Below are a number of blog updates from our time travelling around Asia, New Zealand, Fiji & Australia.
05/11/2009 - Blog update from Kathmandu, NepalTotal Freedom
Nepal has been a real highlight for us. So many travellers we met had raved about the country, and now we'll be spreading the good word too. The scenery, the people, the trekking, the food, the low cost... all great.
We arrived in Nepal early in the morning and went straight to a hostel in Thamel, the touristy area of Kathmandu. It's a fairly crazy city, people and rubbish everywhere, cars and motorbikes hooting their horns, driving on any which side of the road and even on the footpath. We only spent a day in the capital then, knowing we'd be back here at the end of our trip anyway, so we spent our first day in Nepal shopping in the outdoor stores for some North Fake gear, renting heavy sleeping bags and down jackets, buying trailmix and generally getting ourselves ready for the trek we had planned in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas.
Next morning we set off on an early bus to Pokhara, about 7 hours away from Kathmandu, and which is the town we were setting off on our trek from. This bus journey wasn't too bad, it was a tourist bus, so fairly comfortable, although the state of the roads reminded us in no uncertain terms that we were back in a developing country! When we got to Pokhara in the afternoon, we spent a few hours getting our permit for the trekking, registering with the Nepalese government, and getting a gew last-minute bits and bobs, before having our Last Supper in a decent restaurant in town (Pokhara has a suprisingly high number of these!)
Round Annapurna Circuit: 17 days, 300+km and lots of Dal Bhat
Before setting off on our Annapurna Circuit trek we had to survive and endure a horrible 5hour bus journey, maybe we've softened since our African and Central American chicken buses, but this one was the worst we've had in a few months. The bus was at about double the max capacity that was written very clearly in both Nepalese and English on the front of the bus, people were even sitting on the roof, the road was like an obstacle course with potholes, people driving in all directions on both sides of the road, cows, pedestrians, cyclists and people pushing bikes of cargo. Anyway, eventually we got to Besi Sahar, the original start of the trek and end of the road into the mountains. In recent years, however, the road has been extended another 15km or so, so many people get a bus to the next town Bhulbhule, although when faced withe the prospect of another 90mins (yes, for 15km!) in these buses, we were never so glad to get walking!
While trekking this year we have stayed clear of porters and guides as much as possible, mainly because you get such great freedom on your own to hit more interesting/challenging trails away from the groups, the guidebooks have all the information anyway, it's easier to socialise with other independent trekkers on the trek, you can stay, eat and set off whenever you want to your own schedule and we just love having the tracks and mountains all to ourselves. Plus there is also the additional challenge aspect, a lot of people hike this circuit with them, so not having to carry 12-14kgs on your back the whole way around (with side-trips off the circuit included we walked about 350km in the 17 days) reaching altitudes as high as 5,450 metres it makes for a slightly more rewarding experience. Saying that if this was your first ever hike or you were hiking alone for the first time we would recommend hiring some assistance especially as it's so cheap as well. We met one French man George who hiring a porter, guide, as many meals as he wanted, accommodation for €35 a day and he went with one of the more expensive companies.
Early Days, Low Altitude
The first few days of the trek we covered a lot of ground very quickly, sometimes covering twice the recommended mileage. The weather was nice and sunny, we were still only a few thousand metres above sea-level and the terrain was relatively flat (although we did discover that the Nepalese way of joining two points at the same altitude is to go up and down as many hills as possible en route. For the fun of it. The scenery these days was beautiful, green paddy fields, rolling hills, and every now and then as the days wore on, a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains where we were headed. We were also following a river for the first 4 days, a lot of our time on a high cliff overlooking the white water of the river below. Accommodation on the trek was excellent. Since it is a tea-house trek, this means the route passes through a village every few hours, almost all have tea-houses and somewhere to stay. We were expecting very basic conditions, and were used to camping and bringing all our supplies with us, so we had a few kilos of chocolate, sweets and muesli bars on our backs. As it turned out though, we really didn't need much more than the sleeping bags, warm clothes, medical stuff and water for that day. Still though, we were pretty glad to have a twix at the end of every long days hiking!
