Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

Tonga and New Zealand


Hello there

So, to finish off my Polynesian island hopping, I am writing you from New Zealand after spending some time here. Before that though, I had a flight at half past three in the morning to Tonga from Samoa. The bus that took me to the airport was a bit late, so by the time we got to the airport, I was amongst the last in a very long line for check-in.

As departure time approached, there were announcements that the flight was boarding, although there were still plenty of us left to get through check-in. We did finally get through and on board though. So, being bloody tired, I fell asleep before take-off. At one point I woke up to see a nice bun on the empty seat next to me, left there no doubt by a flight attendant. When I woke up on final approach, I went to eat the bun and it had disappeared, you can't trust anyone. Anyway that flight of about an hour had given me a little power nap. This was another one of those International Date Line crossing, confusing flights. Having left on the Tuesday evening, I arrived Thursday morning in the Kingdom of Tonga.

Tonga is famous for a couple of things. Firstly, the size of its people, who are supposed to be of legendary proportions. Secondly, the fact that it is the only Pacific Island country not to have been colonised.

As regards the first one, the country went on a bit of a diet a few years ago when King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV decided they all needed to slim down a bit. When I arrived, I expected to see the Polynesian equivalent of Tweedledum and Tweedledee everywhere, although there were a few full figured folk, the majority were very normal sized. Quite disappointing really.

By the way, if you think that the King's name is difficult, try the Prime Minister's - 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, which is easy compared to the Foreign minister - Sonatane Tu'akinamolahi Taumpoepeau Tupou. I just wonder what happens to a Tongan with a stutter, they could be stuck all day. Perhaps that is how some of the people got their names. Who knows?

The second thing, about never having been colonised isn't entirely accurate either, it was a British protectorate, without actually becoming a formal colony. The British did a deal with the Germans and Americans, that they could divide up Samoa between them and then would not interfere with Tonga and others. More than this, the church colonised it, when in the nineteenth century a Wesleyan missionary aided the dominant warlord to take over the other chiefs and then became the first King of Tonga. Called George - a lot easier than Taufa'ahau Tupou. The missionary then wrote the national constitution along Christian religious lines and as such created a Christian country / colony. The local attire changed instantly and laws such as that no businesses, work, etc. be permitted on a Sunday are still in force and a contract signed on a Sunday is not legal. There are no flights on Sundays, international flights have to avoid Tonga on Sundays too. Tonga is Polynesia's only surviving monarchy and covers an area roughly the size of Japan.

The next colonial wave is coming from the Mormons, who are the biggest investors in Tonga. Outstripping the government and foreign aid organisations considerably. There is a concerted effort to get the first country with a Mormon majority, in Tonga.

This is also a country that had an official court jester until just a couple of years ago, the last to hold the post was an American - Jesse Bogdonoff - who also managed some of the Tongan business affairs and allegedly lost twenty-six million dollars of state money. Sounds like a stupid thing to do anyway, get the jester to manage your funds, he probably wasn't very funny either.

So, with that bit of background info, that is what I was arriving into. Tired and as I stepped off the plane, there was a welcome chill in the air.

As I had been reliably informed that Vava'u, in the north of the country was the nicest part, I went straight over to the Domestic Airport and got a flight up there. This meant spending an hour and a half in a 1945 Douglas DC3. A real classic aircraft, still being used on a daily basis. It is a real old school plane, which rests heavily on her tail wheel, so boarding then means a steep uphill climb to your seat. The hour and a half flight was smooth and although I slept most of the way, I did look out for the take-off and landing, when there were nice views. The rest of the time we were above cloud anyway. As a footnote, this plane still has square windows, shows how old she is.

One of the main reasons to come to Vava'u was for the diving, which I had been told was world class. I did a couple of dives which were very nice, although the visibility was the worst that had been seen, due to a cyclone a couple of hundred kilometres away, some time earlier. There were nice cave dives and lots of young white-tip reef sharks. In the caves, the visibility was not bad, it was out in the open it was murkier.

