26 January 2016

Weekend read: Just What Kind of Mother Are You?

Summer holidays are nearly coming to an end and I can't say I am excited about the return to the juggling act once the new school year gets under way. One thing that I love to do over this time is to pick up a summer read or two because I can push aside more easily any sense of guilt about having a million other things I should be doing and just read until the book is finished, even if it means staying up really late to do it.

This is exactly what happened when I read "Just What Kind of Mother Are You?" by Paula Daly. It came recommended to me by a friend (hi Isabel), just when I was looking for something light to read and I finished it in two nights. Without giving too much away, it is a thriller set in a UK village where a pattern of abductions and violent assaults on teenaged girls starts to emerge. The story primarily focusses on mother of three, Lisa Kallisto, who is juggling the daily realities of running a busy household, work, being a good wife and friend and how the precariously-stacked deck of cards falls down when her best friend's daughter goes missing. While most of the story is told from her perspective, the reader is also able to enter into the mind of the abductor with several chapters chillingly told from his point of view.

The plot moves along swiftly and didn't require too much thinking on my part so in that sense, it was the perfect summer read. This is the author's debut novel which probably explains why it felt like certain passages in the book were over-explained to the point of being unnecessary. The ending felt rushed, confused and implausible, which was so disappointing. My quest for the story with the perfect ending continues. It certainly does not deter me from reading her latest works though.

Have you read any of Daly's other novels and would you recommend them?

24 January 2016

Dairy | Egg | Nut-free recipe: Pikelets

1 cup flour
1.5 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/4 cup caster sugar
1/2 t baking soda
1 c milk alternative (I use soy)
2 t white vinegar
1 t vanilla essence
Extra oil to grease pan
Topping of your choice (I use mixed berries)

Combine all dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
Make a well in the centre.
Pour all wet ingredients into the well and whisk until smooth.
Heat frying pan greased with 2 T of oil and pour 1/4 cupful of batter into the pan.
Cook for 1-2 mins or until bubbles show on surface of batter and base is golden brown. Flip the pikelet and cook through.

Makes 10.

* Adapted from taste.com.au egg-free pancake recipe.

15 January 2016

The art of killing the joy of shopping

Find a window when everyone is calm and in great moods. Ignore it. Go instead when everyone is starting to get a little irritable with each other. Shop with all the children. Loud ones. Ones who don't listen. Ones who love to antagonize their siblings. Ones who run in the opposite direction to where the rest of you are heading.

Go with a list. Or don't. It doesn't matter, you will buy at least one item you didn't really need and something else will be forgotten. Get almost everything on the list apart from one item that you saw in the first shop you went to that is now on the other side of the mall. You didn't buy it at the time because you thought it would definitely/almost certainly/may be/wasn't on sale in another shop. Make sure all of you are fist-gnawingly hungry and wearing jandals that are about to break. Stop to look in a shop window at a dress that would have fit you in 1994. Listen to the deafening sounds of the mall music. It sounds remarkably like Mum, Mum, Mumma, Muuuum Smiggle.

Make it especially fun by shopping as closely as possible to lunchtime so you can wade through the mall and be tormented by the smell of kebabs. Always have prearranged plans set for the afternoon in the back of your mind just to keep those agitation levels on high. You don't have time to stop and eat.

Pop into Kmart for just one thing. Come out with a trolley-full. Be secretly glad for Kmart. Extra points given if you find a trolley without a wonky wheel. Go through the self-service checkout. Individually. Confuse the machine and force a real live store assistant to approach you to fix it but he may as well be a robot because he won't smile or talk to you at all. Do this with every other scanned item in your trolley and watch the queue of impatient people behind you grow, just for fun. Reminisce about the time that you were like the woman at the terminal beside you with children younger than yours who do the unthinkable and just let her use the machine uninterrupted. Reminisce about the time you used to do everything uninterrupted. Count you still have the same number of children as when you entered the store and doublecheck that they are all still wearing their own shoes.

