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    Tuesday, 29 December 2009

    Arrival in New Zealand

    Sydney Skyline [Enlarge & More]

    We left Sydney a little late as another plane had to come back to the gate as it had to pick something up that it had forgotten and was in our way! The flight itself was three hours and we touched down in Auckland. The plane was emptied pretty quickly and we headed off to Immigration/Customs and Baggage Reclaim. As Jono has a permanent residency in New Zealand he joined the queue for the locals while I was with all the other foreign nationals. Jono got through pretty quickly as his queue was much shorter and I had to wait for a while. When it got to my turn the officer took my passport and swiped it and he then asked “Do you know why immigration want to talk to you?”. I was expecting my passport to be stamped and be on my way, so was surprised at the question. I said “No” but I did think how would I know what immigration want with me. I knew there was no reason for them to want me at all. As a British Citizen I could stay in New Zealand for up to six months on a tourist visa.

    Before I knew it I was being escorted to a room where I was told to wait. Jono was told he could not come in but the officer neglected to tell him what was going on. He went to get the bags while I sat closed off from the free world. It was an odd experience, not one I’ve had to endure since a trip to Nepal years ago. This time, I had Ellen on a TV to watch and opposite me a vending machine full of crisps and chocolates. I did feel it was a cheek that I had to pay for a snack as it wasn’t my choice to be there.

    While I sat there I could not help but feel guilty, even though I knew I had done nothing wrong. And all the time I sat there I was acutely aware that someone was watching me on either the security camera or through the one way mirror.

    Nearly a full episode of Ellen passed, serious looking officials came and went and finally I was approached and asked what I planned to do in New Zealand and where had I been up to now. I reeled off the places we’d been, India, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Loas, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. I think he’d had enough at that point and said let’s go and get you stamped into the country. I’m not sure what it was about but I thought better not to make a fuss or ask. I did notice, however, that once I was back waiting to get my passport stamped at the ‘special’ counter the others sat waiting were all dark skinned – most probably a coincidence!

    Jono already had the bags by this point and we made our way through customs. Like in Australia, we declared that we had walking boots and had used them to hike in. After one look at our form by a custom’s official, we were ushered into a queue to have them inspected for dirt that may carry seeds and disease. Following this, we were in for a long wait in line, as the people in front of us in the queue had all sorts of exotic stuff to be inspected. One man had a box full of huge fish which I overheard him saying he’d caught the day before. Another lady had something similar but also was wearing a grass skirt – I did wonder if they inspected that too. At our turn the official took a quick look at the boots and we thought we were good to go.

    Unfortunately we were then told to join another queue which was to have our bags scanned. I did expect another inspection after that but this time we were sent on our way free to finally enter New Zealand.

    The Farm, Waihi [Enlarge & More]

    On the other side, we were greeted by Jono’s family. We weren’t sure who was coming to meet us other than Jono’s Mum, so it was really lovely to see the whole family turn out. For me it was great to arrive somewhere where no thought from us had gone into how we were going to get from the airport and where we were staying. I knew we were being picked up and that we would be staying with Jono’s Mum.

    After some introductions we sat down and I got to have a lovely latte which helped me relax after the whole process of getting into the country. As I sat there listening to Jono catching up with his family, I could feel my head starting to hurt, my body starting to ache and my throat becoming sore. I didn’t realise it but I was getting my first cold in the six months of travel and I think my body knew that we had arrived somewhere safe. After the coffee we headed to Waihi where Jono was brought up - the place we would be making our base for the next 3 to 4 months.

    Monday, 28 December 2009

    Doing Sydney on the Cheap

    Sydney Harbour [Enlarge & More]

    When travelling from Melbourne to Sydney, we had three options – bus, train, or plane. As all three were a similar price and two took ten hours longer than the other, we went with plane! We arrived at a nice early hour in Sydney – about 8am. Unfortunately, Sydney terminal two seemed to have just about no facilities for arrivals – the shuttle bus was nowhere to be seen, and no one was manning the desk so we had to get a taxi to the city – doh!

    View from YHA [Enlarge & More]

    $40 later we arrived at the brand new Sydney Harbour YHA – it was beautiful! Everything was very new and clean, and they had all the normal facilities, plus staff that smiled (pretty unusual!). In addition to this, there was a good view of the Sydney Opera House from the roof. Unfortunately, on the first two days we were there the view was obscured by a massive cruise liner parked in the harbour, but once that cleared out the view was brilliant.