The natural harbour in Vava'u is very large and picturesque, it also provides a safe, deep anchorage. Going on the dive boat, I had the chance to see much of it and some of the birdlife that lives on the islands, including some really nice looking owls. The harbour also makes a dramatic backdrop for what are often very lovely sunsets. The local kids would use the jetties to jump into the water and with the sunset behind them, it was particularly picturesque.

Tonga seemed to be home to some of the rejected and dejected from other parts. I had the good fortune to meet some of these waifs and strays when I went to the local pub, where several 'yachties' would congregate to discuss their inconsequential stories since they left the pub the previous evening and got there again at midday. They were not unpleasant people, far from it. Just there seemed to be something lacking somehow. Franco, who was not a yachtie, but a restaurateur. He had lived in Niue for some years and seemed to miss the place desperately. As I had been there recently, he wanted to know about anything I could tell him and anyone whose name I could remember. Although a nice bloke and certainly a good cook (though his tiramisu was disappointing), he was also a sad man with unfortunate teeth.

The ride back to Tongatapu was in a different DC3 and I was invited to the cockpit where I donned a headset and was chatting with the pilots for much of the journey. Probably one of the few airlines left in the world where you can still go into the cockpit as a member of the public and the only time I have actually been asked.

The capital of Nuku'alofa is ugly and uninteresting and the principal island of Tongatapu is not fantastic. I did a tour of it which was pleasant, though not remarkable. The most interesting bit was a stone structure euphemistically called the Tongan Stonehenge. Where a massive rock has been slotted into place to make a lintel over the two uprights. There were a few pleasant beaches and too many bloody Mormon churches. After a couple of days there, I headed to comparative civilization in Auckland. I must say that I was disappointed in the lack of girth on the Tongans, a people internationally renowned for there size weren't that big at all.

My arrival in Auckland was typically at an unpleasant hour of the morning, so I found myself at the hostel at about six, only to be notified I would have to wait until eleven to check-in. I went and found myself a spot on the least torn of the plastic couches and tried to get some sleep, waking in snatches and scaring the other folk around the place as I woke each time like a startled hippo. When I finally did check-in, I got to my dorm and then had the opportunity to do a little exploration and administration (always necessary after some time from the services usually only provided in a city). In my dorm was an English couple and a guy from Chile. We got on well and ended up going out that evening together to the club downstairs.

Much of my time in my first few days in Auckland was absorbed by lethargy. Though I did go to a good, free, classical concert in “The Domain, a large park area. The first half was actually quite unimpressive but it improved in the second half and towards the end seemed to resemble Last Night of the Proms Kiwi style more than anything else (only the Brits are likely to understand this bit). The penultimate two pieces were even “Jerusalem and “Pomp and Circumstance?(complete with the bouncing up and down bit). The final piece was the 1812 overture, a perennial favourite, replete with laser show, fireworks and heavy guns. Nicely done. After the concert a group of us got some drinks then headed to the casino underneath the hypodermic Skytower, Auckland’s most visible landmark. I decided to quit once I had won a hundred dollars and so had a good evening.

During the course of events I had met Guy, a builder and a nice bloke. When I said I had been thinking of buying a van, he told me he had a van to sell and at a reasonable price. A couple of days later, I inspected it and bought it. Then used some of his tools to do some preparatory work on it. The following day, I did some more work on it, converting it from the builder’s van it was into the campervan I wanted. I did some shopping for some of the essentials I needed and by the end of the day it was more than adequate.

From Auckland, I headed south with Christine, whom I had met in the dorm towards Rotorua, famous for its geothermal activity. Unfortunately, much of it is very expensive, so we decided to visit Wai-o-tapu, allegedly the most extensive and impressive of the various places on offer. We spent two or three hours wandering amongst the bubbling, belching, spewing and steaming, geysers, mud-pools, hot springs, brooks and pools. A number of them were very colourful, sometimes with adjacent pools totally different lurid colours, due to differing mineral contents.