Debate whether it is safe to go up the escalator with a haphazardly-stacked trolley. Decide that though it would be kind of fun to see what would happen, it's better to use the lifts and then play a game of Work Out Where They Are. Give up looking for the lifts and hike up three stories using the disability ramp with at least one of your children trailing behind and crying on the level just below you. Resist the urge to line up your trolley with the wonky wheel at the top of the disability access ramp and let it go on them all. Let them catch up. Warn them that if their behaviour continues, they're getting bundled into the car and going home. Definitely no Smiggle. Follow through. Feel triumphant at their forlorn faces. Then feel really guilty. Buy yourself an ice-cream on the way home to cheer yourself up and eat it in front of them. Feel guilty about that too and give them a couple of bites. Icecream fixes everything.

08 January 2016

Four free activities in Rotorua

Rotorua is full of things to do for the adventurous thrill seekers and those who want to experience Maori culture (although perhaps in a less authentic way - it is a tourist town after all), which is great if you have plenty of money to spend. We stayed there for four nights but people could easily spend a week here and still not see and do everything that there is on offer. For nature lovers, there are walks for all ages and fitness levels. When you're in beautiful surroundings like these, it's easy to forget that this area forms part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Once you breathe in the sulphur you are reminded of the natural forces at play that continue to shape the landscape. For the budget-conscious traveller or families who still want to experience what Rotorua is renowned for without the price tag, here are four activities that should be on your Must Do list - and best of all, they will not cost you a cent except for the fuel needed to travel there:

1. Hot'n'Cold Pools - Waiotapu Loop Road (20 minutes south of Rotorua off State Highway 5)
Once a well-kept secret, it is well and truly out now. We took the second turnoff to Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters) Thermal Wonderland which is a few hundred metres past the Waiotapu Tavern and we were glad we did as the pools are quicker to reach this way. If you are traveling north from Taupo, it will obviously be the first signposted turnoff that you'd need to take. You'll probably be greeted by several parked cars and camper vans parked near the first single lane bridge along this narrow stretch of road so you know you're in the right place. The pools are a short walk down from the road and can be accessed from either end of the bridge. We arrived at about 10.30am and the area was starting to get busy but there was still plenty of room in the pools to find your own spot. It was grey and drizzly on the day we went but it was actually the perfect choice of activity for the weather conditions. We were warned about the possibility of rubbish, thieves and boorish behaviour from other pool users but we saw nothing that made us feel unsafe at all. In fact, this was one of the highlights of our trip and is well worth the journey. The right side of the bridge was where the best pool was found with the water being a more reliable temperature. The pool on the left side of the bridge was too hot to even get in when we were there. If you arrive expecting a hotel-grade spa with clear water, you're in the wrong place. The water is murky, you will get grit in your togs, you will notice the smell of sulphur (although I didn't find it as strong as in other places in Rotorua) and you will get scratched on barbed wire or blackberry bushes if you're not looking where you're stepping on the shortcut out of the pools. Bring a towel, river shoes and an open mind.

Recommended fee-based alternative: Polynesian Spa (thanks Sara)

2. Waiotapu Scenic Reserve
Not much further up the road is the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland which is quite spectacular and you really should visit it if you can but if you're short on time, drive past the attraction and a very underwhelming brown sign marked 'Mud Pool' points down a side road. We may have missed this scenic reserve altogether if we hadn't seen a large tour bus coming out as we drove past. Not far down the road is a viewing platform and short walk to the other side of a large mud pool complete with strong sulphur smells and plopping mud. The area was not crowded at all when we arrived before midday but it was still raining so we had to run for cover and this was the only photo I took, which doesn't really do the area justice.

Recommended fee-based alternative: Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