    Opera House [Enlarge & More]

    The good thing about arriving early in the morning was that effectively we had an extra day of sightseeing, meaning that in total we were in Sydney for a full four days. I have to say that during our time in Sydney we did spend a lot of time around the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. This was partly because Mahmoud wanted to photograph these two landmarks until there were no more photos to take, and also because it was an aesthetically pleasing place to be, and the weather was good enough to wander around the harbour. We opted not to do the expensive guided tour of the Opera House!

    The Bridge [Enlarge & More]

    Mahmoud wanted to climb the Harbour Bridge, which I have to admit looked pretty cool. At $190 each though, it was just a bit far out of budget (considering how much we’d already spent in Australia), so we had to settle with the next best thing – walking over the bridge! It was a fair old hike from one side to the other, and the views of the harbour were very good.

    Luna Park [Enlarge & More]

    Once on the other side, we had a look at the bizarre Lunar Park. Sadly, it was closed and we could not go in. Never mind.

    Flying Foxes [Enlarge & More]

    Just around the bay, we walked through the botanical gardens. They were very pretty and peaceful, despite being so close to the city centre. The most interesting thing here was a colony of 22000 flying foxes (large bats). We heard them and smelled them before we saw them. Watching them fly from their roosts at twilight was a scary sight!

    Yacht Race [Enlarge & More]

    Another interesting thing we did on one day was take the ferry from the city to the suburb of Manly, which had a good surf beach. The ferry ride was the good point here – it was a great (and cheap) way of seeing the harbour from the sea. An added bonus was that there was a yacht race going on in the harbour on the day we were on the boat. We got some great close up views of yachts and the water was absolutely teeming with onlookers and racers alike. Fortunately, our ferry was the biggest thing there and we breezed through the traffic!

    Other than that we spent a lot of time wandering around the city itself. We found the cheapest food to be found in food courts where you could get some decent Asian cuisine, but once these closed it was difficult to get a good cheap meal. We were determined not to self-cater on our last few days, and our wallets suffered as a result. In our travels we wandered down Oxford Street which was an interesting walk to see a part of Sydney culture. We also did a bit of well-deserved shopping around town – Mahmoud bought some new shoes!

    Opera House [Enlarge & More]

    Finally, we left for New Zealand early in the morning of our fifth day in Sydney. We managed to catch the shuttle bus and got ferried to the airport. Our driver was a bit down on his luck – his boot door, wing mirror and glove box all broke during the drive. Still, we arrived at the airport on time, and got our plane out of Australia. It was a shame to be leaving – but also a wee bit of a relief. Australia is such an expensive country that we blew our budget out of the water, and still couldn’t do everything we wanted! Still, it was well worth it – some amazing sights to be had, and we had a brilliant time.

    Tuesday, 22 December 2009

    Fast Paced Melbourne

    Yarra River, Melbourne [Enlarge & More]

    From The Great Ocean Road we headed to Melbourne to drop off the car. Whereas Adelaide was a breeze to navigate, we’d been warned that Melbourne wasn’t. It had some peculiar road rules so that the trams that run in the city get priority. With my driving and Jono’s skilful navigation we managed to get into the city centre without upsetting too many people and drop off the car. We’d lost a hubcap at some point on the journey and were honest enough to point it out, thinking it would be at the most 20-30 dollars to replace. It turned out to be a lot more and our start to Melbourne wasn’t great.

    Melbourne [Enlarge & More]

    Our hotel location was perfect, right opposite the city square. All the sights and shops were on our doorstep and nothing was too far to get to. After leaving the car hire place in disgust we hiked across town with our backpacks to the hotel and were pleasantly surprised that it was a lovely room for a good price. Much cheaper than we had been paying on the road trip.

    Melbourne at Night [Enlarge & More]

    We spent three days in Melbourne and it was very different to Perth or any of the other cities we’d been to so far. It was the biggest for one and had a faster pace about it. For a start the driving was a little more aggressive and there were loads of people on the streets. Sometimes you even had to stop to let people pass because the pavements were so crowded!