The tea-houses we stayed in were pretty comfortable. Some of them had electricity, a few had hot showers, the mattresses were uniformly bad (about an inch thick), we only had "visitors" two nights (rats one night, and a little mouse the other) and the food was great. Some people whinged about conditions out on the trek but its all about where your expectations have been set really. Many nights we ate Dal Bhat, the local Nepalese dish consisting of rice, lentil soup, vegetable curry and popadom. Carb loading seemed to be the theme. The tea-house menus were surprisingly long, especially when you see their kitchen (a kerosene stove on a countertop) and when you see the path their food has to take to get to the villages (porters carrying sacks on their backs up the hills for up to 7 days). Other dishes that featured on the menus were spring rolls, chips, chow mein, the delicious Nepalese steamed dumplings called momos, soups, curries etc. For breakfast we normally ate porridge, and most days included tasting an entry for the Best Apple Crumble/Pie Award (Nepal, or Annapurna at least, is renowned for apple pies) We ate a lot, but still couldn't keep up with the calories we were burning off walking 15-30km each day with heavy 12-14kg packs on, Eoin lost all the weight he had put so much effort into gaining in Oz. Prices on the circuit were incredibly low, most nights we paid 80p for our room, and about £7 for 2 dinners and 2 breakfasts. As we got higher it got a little more expensive, but on the other side of the trek it was even cheaper!
Another little side trip on the circuit outside the village of Manang involved a visit to a Lama (like a Buddhist priest), 93yrs old, he lives with his 60yr old daughter up in a monastary built into the side of a cliff, spectacular location and it was an interesting experience when he blessed us for the remainder of the trip and the crossing over the pass. The blessing involved us talking our shoes off and kneeling in front of the lama, he then gave us some spices to swallow, following by oil the remainder of which you wiped into your hair, then he said some words, put a material necklace around your neck, banged a book against your head, then with the blessing now over he gave us a cup of black tea, and to ruin the whole thing, he tried to sell us manky looking beads for R500!
Tilicho Lake, highest lake in the world - Yup it's not Lake Titicaca!!
By day 5 of the trek we had reached about 3600m, through about 100km of valleys and hills. The snow-capped mountains were looking closer at this stage and it was time to slow things down a little to make aure we acclimatised beyond 4000m. We decided to do a side-trip of 3 days to visit a lake called lake Tilicho. At this stage we had a great crew that we had met up with along the way. We trekked most days with a sound Aussie fellow we met called Cam, he was great company and refereed our arguments and all. Then there were 2 English lads we met most nights in the tea-houses for some banter and cards, Glen and Andy. They were great fun, and Glen, an unbelievably spritely 60 year old put us all to shame powering up the hills. Then there was the lovely Canadian couple, Gerry and Theresa, the paramedic and nurse who scared us all mercilessly about the dangers of altitude problems one night, the night before we did the pass (the highest point on the circuit great topic to chat about)!