3. Lake District
Wherever you go in Rotorua, you'll never be far from any of its lakes. Lake Rotorua is the largest of the 18 lakes in the region and has several nice spots for swimming and walking. There are plenty of black swans which we were told can be quite aggressive but we didn't have any problem sharing the lake with them - just don't feed them. The Blue Lake (Tikitapu) is the smallest of all the lakes near the city of Rotorua, but it is my favourite of the ones we visited. We loved it so much here, we came back twice. It had been raining for three days straight and was still drizzling on our first visit, but something about the mist descending from the hills and how beautiful the water looked just made it feel really special here. The road to the lake is well-signposted, simply take State Highway 30A round Lake Rotorua and turn right onto Tarawera Road. The Blue Lake is the first of three lakes you can access in the area. This is another place to head to even when it is raining although we found on our second visit here, the wind made it less pleasant swimming in the lake. Even though the Blue Lake Resort is right across the road from where this photo was taken, the lake has a feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.
Since you've come all this way, it would be rude not to go and see another one of the lakes reshaped from Mount Tarawera's destructive 1886 volcanic eruption. To get to the pretty lakeshore of Lake Tarawera that is pictured above, continue on down the same road past the Buried Village/Te Wairoa (this archaeological site and museum is also well worth the admission fee). Turn right when you see a small sign that says 'Boat Ramp'. A short winding sealed road will take you down to a spot known as Kotukutuku Bay where there are toilets and, randomly, a cute wooden cafe. This activity is only free if you don't buy the food, drink and yummy homemade fruit ice creams. In between Lake Tarawera and the Blue Lake lies the Green Lake (Rotokakahi) but it is tapu and no swimming or recreational activities are allowed on the water so we only drove past it. The last lake you can access by car in this area is Lake Okareka. We visited it on our return loop home (turn onto Okareka Loop Road just before the Blue Lake Resort). It's quite a lovely settlement but we were pretty laked out by this time, so I didn't even take a photo.

Recommended fee-based add-on: Buried Village

4. Government Gardens
Located in the central city and right on the Rotorua lakeshore, the land was gifted by local iwi to the Crown in 1880, which was then developed into a health spa to encourage foreign tourists to visit. The Tudor-style Bath House now houses the Rotorua Museum. When a building looks this good even in the rain, you know it's a beautiful place and it is easy to see why it is one of the most photographed sites in the country. This cultural heritage trail pamphlet is very handy and outlines several sculptures and points of interest in this one location. You can also download the brochure from the Rotorua District Council website.

Recommended fee-based add-on: Rotorua Museum

Because of the inclement weather when we visited and the fact that I had a child wearing an arm cast that we needed to keep dry, we were hampered a little by what we could experience together. I've mentioned that there are plenty of nature walks. We would have loved to have walked to Okere Falls and if your family is keen on cycling, there look to be some really great mountain biking trails too. If we'd managed to stay another day, we would have also checked out the Redwoods. There is a newly-built tree canopy walk which would have been fun to experience. We have been back in Wellington for just a few days now and I am still thinking about how great Rotorua is to explore, and the free hour parking in the central city was a nice surprise. Have you ever been there? What free activities would you recommend that I haven't included here?

06 January 2016

A letter to Stu

Dear Stu

Yes, I know I said that staying in Wellington over the summer is amazing. It really is. But so is spending four days in Rotorua. Just not at your place. It was a completely spur of the moment decision to take a family holiday because my children had never been to Rotorua before and I thought my lucky stars were shining bright when I managed to secure three nights' accommodation during the busiest time of the year in one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country. 

When you offered us a free night's accommodation so we could prolong our stay in the adventure tourism capital, I thought I had struck gold. Once we got to our home away from home, it quickly became apparent why it was seemingly the only available lodgings anywhere in the country over the New Year break. Perhaps at $150 a night, I was expecting too much? Perhaps given we had one night gratis I have little grounds to complain? I say Stu, instead of taking the $30 that I paid to have the house cleaned after our stay that you spend my $480 to get a commercial cleaner in to give that place a good clean. It's my gift to you.

We just had to look past the odd smell, the general filthiness and the hole in the toilet floor and those annoying soundless flies that just do circuits around each other in the middle of the lounge and the fact that there was no bottle of wine even though it was promised in the listing. We needed that wine Stu to dull our senses. We tried to escape out the front door but it was jammed shut. So were some of the windows in the lounge. Except for the one that did open and the entire window almost came out of the frame. Should I go on? I think I should. When you ticked the box on the listing that says that the house is toddler-safe, surely you meant it's because it has a high chair and not because of the lawn with some broken glass on it next to a shared driveway with people tearing up and down it in their cars daily? I am sure lots of toddlers know not to suck on mouldy bathroom curtains. Look, it's not all dire, Stu. If people preferred to pay to camp on your lawn, the house exterior and train tracks across the road are both quite lovely to look at.

I'd like to leave my Qualmark star rating. It's five stars from me for any holidaymakers who are after a P house experience.