    Xmas Time [Enlarge & More]

    On our first day I wasn’t feeling much like walking around the place so we hopped on the free tram that circles the city and stops at key points of interest. We just sat on it and let the sights go by but it was a great way of getting our bearings in the city.

    I definitely knew that Christmas was around the corner here, it felt like everyone was shopping mad. The shops had Christmas displays and one had queues outside it of parents and their children. It was just like outside Selfridges in London, the only difference was that the sun was out and everyone was dressed for the summer.

    Federation Square [Enlarge & More]

    Melbourne has a lot of character, starting with what felt like the heart of it, Federation Square. It’s where people mill around, take advantage of the free wifi and arrange to meet. We spent a fair bit of time there, partly to check emails and use the internet and found lots of activities going on in the open air. A drum class looked like real fun as they built up the rhythm and noise level in the square.

    Graffiti [Enlarge & More]

    Another highlight was walking along the river. I love cities with rivers and the Yarra River was lovely. The locals had finished work for the week and were spilling out of the restaurants, giving it a real cosmopolitan feel.

    We did a lot of wandering around in Melbourne and came across a whole street full of graffiti. It was pretty interesting and I got the feeling that it’s encouraged in that area, partly because we saw children there on a school outing or maybe they were just bunking off school to add a piece of art of their own.

    Web Bridge [Enlarge & More]

    The other thing I liked about Melbourne was the architecture. The web bridge, as it’s called was a pretty interesting design. They could have stuck a bog standard pedestrian bridge in its place but instead put some effort into it.

    The further east we travelled in Oz the friendlier the people were becoming. I wonder if others find the same or is it that we were just getting used to the Aussie way? Melbourne was a good antidote to all the quiet coastal towns we’d visited before it and a good place to get used to city life before hitting Sydney - one of the places I’ve always wanted to go and where we were heading next.

    Saturday, 19 December 2009

    The Great Ocean Road

    We left Adelaide behind and the fantastic hospitality of Damo and Tory. When we picked up the hire car we got a pleasant surprise when we got a free upgrade, as the car we were supposed to get had not been returned.

    Adelaide was easy to navigate out of as it’s a pretty simple grid system. We headed south without any problems for our first stop, Robe. The idea was to head to the coast and then make our way to Melbourne via The Great Ocean Road over 7 nights.

    On the way down to Robe we stopped many times to look at the different sights. I particularly liked this shot of a dry lake.

    Robe was a sweet coastal town, it was most memorable as we got to have our first proper fish and chips since leaving home. As we ate them by the beach while the sun was setting we slowly noticed that we were being circled by seagulls. They got closer and closer as we ate and eventually had us surrounded. When I threw them a chip, it was a mad frenzy to be the first to get to it.

    After Robe we headed west to Beachport stopping on the way to see sights. Lake George was an amazing dry lake and we had some fun with the camera.

    From Beachport you can do a great scenic drive along the coast and back, I like this one of the car at a 360 Degree vewpoint.

    On the following day we headed to Port Fairy where the The Great Ocean Road actually starts or ends depending on which way you are doing it. On the way there we took a little detour to Mount Gambier where there is a crater lake. It’s amazingly blue and turns that colour in November when the weather starts to warm up.

    In Port Fairy we had more fish and chips! We also did a walk around Griffiths Island. Jono must have got bored waiting for me to take pictures so he produced this work of art.

    And there was a lighthouse. I just can’t help myself taking lighthouse pictures!

    The following day we headed down the coast and got to what everyone wants to see on The Great Ocean Road - The Twelve Apostles.

    As well as The Twelve Apostles, there are some other incredible limestone rock formations along the way. Loch Ard was particularly spectacular.

    There aren’t actually Twelve Apostles anymore as they collapse. I think on last count there were only 6 left. Along the way you also get to get to the beach for a different perspective.

    After moving on every day we decided to spend a couple of days at our next stop, Apollo Bay. Good thing we did as the weather turned and it got cold and wet. We found somewhere in the hills off the Great Ocean Road and were greeted by friendly birds.

    Also on the way we saw the cutest Koala in a tree, fast asleep.

    Our final stop before heading into Melbourne was Torquay. I believe it’s the spiritual home of surfers.