Another of the places we went to was The Craters of the Moon, thankfully only requiring a voluntary donation and in some ways a more dramatic setting. The steam and water would bubble from much more verdant scenery, amongst the bushes and greenery. At times it really looked as though the earth was on fire, without actually burning. Very odd.

We then headed on further south to Taupo where there is a nice lake and a multitude of people jumping out of aircraft in what looked like a constant stream of falling bodies. They all appeared to have parachutes on, at least. Apparently it is the cheapest place in New Zealand to jump out of a plane. The most popular too, it seemed.

What we found as driving along was that there would be brown signposts for any viewpoints or attractions nearby. Sometimes these were of little or no interest, however at times we found ourselves looking at spectacular scenery. Whether it was a sweeping vista or a dramatic waterfall. It was at this stage I began to appreciate how well New Zealand caters for travellers with their own transport. Not only are the signs clear and plentiful, there is usually a car park or similar in which to take a break, take in the view or even to spend the night. More than this there is a plentiful supply of public toilets and all of them, without fail were clean and had toilet paper. That really impressed me and moreover it meant that “rough-camping in the van was made easier as that was the only thing I was lacking in it (bathroom facilities, although I did have a twenty litre fresh-water tank).

Napier is a town famous for its well-preserved art-deco district. It also has a pleasant beach and a reasonable aquarium, that we visited. It was here that Christine and I parted company as she had to return to Auckland to begin the new semester at University. I continued on to Wellington, the capital of the country, where I would be meeting Teresa, whom I had also met in the dorm in Auckland.

Over the next couple of days, I did some more work to the van, some on the aesthetics, also on minor adjustments, to make it more practical and more homely. By the time I met Teresa again, my work was done and it was perfectly suited as a camper. We got the ferry over the Cook Straight to the South Island, through some lovely scenery and on the boat, met Merv who recognised me from the Backpacker where I had been staying in Wellington.

As he was an enthusiastic jolly person, we decided to give him a lift as far as Nelson, where he was heading and he made an appropriate contribution to petrol costs. The first place we went through was Blenhem, renowned for the wines it produces. We visited a selection of vineyards and tried a range of wines from the abysmal to the excellent. The scenery was improving as we continued on and several times we would pull up for a photo stop. At one point we pulled up after a bridge over a gorgeous gorge with an absolutely crystal clear river running through it. As we were all peering over the bridge, taking photos and admiring the view we remarked how inviting it seemed. In no time we succumbed to its draw, changed into swimwear and clambered down and jumped in. It was certainly refreshing. The water was icy cold, most likely glacial and after just a minute we would clamber out. Then warm up in the sun before jumping in again. After a while of this we continued on to Nelson, where we dropped Merv off at a backpacker and headed up toward the Abel Tasman national park.

We got to a campsite, parked up and prepared the van and cooked some dinner. The kiwis are a social breed and we ended up talking with some as we cooked, ate, they cooked, they ate, etc. We then had a good nights sleep under a clear sky.

Next day we got a water taxi up the coast a little way, where we could see a sea-lion colony and then walked back for several hours through the woodlands and past several nice viewpoints and beaches, where we were then picked up again and taken back to where the van was. From there we headed further up the northern part of the south island, checking out the scenery, as far as Farewell Spit, a very long promontory at the very top of the island. At one point, we went through deeper water than had first appeared and emerged with a van, grumbling a little, but ultimately alright.

We then headed down the west coast of the South Island, stopping at places such as Cape Foulwind, where there were lovely views and another sea-lion colony. We also went to the Pancake rocks (named so, because some demented person thinks it looks like a stack of pancakes, which it actually does, although it could have been a stack of anything) and blowholes. At Franz Josef glacier, we walked to the face of the glacier and got drenched by the rain in the process. It was worth it however, we saw some small areas carve off the front, crashing down as they lost their grip on the glacier behind them. The unfavourable weather had kept everyone else away, so we had it to ourselves. As we were walking back along the valley, after a few minutes, I turned around and remarked to Teresa “This is probably the best view of the glacier, actually? Just as she turned an entire section carved off the left-hand side. She turned to me a little agog and said sardonically “What was that you said??

