despite it being a five-hour drive away, it is an easy enough trip. We head down after lunch on Friday afternoon and pull into Jindabyne in time for dinner and ski gear pick up.  Our accommodation is a ram-shackled ski lodge styled bed and breakfast, perfectly comfortable rather than luxurious, run by some ex-South Africans.   They are ready to pack up and explore the rest of Australia, and the house is on the market. While they wait for a buyer, they tend to the needs of us snow enthusiasts with hearty breakfasts early in the morning, and a roaring fire late into the evening.

On Saturday, we suit up and pile into the car to head to the snow. The ski-tube is a delightful relief after our New Zealand experience of snow-chains and switchbacks, and we decamp at Bullocks Flat and kit up.   Boots on, skis and poles over shoulders, helmets swinging from a spare finger, we clatter and puff our way to the train.

It’s the part I hate most – the slog. Carrying gear that is heavy and unwieldy (because of course, you aren’t just carrying your own ski’s – no, you’ve swapped your poles for your kids ski’s too), clonking about in boots that are not designed for straight legs, sweating from the effort, but wrapped up because it is freezing on the lifts.

The train takes us up to Blue Cow and we disembark into a winter wonderland. Snow abounds and glistens in the bright sunlight pouring out of a blue sky.  It is a different sort of environment to New Zealand. We are not as high up, and rocks and bushes form part of the scene.   From high above, Arabella spots a grumpy echidnae making its way home, and we glimpse a bright parrot perched incongruously on a wintery branch.


It takes me a while to remember what I am supposed to do and I am relieved when Matt wants to do repeat runs on Easy Starter. We spend the whole afternoon there, so that, when we return on Sunday, suddenly we are both in the groove and enjoying the green runs Perisher has to offer.  It has taken my whole life, but I have finally gone from enjoying the idea of a skiing holiday, to actually enjoying skiing.  Snowboarding wipe-outs are a distant memory. We are now skiers, and I for one am happier for it.


On Saturday night we head to a fabulous Mexican restaurant for ribs (yes, that well known Mexican dish). The vibe at Cocina’s is warm and noisy – and the food utterly yum. We drink red wine and toast ourselves silly, and celebrate the opportunity to visit this lovely part of the world with good friends.  How fortunate we indeed are.