    And all things water sporty………

    The next morning we headed into Melbourne to drop off the car before 10am. It was about a 2 hour drive and we needed to negotiate Melbourne with it's odd road rules, trams and rush hour traffic. The Great Ocean Road had been more than great!

    Thursday, 17 December 2009

    The Ghan and Adelaide

    The Ghan[Enlarge & More]

    Something we’d wanted to do since arriving in Australia was to experience The Ghan – the rail service that runs straight down the country from Darwin to Adelaide. As we weren’t going to Darwin, we were only able to catch it from the halfway mark at Alice Springs. The Ghan is meant to be one of the great train journeys in the world – and it was, sort of.

    We caught the train from Alice Springs at about midday. We were quite relieved to be leaving Alice – and we were really looking forward to reaching Adelaide, where we were going to be staying with some friends who we’d met in Laos. Tickets for The Ghan were reasonably expensive, so we went for the cheapest fare we could – reclining seats in the cheapo carriage. It was only for one night after all!

    The Seats[Enlarge & More]

    And what a night it was. As soon as we sat in the seats, we clocked the fact that they were really close to the floor. That was going to be uncomfortable on our legs after a few hours – and it was. That was almost bearable, despite the fact we had to sleep in that position. The carriage seated perhaps seventy people – fortunately not too many children! A few oddballs though – there was a man directly across from us who talked to himself. As time went on he talked with increasing frequency, sometimes with small outbursts or explanations. He was speaking in another language, so I have no idea what he was saying. The poor girl sat next to him was despairing, and by the following morning she’d moved down the carriage to a spare seat which she’d found. Even I was slightly worried, as he seemed very odd – I cracked an eye open a few times during the night and spotted him sat, wide-eyed, fingers gripping the seat in front of him – eep!

    The Scenery[Enlarge & More]

    The scenery was reasonably interesting, although it was much the same as what we’d seen throughout the Red Centre. Eating in the dining car, watching the sunset was another highlight. The food was basic, but ok. The really strange thing was what they did with the timezones. Going from Northern Territory to South Australia resulted in a timezone change of going forward 1 hour. As we crossed the border at 4pm, we were advised that the train would not change time until later. At 5pm, they announced the buffet car would be open until 8pm. Then, at 6pm they moved the time forward by 1 hour, making it suddenly 7pm, and then everyone had to rush to get food! Seemed rather cheeky if you ask me.

    Dining at Sunset [Enlarge & More]

    There were a few things like that which got on my nerves actually. For example, they suddenly announced at 9:45pm that the lights in the carriage were to be switched off – and they were, with nearly no prior warning. This meant that we all had to scrabble around in the near-dark getting ready for bed. And, as I’d predicted, I got very little sleep – the chairs were so uncomfortable. Once morning rolled around, we were all woken up at 6am with a couple of announcements, and the talking-to-himself guy also shouted out “Good morning!” to the whole carriage. Still, I’m glad I did The Ghan – at least I can say we went overland from Alice Springs to Adelaide, and the scenery was pretty good. Next time, I think I’d go all out and get a nice cabin in the atmospheric part of the train, rather than an uncomfortable, stiff seat.

    Totino Estane [Enlarge & More]

    Once we arrived in Adelaide though, the long trip on The Ghan was all made worth it. We stayed with a couple of friends we’d met in Laos (while tubing) – Damo and Tory. We had a brilliant time staying with them and they spoiled us rotten! Damo picked us up from the train station and took us back to their place, while driving the scenic route from the rather non-descript train station to the vineyard in Adelaide Hills which he manages – Totino Estate.

    While we were there we did a vineyard tour – Mahmoud took lots of photos and I sampled a lot of wines! Nice one. We visited a couple of different ones in McLaren Vale, and had a good laugh at the same time. It turns out there are a few characters in the Adelaide wine industry, and it’s all reflected in some really good wine. This was backed up by some excellent wine which Damo had made himself which was really good stuff. I think I came away with a much greater appreciation for a good bottle of wine than I had before. Before, I would just have had the cheapest wine in the supermarket, but now I think I may be a little more fussy – at least I’ve learned something while travelling!

    Victor Harbour [Enlarge & More]

    We also travelled to Victor Harbour with the two of them for a night, which is a town with a good section of coast alongside it. Unfortunately, the weather (which had been around 40 degrees until we got there) took a turn for the worse and got cold and rainy – typical! Still, it was nice to see a bit of the south coast which we would not otherwise have gotten to.