Most of us made the trip to Tilicho Lake, even though the trekking book we had recommended against it for all but the most experienced of trekkers (definitely not us!). As it turns out, the path to the Tilicho Base Camp was dangerous, but you would get in trouble through bad luck rather than lacking any technical skills. The path traversed a landslide, with sheer drops off the narrow, foot-wide path, but the real danger here was rocks falling down from above. There were sheep and goats above, and if they dislodged a stone, the slope of the cliff was so sheer that the rock came tumbling down at a terrifying speed (the sound of it alone as it whizzed down the mountain was enough to strike fear in your heart) and could do some serious damage. One whacked Grainne on the bum, and even though it was only a small stone it still left its dent. Another one a minute later hit the backpack of a Russian guy walking behind us, tore upen his backpack and his camera tumbled down the slope. Anyway, we all made it across the landslide area safe and sound to to Tilicho Base Camp. Our night here was our most uncomfortable by far. The hostel here was very basic, the weather was freezing cold after the sun went down, the unbelievably foul smell from the toilet shack and smearing on the ground was enough to send people trekking for an alfresco toilet (and our toilet standards at this stage were really low), and the food was terrible. Most people felt a bit sick after dinner, whether it was the food or the altitude not really sure. Eoin spent most of the night awake feeling crap and short of breath. The next morning he put up a good fight and we made our slow progress up the zig-zagged path up to the lake at 5010m, a new altitude PB for us! As we got towards the top the view opened up and we found ourselves right in the middle of the snowy mountains. We made our way through the snow for another half and hour and reached the beautiful Lake Tilicho. The most scenic part of the entire trek we reckon... turquoise blue lake, beautiful snowy mountains behind, and a real sense of achievement as it was also the toughest climb we had on the circuit. It was freezing cold up there and we all had a bit of a headache from the altitude so we only spent about 20 minutes at the lake and came back down. Crossing the landslide again, we rejoined the Annapurna Circuit the next day. A very worthwhile side-trip and excellent acclimatisation for the altitude of the Thurong-La pass at 5450m.
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Another Altitude PB
After rejoining the Annapurna circuit, we went straight to the Thorung Base Camp, not needing to take our time for acclimatisation like the people who hadn't done Tilicho. We spent a really fun night in the cosy dining room of the Base Camp hostel, and set off the following morning about 6am over the Thurong-La Pass. The climb was surprisingly easy. We were all geared up for a struggle, and really paced ourselves. With the air so thin above 4500m the only option was to walk really slowly and let you lungs catch up. Your legs would be feeling strong but there was much less oxygen in the air. We were moving like astronauts or something as we slowly put one foot in front of the other and made our way over the pass. Luckily none of us got headaches or sick, we met quite a few not so lucky people getting sick or turning around. The pass itself is at 5416m above sea level, and we climbed a small hill above it, reckoning our new PB is about 5450m! the views at the top were spectacular, Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind, peaks all round us, it is just so hard to comprehend the scale of the Himalayas, most peaks are above 7000m, and over half of the world's 10 highest peaks are out here. When you consider Carrauntoohill weighs in at a measy ~900m!!
Downhill all the way
After that it was down a painful path to Muktinath where we recovered from the Thurong pass. At this point many people flew back to Pokhara or Kathmandu, as there is now a road for most of the second half of the Annapurna Circuit, many people claim it is dirty and busy and fly out. We reckon they are missing out. the road is actually not that busy, maybe 1 bus/jeep every 30 minutes, and most of the time you can cross to the other side of the valley where we spent some of our best days trekking exploring beautiful little-visited villages. The people on the second half of the trek were lovely and the villages were not just there for tourism like many of those on the other side, they were farming villages and had a lot more to offer. Also, because of the road the tea-houses on that side of the trek are cheaper and better stocked.