We also went to the Fox glacier, but as the weather was still no better, just observed it from a viewpoint without walking up to the face. Our tour took us to Lake Wanaka, which appeared unremarkably along the side of the road. As it was still so overcast, we decided to go to the slightly different wet weather diversion of Puzzling World. There, we had the opportunity to go into confusing environments, made so through optical illusions and tried to solve a number of different puzzles of various forms. After some time, the weather cleared outside and we could then appreciate that we were actually in a lovely setting. There were mountains that we were previously unaware of and lovely views. We decided to retrace our trail for a while and were rewarded with some lovely scenes.

Queenstown, the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world was an overnight stop for us. We didn’t jump off anything, through anything, swing on anything or fall out of anything. We left, first thing in the morning. We did take the opportunity to look at The Remarkables, some lovely mountains in the area as we headed on through the dramatic scenery towards Milford Sound.

There were some lovely views as we approached the most visited of New Zealand’s fjords. Fjordland is quite inaccessible for the most part, except by boat. In Milford though we could park up in the car park, near the pub and the public conveniences and take a scenic cruise the following day. In the pub we played a fair amount of pool and got chatting with some of the fishermen who were there, sheltering from the inclement weather out at sea. They invited us to come see them on their boat in the morning, but we had the cruise booked. During that night the rain was incredibly hard and it even woke me up (who has apparently slept through a devastating earthquake). The scene in the morning was no better, so we postponed the cruise for the afternoon and went along to see the fishermen on their boat. They welcomed us aboard and we spent the morning chatting, drinking coffee and watching DVDs. We then made our excuses, promised to come by and see them later, cooked some lunch in the van and then got on the cruise just as the weather really lifted. During the cruise all the parts of the Sound had blue sky over them although not simultaneously. The recently abated deluge meant that all the waterfalls were in full flood, some of the waterfalls we saw apparently, only appear after massive inundation. We were lucky to see it as we did, as we returned to the dock, the clouds came over again and the views were gone. We had fortuitously chosen the best time of the day.

We went to say goodbye to our fishing friends who had unloaded their store of Albacore Tuna into a refrigerated container. They had kindly kept one aside for us, which the skipper then proceeded to skin, and slice into steaks for us as a gift, before depositing the rest in the sea. We made our farewells and left with several kilos of fish. As I am not a fish eater, this was not as much of a boon to me as it might otherwise sound. Teresa had apparently never tried tuna before, so was not sure whether this had been a good thing either. What we did both appreciate was the hospitality of the people, which was almost becoming commonplace, though not taken for granted. That evening in Invercargill, I cooked the tuna, how I have seen it done before and had a bit myself, although I was unimpressed, Teresa thought it excellent. It was in Invercargill that Teresa and I parted company as she headed onto Christchurch and thence back to Australia and I went to Stewart Island.

Stewart Island is south of the South Island. Doesn’t entirely make sense, but neither does it matter that much. It transpired that it was possible to fly the short hop for negligibly more than the notoriously uncomfortable ferry ride, so that is what I did. The reason to visit Stewart Island is to see a lot of New Zealand’s endemic flora and fauna in a comparatively virgin setting. There I saw: weka, tui, kaka, oystercatchers, bellbirds, new Zealand pigeons and other endemic species. The elusive kiwi remained so and I left New Zealand having only ever seen one in an enclosure. I did several walks and met some nice people there, before heading back on another short hop to Invercargill and my van.