    Adelaide City [Enlarge & More]

    We did have an opportunity to travel into Adelaide, where we wandered around for a few hours and saw a few sights. We really liked Adelaide – our favourite Aussie city to date. There was a bit of culture there, and the central market was a great sight. Afterwards we took the bus/train/tram/something system back to Adelaide Hills. It was like a bus on rails, but not a tram. I called it the brain (bus crossed with a train), which I thought was very clever.

    Alpacas [Enlarge & More]

    Nicer still was the opportunity to stay with people, in their house! It was good not to have to worry if we left our stuff unlocked, and not to have our bags with us all the time. Their dog, Sangio, was a real cutie – even Mahmoud (not a dog person) grew a little fond of him. Other animals on the vineyard included cows, sheep, and three alpacas – very strange creatures!

    Adelaide Hills [Enlarge & More]

    Still, the Great Ocean Road and Melbourne were beckoning, and time was marching on. We had to leave in order to get to Sydney on time for our flight, and still have enough time to see everything along the way. With great reluctance , we parted ways with our friends and got into a hire car.

    Thursday, 10 December 2009

    Featured Travel Photo

    Busy Bike in Trang , originally uploaded by Homdaum.

    Family on Bike, Featured Travel Photo from Trang, Thailand

    Tuesday, 8 December 2009

    The Red Centre - Uluru and more

    Dry Below[Enlarge & More]

    In the absence of other options, we decided to fly to Alice Springs from Perth. We had wanted to do a tour directly overland from Perth which would take in Uluru, The Olgas and King’s Canyon before arriving in Alice Springs, but instead we opted to get to Alice Springs and then sort out a return tour from there. After a 2 and a half hour flight, we arrived in a warm, dry airport, from where we made our way into town.

    Thorny Devil[Enlarge & More]

    We stayed in the White Gum Motel. What an awful place. We’d booked them through, meaning we got a room for $15 cheaper than the usual rate – as a result, they gave us the worst, most dark and dingy room that they have. This came complete with an air conditioning unit that roared like a tractor, a small window near the ceiling, and d├ęcor that looked like it came out of the 1950’s. Alice Springs was also not much to write home about – an odd place, it felt desolate and abandoned. There were quite a few drunks about the place, which made it feel quite intimidating. Also, the woman from the motel had warned us not to walk home late at night, which was slightly worrying! Oh dear! We did, however, visit the reptile centre, which was OK (just OK) – we saw snakes and various lizards, including the incredibly cute Thorny Devils, which ran around like little thorny puppies.

    The Tour Group[Enlarge & More]

    After much deliberation, we booked a two-night tour through Connextions, which visited all the places we wanted to go, and incorporated a bit of an outdoorsy experience. It also included tents, in case we decided we did not want to sleep under the stars! Our main reason for choosing this was that if we booked at the last minute, we could take advantage of a 20% price reduction offer. Perfect!

    We set off first thing from White Gum Motel, where we left one of our bags (we could only take 15kg of luggage each), and we met our tour guide, Gavin, plus the other people who would be on our tour. In total there were ten of us, including two German, two Swiss and four Dutch people – plus us! We set off on the five-odd hour drive from Alice Springs to Yulara, near Uluru. On the way, we stopped at a number of rest-stops including one place where people could do a five minute camel ride – which we declined. We saw a fair bit of interesting wildlife along the way, including emus, and a lot of desert.

    Uluru 1st Glimpse [Enlarge & More]

    We arrived at our campsite near Yulara just after midday, and there we all mucked in and made some lunch which was quite fun. We then headed off to the Uluru cultural centre, getting our first good look at the rock on the way there. The cultural centre was interesting, as it had a lot of information on the local Aboriginal people, with the focus being on Uluru itself. They regard the rock as something very spiritual, and prefer that visitors to Uluru do not climb it. This seems to be ignored by many tourists visiting the rock, and at any rate the climb was closed on the day we were there due to high winds.

