Friday, 25 July 2008

Christchurch, New Zealand

I'm in my eighth country! I flew into rainy Christchurch yesterday, and though I haven't seen much of it, I like New Zealand so far. Last week when I looked up my flights to find out which terminal I was flying from I noticed my flight times had been changed, and after ringing Trailfinders it turned out the morning flight with Jet Star had been cancelled and they'd reserved a seat on the Jet Star evening flight for me. I didn't want to get in that late though, so I got them to book me in on the Qantas flight in the morning, which they agreed to. That's before I heard about exploding oxygen tanks and other recent 'complications' on Qantas flights! But it all went well. My peanut butter and strawberry jam I tried to smuggle into New Zealand would probably have gotten through if they hadn't been classed as a cream and a gel respectively and hence weren't allowed through security! It made me laugh quite a lot. Has anyone ever blown up a plane armed with peanut butter and strawberry jam? My pasta was okay though, obviously little hard spirals are not a weapon. After landing in Christchurch I felt up to taking part in a University of Otago study at the airport to find out about how often influenza was being brought in by travellers. After filling in the survey (and stating that I didn't feel ill) I was an eligible candidate for a throat and nose swab (lucky me!), which I also agreed to. I now know that a nose swab is really really unpleasant. But all in the name of science. My results will be posted to Edinburgh!

Australia defintiely grew on me as I went along and after comparing Sydney and Melbourne I'm a Melbourne fan! (boo hiss from the Sydney fans)... In Sydney I stayed in an overrated huge hostel where my food was stolen twice in a row from the fridge! My friend who was staying there as well said some of her makeup was stolen from her bag and she saw it in her roommate's bag and stole it back! Hence I nicknamed it Kleptomaniac Hostel. Also there was a guy in the girls' bathroom (which you can only get into with your keycard so I don't know what the point is if all keycards work!) who was happily shaving there. He said he knew he was in the wrong one but it was just 'so nice'. Right.
On my first day I wandered through town and photographed Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in the smirring rain, and strolled through the Botanics. I didn't see a single flying fox although Lonely Planet said 'you can't miss them' - yes, watch me! On day two Charlotte my Dutch friend and I did the Coogee to Bondi beach walk, which was good fun, and the sun actually peeped through occasionally! We went out to the Ivy club in the evening and had to beat yuppie-ish men off with a stick. We were with our (female) Irish friends who were not so good at beating men off, so we enjoyed the company of a mad Irishman for most of the evening!
On my last day I was walking through the Queen Victoria Building with a steaming pretzel from the German bakery and someone tapped me on the shoulder... it was Yvonne, the German girl I did the very long walk with at Mission beach! Pretty funny. We went for tea and coffee and caught up, then I had to get my bus to Melbourne... 17 glorious hours! I've never had such a bad crick in the neck. Thanks to chosing Premier bus service, the less popular one, I had room to spread out, but sleep was rather intermittent! I think the bus drivers all take a course in Torture 1.0.1, as they seem to know exactly when you've just dozed off and chose those times to throw in a 'meal break' at a McDonald's or a pokey petrol station! Good times to do this are at 10.30pm, 1am or 3am. I (or the zombie that passed for me) got in at 7.30, stored my bags and went exploring. First stop was the Victoria market, which had a huge fresh food selection, yum. Then I took the tram (loved the trams!) down to the Botanics, which were fab, and went to the National Gallery. The Art Deco exhibition (all the way from the V&A!) was a bit too pricey for me, but saw the permanent collection and they had some gruesome Otto Dix war etchings, inspired by Goya's, which I've also seen (in Vienna.. or was it Madrid?) so was interesting to compare.
In the afternoon I made my way to Altona, where I was met at the train station by Alistair Brown, his wife Liz and their lovely boys. Scotty is ten and Jamie eight, and they have a menagerie including a blue-tongue lizard called Bluey! Had a great time staying with them and on Sunday went to the very good Museum with them, which has a huge variety of exhibits, from the Natural History section to the history of Melbourne and a cute dinosaur eggs exhibition. I discovered my inner child and joined in with drawing dinosaurs. The kids' ones were better than mine! Afterwards I went up Brunswick street on my own, which is charmingly shabby and has loads of quirky little shops and cafes, and an 'alternative' crowd - though I noticed it might be getting too trendy for its own good as some expensive looking restaurants had sprung up and seemed to be popular with the monied tourists for Sunday dinner. Doesn't quite work when there's a homeless guy sitting outside it! On Monday I checked out Federation Square, the Southbank area and St Kilda (which has a beach), where I tried Cold Rock ice cream - they mush it up with your choice of sweets so I selected butterscotch ice cream and chunks of soft caramel - yum!! Even though it was very cold outside and raining a bit! Then I hopped on the bus again, overnight back to Sydney, and got in mid-morning. I took the ferry over to Manly, where I was met by Sara, Dorothy and Chris' (or should I call him Fitzy!? he he) friend from Hong Kong, who was lovely and great fun to chat to. I borrowed her bike for the afternoon and explored Manly and watched the surfers being buried beneath huge waves at the beach and was very glad to be wrapped up in my jacket and not in the sea! But there were so many of them it can't have been too cold - most of them seemed to have drysuits on anyway which must have helped. I met Sally-Anne briefly and had a delicious dinner with Sara and Vic and helped make rhubarb and apple crumble, then watched a (BBC) programme called Wild China - beautifully shot and highly recommended if you can see it! Got the ferry back to Circular Quay with Vic in the morning and he saw me onto the airport train, so nice and easy... and as Vic said a fab journey every day for him - seeing Harbour Bridge and the Opera House as you come into work!