From Invercargill I headed through the Catlins. This is a scenic area with lots of points of natural interest including a multitude of waterfalls, some more impressive than others, the Mac Clean Falls being the unchallenged winner of that competition. There was a petrified forest, only visible when the sea recedes at low tide. It is also where I saw a yellow-eyed penguin, possibly the world’s rarest bird. A little further along the coast, I saw Hectors Dolphins frolicking in a bay. These are the smallest and most endangered of the worlds dolphins and can be found only off coastal New Zealand. At Parakanui beach I camped the night in the van and was joined in the morning by a large heard of cows which milled around the beach and then disappeared off again.

Out of the Catlins, I went to Dunedin the most Scottish of New Zealand’s cities. Apparently modelled on Edinburgh and sharing many of the same street names etc. It is also home to the New Zealand Cadbury chocolate factory, so I went there on a tour to see the works and see if I could manage a way of having a chocolate bath, thankfully I didn’t. From Dunedin the Otago peninsula is just next door, so I took the opportunity to see the Royal Albatross colony. It is apparently the only colony of albatrosses on a mainland, normally they nest on islands. In Dunedin I had the opportunity to catch up with Harriet, a friend I had met whilst in the Cook Islands, which was nice.

I then headed up the east coast of the South Island to see the Moeraki Boulders, almost perfectly spherical huge rocks lying on the beach and had the pleasure of meeting Mike O’Brian, a traditional bookbinder and eccentric in Oamaru. He dresses in authentic Victorian clothing, arriving to work on his penny-farthing. That was until recently, now he has gone on a bit of a Scottish thing and was in a kilt and sporran when I met him. Actually a very smart, fun and easygoing guy, we had a joke and a laugh and some tea. He showed me his press-cutting from the previous week when he had met Prince Charles. Mike was in his full ceremonial dress as a Loser. That is a captain in Alf’s Imperial Army. With bearskin and red coat he looked more like a Royal Grenadier or something similar until you look at the details, such as the epaulettes and badges. He presented Charles with an honorary membership card, with the famous picture of Kitchener pointing at you (as per the wartime poster “Your country needs you? with a line below. “God Save the Queen, Wizard save the empire? I don’t think he knew what it meant either. HRH was apparently quite amused by the whole thing and at least seemed so in the front page picture of the two of them together. Lance Corporal Darling who was also in full ceremonial dress, had not been allowed to speak to the future monarch as apparently he just wanted to flirt with him.

From Oamaru I headed inland to Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain and one of its most attractive. As I approached it, the scenery at the end of the valley became increasingly dramatic and Mt. Cook itself was lovely to see. I then headed toward the coast before heading back inland to Arthur’s Pass, where there are some other nice views. En route I passed a town called Staveley, no doubt named after the tin-pot little village in Derbyshire where I worked for a while. It is impressive that anyone from Staveley got as far as New Zealand. More than that, it is daunting as to why the person would want to name a town there after what is a far from attractive place back home. I hope it was just someone choosing a random place name from a list.

In Christchurch I saw a bit of the city and then headed along the coast which was nice. Then headed north to Kaikoura, famous for its resident Sperm whales. There I took a whale watching trip to see these behemoths of the deeps. They are the largest carnivores on the planet and the abnormally deep trench by Kaikoura means they can spend several years there without having to migrate. On the boat trip, we saw a couple of these giants. Although one only gets to see them for a few minutes before they dive for approximately forty minutes each time. We also saw a number of Wandering Albatross and huge amounts of Dusky dolphins, performing their acrobatics, surfing on the bowsprit and generally having a good time. The summersaults would be very impressive, something I had previously seen on film. When you see possibly a hundred or more of them flipping and jumping and so forth, it is quite magical.

From Kaikoura I headed north, getting the Ferry back to Wellington. There I visited the national museum  ?Te Papa ?which was informative and interesting although poorly arranged. I then headed north through Wanganui to see Mt. Taranaki, a free standing mountain, that just rises from the neighbouring fields. Onwards I went to Hamilton, where I met up with Charlotte, whom I also knew from the Cook Islands. Together, with several of her friends we headed up the Coromandel Peninsula where, Helen, a friend has a beach house and there had a lovely weekend, being social and going to the beach etc.