    We breezed through the cultural centre, and then set off on a walk around the base of Uluru. It was iterated again and again that we had to drink lots of water. Honestly, once you’ve trekked through the Cambodian and Borneo jungles safety warning like that seem a bit silly, but we made sure we were fully stocked. We were quite lucky as the weather was relatively cool while we were there – around the high twenties rather than the 40 degrees plus it can often be. The walk was pretty good, if slightly dull, but definitely worth it to walk around Uluru if just so you can say you’ve done it – you have to do it!

    Uluru Sunset [Enlarge & More]

    After that, we drove to the sunset viewing platform. We were dismayed as we pulled up – there were hundreds of tourists already milling around waiting for the sun to go down. Where would we stand? But then, our bus pulled up to a table labelled “Connextions” – complete with sparkling wine and snacks! It was great! A lot of photos later, the sun went down in a midst of colours and the rock glowed red in the light – definitely a sight worth seeing. The sunset itself wasn’t the most amazing one we’d seen, but the glow of the light on the rock was what made it special.

    Kata Tjuta [Enlarge & More]

    Following this we returned to camp for our evening meal, and then bedded down for the night after being informed by Gavin that we had a 4am start ahead of us! Surprisingly, I had a really good night’s sleep, probably because I was so blimin’ knackered from such a long day. The following morning we visited Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) for sunrise, before a walk through and around the base of them. It was so cold! Really, really cold. But that made the walking easy, and there were some amazing views of the massive sandstone rocks from up close. We even saw some small and brave kangaroos having a boxing session – we got right up close! We breezed around the walk very efficiently, and then we headed off.

    The Damage [Enlarge & More]

    Sadly, before we could leave, our bus suffered a smashed window from a small accident involving a wayward tree – poor Gavin was mortified, but the rest of us were relieved that the broken window was a result of an accident, not a burglary! Fortunately, we were able to swap buses with a new one from Alice Springs. This reduced the number of flies getting in and meant that the air conditioning was not quite so “billowy”!

    Mt Conner [Enlarge & More]

    On our way to King’s Canyon we saw Mt. Connor – a “table-top mountain”, with a flat top – very nice, and as Gavin said, if someone had decided to make it the symbol of Australia we may not have ever bothered with Uluru!

    Outback Cooking [Enlarge & More]

    After Kata Tjuta we headed off on a fairly long drive to King’s Canyon and our new camp nearby. It’s worth talking about the tents here, which were the same at both camps. Really quite luxurious, and the shared facilities were spotless. It was really comfortable! At our new camp we enjoyed some lovely Thai chicken and home baked bread and vegetables, all of which was cooked over the fire. Everyone seemed to think the chicken was really spicy, but I really could not taste the spice – it just shows how I’ve gotten used to it I guess.

    King's Canyon [Enlarge & More]

    The following morning it was another early start, and we set off for King’s Canyon from our campsite. What followed had to be the best sight we’d visited in Australia so far – it was an amazing place. We did a circular walk around the top of the canyon. It showcased a truly ancient landscape, and some amazing rock formations.

    While there, we also visited the “Garden of Eden”, a slightly more lush area where water flowed a bit more regularly, and contained a large rock pool (where we took a rest). It was another cool day – we were really lucky – and much more pleasant to sit in the sun than in the shade!

    Road back [Enlarge & More]

    Gavin hurried us around the walk, and managed to keep us ahead of most of the other tour groups – meaning that we had more time for photographs and had a more peaceful time! We ended the walk with some magnificent views, over the canyon, including some sheer sandstone cliffs which you wouldn’t want to fall off of! We returned to the bus happy.

    On our return to Alice Springs, we saw a few interesting sights, including a lot of camels, a number of wild horses, and some very strangely decorated trees – adorned with rubbish collected off the side of the road. The landscape was pretty much the same most of the way – quite arid, but with a surprising amount of life. It’s amazing how plants and animals can thrive with little water, and even in the most unforgiving places in the world.

    Tour Bus [Enlarge & More]

    We were very sorry that the tour was over, and that we had to return to our motel for our last night in Alice Springs, but that’s the way it goes! We really had a brilliant time on the tour, it was a lot of fun and Gavin was really informative and a good guide to have. Even the other people on the tour were pleasant to be around – you never know who you’ll end up with after all. We didn’t particularly do anything in Alice Springs on our last day, but we did buy lots of supplies in preparation for our next adventure – The Ghan to Adelaide! Tune in next time for more on that one!

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