Tomorrow morning I'm on the Tranzalpine train and reach Greymouth around lunchtime. Very much a stopover town apparently so am not hanging around and will be off on the Magic bus (I feel like I'm on a kids' TV programme every time I say it) in the morning to Franz Josef, where I'm hoping to do a glacier hike on Sunday! Should be another highlight and am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Byron Bay, Australia

I really enjoyed my Fraser Island jeep safari last week, thanks to having a great mix of people (11 of us). Amongst others were girls who had been studying in Syndey (a Dutch girl as an exchange student at Syndey University and three Swiss girls at a language school in Manly); one girl who worked at the hostel organising the trip (very useful as she knew what to do, where to go..); a Swedish hitchhiker, and a Scottish girl who'd been working in Syndey and Brisbane. We squeezed into the Toyota Troop Carrier, with our luggage and obscene amounts of food (we ate most of it over the three days) strapped to the roof. Got the ferry from Hervey Bay to Fraser Island, switched into 4WD and bounced along... I felt pretty nauseous by the third day! Great fun though. Fraser is the biggest sand island in the world, and there are inland tracks past stunning freshwater lakes and through rainforest, as well as the 'highway' along the beach. We soon worked out that driving as close to the sea as possible on the hard wet sand (without driving IN the sea!) was the way forward, but sometimes the softer sand was unavoidable and we got stuck. Whenever that happened we all screamed, then got out and pushed while the driver revved the choking engine! Most people had a shot at driving, and it was always easiest first thing in the morning when hardly any vehicles had made deep tracks in the sand, and it was wet from the receding tide. Everyone chose to swear loudly in their mother tongue when things went wrong. 'Holy mother o' God' (and worse) was popular with the two lovely Irish sisters, and 'Scheisse' was the Swiss girls' top choice. As a primarily female group we also got really good at screaming all the time, at every bump, or when it seemed the vehicle might tip over. At the 4WD hire place we'd been shown enticing photos of a tipped over jeep and were told 'help was hours away' and 'luckily no one died'. True Ozzie optimism. Apart from admiring the stunning landscape and screaming a lot we were also looking upwards for airplanes as the beach was not just a road (80kmh max) but also a landing strip! There were also a lot of suicidal fishermen standing in the shallows in their waders and sitting ducks for jeeps to hit. Luckily we didn't hit any. Fraser Island also has a dingo population which is apparently the most purebred in Australia, but we only saw one, which was extremely inquisitive and came up to the jeep and rolled around in the sand. It had clearly been fed by humans. We had also been warned not to approach dingoes and not to be aggressive towards them unless they attacked us, in which case we should give them a proper beating. Lovely. Other dangers included the rip tides and sharks in the sea, and of course spiders on the campsite.
The first day the weather was mixed. We stopped off at Lake Wabby and those brave enough took a dip, but soon after we got there it started raining so we walked back to the jeep (not a short walk). We also stopped at Eli Creek and waded along it - crystal clear water here too. We got to the campsite in the afternoon and pitched our tents. It was quite a good site with hot showers (2$ for 4 minutes!) and gas stoves, BBQ and several tables under cover. We barbequed the first night - absolutely delicious and had so much left over that we enjoyed chicken and sausage sandwiches the next day. There were several other groups and a fair bit of drinking, though curfew was at nine, after which people were asked to move to the beach if they wanted to continue drinking. Most of us crashed early though as we were exhausted, apart from an annoying German group - one guy in particular was intent on waking the entire camp in the middle of the night. We could hear him shrieking like a mad chicken and when people shouted at him to shut up I heard him say he would go over and kill them, or collapse their tents. Think he might have had too much goon (cheap wine made with fish guts - apparently long-term effects included mental illness, so maybe he'd overdone it a bit).
On day two the weather was worse, and it rained heavily in the afternoon when we were at Indian Heads (a lookout point from which we could see mantas and dolphins in the sea before) and Champagne Pools (a natural rock pool into which the sea bubbled). We were back at the campsite by two pm! We spent the rest of the day eating and drinking and warming up under hot showers.
On day three it cheered up considerably. We packed up the tents and stopped off at a shipwreck on the way to the lakes. One of the roads was blocked by a fallen tree trunk (and one poor group was stuck on the other side without enough fuel to detour - they made it to the ferry though) so we only went to one of the lakes, Lake Mackenzie, which was stunning - white sand and clear water. But only just warm enough for sunbathing and only the mad people swam! When we stopped for lunch we saw two very tame Kookaburras and they sat and watched us for ages. Again, I think someone fed them...