After a nice weekend, I headed past Auckland to the very top of New Zealand, the Northland and Cape Rainga. Although Cape Rainga is nice, Spirit Bay is lovely. There I had a lovely beach, with two promontories green and covered in interesting rocks, all to myself for some hours. Along the west coast of the Northland is Ninety-mile beach, a bloody big beach, with well packed sand, that I was able to drive along for about twenty kilometres, before getting back on the roads. I saw a lovely sunset at Matauri bay and then stopped in Paihia as I wanted to dive on the Rainbow Warrior.

The Rainbow Warrior was the Greenpeace flagship, sunk in Auckland harbour, in a disgraceful and totally illegal operation by the French Secret Services, who in the process killed one of the crew. The French government did not want the Greenpeace vessel protesting the nuclear testing they were doing in French Polynesia, so resorted to the most blatant and brutal of tactics, for which they were and are unapologetic. After its sinking, the vessel was found to be unsalvageable so was sunk as an artificial reef. The diving on the wreck is great as a huge variety of marine creatures have made it their home. It is also fun to penetrate, going through the various rooms, encountering the current tenants.

Nearby Paihia is Waitangi, where the Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up and signed. This is the most important of New Zealand’s documents as it was the agreement between the Maori chiefs and the English Crown that effectively caused the creation of the entire entity of New Zealand as a British colony. Although the Maoris invited the British (as they did not want the French, who had already made some spurious territorial claims, with one Baron de Thierry proclaiming himself the ruler of the country) to make New Zealand some kind of protectorate. The Maori didn’t seem to really appreciate who they were negotiating with and the differences between the English and Maori versions are causing frictions even today. There is a treaty tribunal, which has settled numerous disputes over lost land, rights and revenues.

I went to the Treaty Grounds, where there is some good information about the treaty and how it came into existence, as well as some impressive Maori architecture and war canoes. All this in a picturesque setting looking across the Bay of Islands, through which I had been sailing as I went to and from the dives.

I also went diving around the Poor Knights Islands. A famous spot for macro diving, where one can see a massive range of different marine life, particularly very small things. In an area about the size of the palm of my hand, I could see three different types of Nudibranchs and there were all sorts of other things to see, as well as interesting topography, both above and below the water. It is also home to what is so far the largest measured sea cave, more than twice the size of the next closest, so far found. The cave has good acoustics and has even had concerts performed in it.

Tanja, who had been my dive buddy, joined me for the trip back down to Auckland, which we did via a scenic route. In Auckland I prepared the van that had served me so well and almost without incident for sale. The following morning I took it to a car market and got an admirable price for it, despite the market being totally depressed (it is the lowest part of the low season, yet there are too many people selling, generally without success). I got more for it than I expected and so have the money to perhaps repeat the experiment in Australia where I am heading next.

In Auckland I was generally taking it easy apart from when I went to Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic experience and underwater world. A famous walk through aquarium with some interesting specimens on show. Tomorrow I am getting on a plane to Sydney and will be spending the next while in Australia, before heading home at the end of May. My most enduring memories of New Zealand will I expect be less to do with the scenery, which is certainly lovely, but more the friendliness and easy going nature of the locals. In addition there are the possums. Possums are an unwanted vermin introduced from Australia. They are actually very cute, but apparently terrible for the environment. Anyway, I saw perhaps half-a-dozen live possums (two of which, judging by the thud and crunch as they came into contact with my van, weren’t live for very long). The numbers of road kill though were countless. Every hundred metres or so, there would be another possum embedded into the tarmac. When you cover the distances I drove in New Zealand (about eight-thousand kilometres), that is one heck of a lot of dead possums.

Anyway, off to Australia now and finally leaving Polynesia behind me (the Maori are a Polynesian people, having colonised what is currently New Zealand or in Maori, Aotearoa, about a thousand years ago).



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