I set off for Brisbane the next day, where I had almost three days. I really enjoyed being back in a city, and had company from the jeep safari (everyone does the same route) so that was great. Brisbane is a little bit flashy sometimes, especially some of the younger guys in their stupid sportscars, but the river is nice and it has green parks on the South Bank, where I went to the Art Gallery, and there are loads of nice shops on Queen Street. A lot of business people around as well, so tons of bars and restaurants aimed at that sort of crowd. On the last day I went out to the Lone Pine Sanctuary, which houses koalas, kangaroos, wombats, and a couple of other critters. Took lots of pictures as you could get up close and feed some of them.

I'm now in Byron Bay, leaving this evening for Syndey. It's the nicest beach town I've been in, with lots of trendy boutiques and cute cafes and restaurants. The beach is beautiful too but wild horses couldn't get me into the water as it's very cold here (have crossed the border into New South Wales), so no surfing lessons for me! Yesterday I walked up to the Lighthouse and watched the sunset and am just puddling around town today, trying not to spend any money! I also booked my bus pass for New Zealand yesterday (can't believe I'll already be there next week!) and am going with Magic Bus. The ticket includes the Tranzalpine train journey which is the first thing I do when I get there and promises to be absolutely stunning.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Airlie Beach, Australia

There wasn't much sun in Mission Beach but it was a nice little place, not too busy, and I got to relax a bit. I bumped into Catherine, who was leaving the accommodation I'd just checked into, and we had a short but good catch up before she got on the bus to Cairns. The first day I just lay on the very yellow beach, and though it was windy the sun peeked through a fair bit! Reminded me of Scottish summer days on North Berwick beach, just without sandcastles and 99 ice-creams! The next day was rainy and I spent the morning reading at the hostel and then went for a little (8km) hike with Yvonne, a German girl from my dorm. We planned to just go for a little stroll but kept going to see what was around the next corner, and the next, and the one after that! Good walk along the beach and then along a path through raiforest, where we were warned we may be confronted with crocodiles or cassowaries, but they didn't make an appearance, which is a good thing as far as crocodiles are concerned. The next day I travelled to Airlie Beach by bus (a glorious nine hours). A young German girl sitting next to me had been WWOOFing on a farm nearby, which was interesting. She said the work was hard but she met loads of other nice travellers on the farm. The Australian family she stayed with were very welcoming but apparently had no idea about current affairs in Europe and showed some interest but she thought their attitude was that it was far away and as a result didn't concern them.

Airlie Beach is another touristy seaside town but has some nice shops and restaurants and though there isn't a decent beach there's a pleasant lagoon area to sit around in and look out at the pretty yachts moored in the bay. It acts as the jumping off point for the Whitsunday Islands, and I was supposed to leave for my 3-day sailing trip around them on Thursday, on a beautiful old ketch called Enid. When I arrived at the pier however I was informed she'd got water in her engine and the engine had exploded! After changing the dates of my bus journey, accommodation, and Fraser Island trip I was able to book the last available place on a different boat, leaving on Friday. This one was two days (two half and one full) and two nights on the boat, and the vessel, Eureka II, was a bit smaller and geared towards racing, without a sun-bathing deck. No great loss though - it was good fun just to sit on the side with my legs dangling through the railing or wedged in a corner behind the skipper when the yacht was heeling (tilting up). The skipper was a jolly Australian called Pete with a glorious orange tan that could have got him a job in fake tan advertising if he ever wanted to give up sailing. Every British person on board must have been impressed because they all decided not to wear sun tan lotion, and by the end they were as red as lobsters. Our deckhand Charlie was in his 20's and had grown up in Zimbabwe and England and studied at Oxford Brookes before getting stuck into sailing in England and Australia. It looked like pretty hard multitasking - everything from assisting Pete on deck (usually doing complicated things with ropes to the sail) to cooking our meals, cleaning up after us and taking us out in the dinghy to go snorkelling. He said he enjoyed it though and was going to be taking his exams soon to be a skipper. The other passengers on board were five crazy Irish girls, in their mid-twenties, who were primary school teachers (apart from one accountant, who seemed to be the sensible one); a fun young Irish couple who had originally booked Enid as well; two motherly Irish ladies from Dublin who were holidaying together (one cheerful and one sour-faced); a loud Scot and a nice Englishman (who went to Warwick!) who had spent the last year and a half living in Hong Kong and were returning to London via Australia; and a quiet Swede called Gustavo who was taking a week off from his work experience at a naval architecture firm in Sydney as part of his engineering degree.
We left in the afternoon on Friday and sat on deck watching Charlie and Pete do their thing, with some of the guys who'd done a bit of sailing before joining in. It was very cold when the sun wasn't out and after we'd moored and gone in for dinner I thought I might have to have my feet amputated as they were utterly numb (no shoes allowed on board, so our feet suffered the cold). The food was good - we had chicken with gravy and potatoes and veg the first night. The dining area didn't seat enough people though, so half of us ate outside under the stars, and then went in to play cards (with some of us standing round the table). After a couple of beers the Irish girls were moved to demonstrate a jig for us, which was hilarious! They'd arrived hungover and without any alcohol (it was BYO) at the pier but luckily for them Sandy the Scot had a large supply he was happy to share... Pete said he liked to have Irish people on board because "even if they go a bit over the top with the alcohol they always have a good time". After the fun and games we went to bed at a fairly reasonable time, and were up at seven the next morning for fruit salad/cereal/toast for breakfast. We set off again, passing Hamilton Island, where George Harrison had a house and used to sit in a booth in the local pub in the eighties and entertain the locals with his guitar-playing. We moored at Whitehaven bay, and Charlie ferried us across to the stunning white beach, where we lazed about in the sun for two hours (with quite a few other tourists!). In the afternoon we went snorkelling at another site but the visibility wasn't great and coming out of the water into the wind was a shock! Although the water supply on board was limited there was just about enough for a short hot shower each - and when I say short I mean I'm not sure if I managed to rinse all the shampoo out of my hair. That evening we played a very wild game of Spoons, which is basically a card game, but the relevant part is the scramble for a kitchen spoon from the pile on the table when someone gets four of a kind. We were all squeezed in like sardines and certain people of a certain nationality (!) had had a bit much to drink and it got violent! There were girls scratching each other and wrestling spoons from each other, and I came away with a gash in my finger after someone slashed me with a spoon! As if the violence wasn't enough someone suggested that each round the person left without a spoon would have to shed an item of clothing, hence Strip Spoons was invented. Let's just say I was glad I was wearing lots of layers and (invaluable) socks! It was good fun, and luckily we invented it so late in the evening that we all went to sleep before anyone reached their last layer...
Today we set off at about 8.30am back towards Airlie Beach and we all got to have a go at steering Eureka II! Pete said I was a natural and was "driving her like a starlet" at 8 knots. We were racing Silent Night, the other yacht on the two-day trip, and outran her just as we got into the harbour.. great fun, and we had music on board so the girls put on "We Are the Champions" at maximum volume as we overtook Silent Night. Ha ha.

Because I lost a day through Enid's demise and because my friends in Town of 1770 may be hitching a lift up north before I can get there, Town of 1770 and Noosa have been knocked off my itinerary. I think I was a little bit ambitious in my planning of stopovers. with just 28 days here! Next stop is Hervey Bay, from where I'm off to Fraser Island for a three-day jeep tour, which should be good. If there are Irish people there it will definitely be interesting...

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Cairns, Australia

Unfortunately for Singapore, my lasting impression of it will be the Mitsubishi hand dryer I used there, which looked like a sandwich toaster glued vertically to the wall and definitely as if it would be a very bad idea to put your hands in it.

Cairns also left an impression of leaving no impression... it was nice enough but very touristy and basically a jumping off point for the reef and not much else. I got to experience jet lag and culture shock there for the first time though, which was exciting ;-) The jet lag was primarily sleep deficiency (the time difference was just two hours), caused by a 4.5 hour flight that stopped in Darwin at 3am, then a 40-minute wait and a 3.5 hour flight to Cairns; all with a couple of screaming kids on board. I hope to become more tolerant of screaming kids with age... there was an elderly lady who came up to one family with screaming boy near me and commented on how good he had been and that she'd hardly heard him at all. Whereas I'd been grinding my teeth throughout the flight! Other than that the journey was okay and going through customs was easy - I left my walking boots at the top of my bag and customs whisked them off to clean off any South-East Asian soil and they were back in seconds and I was thanked for declaring them.
The culture shock (which I think I can claim not to have had anywhere before, not even travelling to SA) is mainly because they treat backpackers differently here compared to Asia - which I expected to a certain extent but it's taking some getting used to. By differently I mean travelling itself is easier and efficient, and the locals are proud to show off their country and want you to confirm that it's wonderful all the time; whereas in Asia some locals are after your money, some are genuinely friendly, but a lot of Asians will acknowledge that their countries are flawed, and sometimes admire your skin and your culture to the point of sycophantism. Instead of being addressed as 'Miss' or 'Ma'm' I've become 'doll' or even 'my dear'. The locals are very nice though, in case I'm giving the wrong impression, and so are the many international backpackers who work in the hostels, internet cafes and restaurants. The cost of a mid-range room in Asia buys you a hostel room in Oz, which is usually decked out in a way reminiscent of Big Brother houses - cheaply but cheerfully. A decent night's sleep is keenly awaited - snoring and partying roommates have prevented this so far. The communal bathrooms have been clean - I don't miss squat toilets or cockroach audiences! There's a good variety of food available but at a price (10$ [5 pounds] for a kebab! Is that normal?). I'm primarily self-catering and when I eat out the cheapest food is all deep-fried/fatty - but maybe that will improve as I try other eateries! What also comes under the category of culture shock is probably how different the backpacker mentality is here - primarily focused on drinking and throwing yourself off cliffs, or other artificial adventures. It makes me think their attitude is that there isn't anything really worth seeing or doing in Oz and feel they have to resort to expensive adrenalin rushes! But maybe Australia just attracts a certain type as it's easy to navigate... luckily I've also met more like-minded travellers and we were bemoaning the party type! I will get used to everything, including the cold. When I say cold I mean ca. 25 degrees... while everyone else strolls aorund in t-shirts, shorts etc. I'm shivering in my hoodie! Port Douglas was a pleasant enough seaside town with lots of families strolling around (it's school holidays until mid-July) and my trip to the Great Barrier Reef was really good. We reached the Outer (Agincourt) Reef within two hours or so on a medium-sized boat (that's less than a hundred people) and I teamed up with two American, one Australian and three French girls (some of whom were in my hostel too). We got to spend five hours on two sites with a lunch break inbetween. In the morning I went scuba diving and was so very glad I'd been before! Even though it was an introductory dive with several first-time divers the briefing was just 20 minutes and mainly revolved around the joking description of how your lungs will burst if you ascend too quickly. There was very little other useful information in it (like how to prevent ascending too quickly)! I went down in a group of four and the last girl to get in the water promptly panicked and got straight out as she couldn't breathe (I heard later that two boys from the other group didn't go either as they had panic attacks and problems equalising). The other two girls in my group did rather well, all things considered, though one of them crashed into me a couple of times...probably because maintaining neutral buoyancy was not in the briefing... I actually enjoyed snorkelling more on this occasion - also because the second site (where I snorkelled) was a bit better and I got to see a turtle, reef shark, and flutenose fish (my favourite). On the boat ride back to Port Douglas I felt really sea sick though, as the sea was choppy and the boat was jumping and slapping against the water all the way. To make up for it, we saw minke whales (or rather their jets of water!). Today was spent on the beach and a nice grassy lookout point with some of the girls I met on the boat, and on the bus on the way back to Cairns I got my first glimpse of wallabies, or kangaroos, which was exciting for me (and only me, as the others on the shuttle were Australians). Tomorrow I'm off to Mission Beach at 7am and have two days there without activites, so hopefully will spend it catching up on sleep and warming myself in the sun! My itinerary is filled and my accommodation booked until the 17th, which makes things easy. I'm aware I have a lot to fit in in 28 days, so I'm not wasting any time!