We ventured, kind of accidentally, into the restricted area of Upper Mustang, a region that appears to have very loose borders with Tibet hence you are only meant to go in with a guide. The villages up around here and for the few days after the Thurong-La pass were beautiful, houses piled up on top of each other, prayer flags from the roofs, Buddhist stupas and shrines, narrow alleyways and tunnels, and the people were really really lovely. Our favourite one was called Kagbeni, an atmospheric old village where you felt like you'd stepped back in timee, with its narrow alleyways, animals wandering through the houses, people in old style of dress. We stayed in a lovely old tea-house here, steeped in history. It had a Buddhist prayer room inside with a 350-year old huge gold Buddha any many old Tibetan tapestries. One day we were passing through a village, it was just on the borders of the restricted area so very few tourists go through the village, and we asked around for somewhere for a cup of tea. This fella showed us into a house where we sat in their 4-foot high living room/bedroom and 2 ladies brewed us a cuppa and made us omlettes and chapati. Another day we passed through a Tibetan refugee camp. When you hear the words refugee camp you think of the blue UN tents, squalor, overcrowding, but these places were beautiful villages, many of them 50 years old, and the peple have such pride in their villages, showing us around, building new houses etc. Another notable village was Chimang, picturesque location: terraced paddy fields leading up to the cobble-stoned village with Dhaulagiri as a backdrop behind it, the 6th highest mountain in the world, and over 8000m high. All the villagers were out working in the fields when we passed through, and they didn't see many trekkers so they were all mad for a chat, to give us directions, fill our water bottles. Another beautiful village we encountered on this part of the trek was Kyojo. We climbed up a hill and came down into this valley with a patchwork of green paddy fields, a cute village, big school with playing fields and a waterfall behind which seemed to emerge from the Annapurna South peak. It just looked like a paradise, with all the kids playing in the schoolyard, people laughing as they worked in the paddyfields and such a spectacular backdrop. School was just finishing as we passed through so we played the pied piper for the next kilometre.
Hot Water Scrub
About 2 weeks into the trek we passed through a town called Tadopani, famous for its hot springs. There is a huge public bath with the natural hot water flowing into it, an oasis for tired and smelly trekkers. After that we climbed the 1600m the next day to Ghorepani and got up the following morning to climb a little bit further to the top of Poon Hill, famous for panoramas of the Annapurnas and Nilgiri mountain ranges. It was a bit of a circus up there, about 200 people, many who had come as an overnight trip from the city which was drawing ever closer. The views however were hard to argue with, watching the sun rise light up these massive mountains was amazing. A few more days of walking (the terrain had changed now to steps, the bane of our life and our knees), passing through the pretty village of Ghandruk for a night and we got back to Pokhara two and a half weeks later. It was a really amazing trek, one we would do again at the drop of a hat. We considered tagging on the Annapurna Base Camp trek onto the end of it, lengthening the trek by about a week, but that would have been a bit tight as our flight out of Kathmandu was 8 days later. Next time. There definitely will be a next time.
Chilling out in Pokhara
We spent the best part of 3 days chilling out by the lake in Pokhara. It was a really lovely place to relax. The accommodation was good, the massages cheap, the restaurants great (OK, we weren't fussy customers!) and the weather was lovely. The first night we got back, after enforced vegetarianism for 17 days, we devoured a huge chunk of meat in an excellent steak house. Our mornings were spent relaxing over a long breakfast on the lakeshore, and other evenings we tried delicious Indian food and some Nepalese favourites for good measure! We made an effort at some sight-seeing too, taking a boat out and walking up the hill to the Peace Pagoda one day, a beautiful white stupa on a hill overlooking Pokhara, the lake and the snow-capped mountains behind. We also befriended a lovely tibetan woman who brought us out to her village, a Tibetan refugee camp, where we visited her parents, her grandmother in the old-fogies home, and her brother who is a monk in the monastery. We went into the monasteryy in the afternoon when they were all inside in their red robes chanting and praying. It was a great experience and lovely to learn more about the Tibetan culture.
We hummed and hahed about going to Chitwan National Park, having been to so many jungles over the year we were afraid we wouldn't get much out of it, and reviews were mixed, people we spoke to either loved it or hated it. In the end we went for it cos it was so cheap and included our transfer to Kathmandu on the 3rd day anyway. The bus journey out there was pretty awful, the big old bus winding and rocking its way along a narrow road with 60m drop off the edge.
We had a great group for this trip, 2 brave American ladies who did some tough-sounding volunteering in Pokhara and an Australian family, who,funnily enough were volunteering in Pokhara too. We spent about a day and a half altogether in a village just outside the park (the accommodations in the park have been closed down cos they didn't pay their bribe money!) and our tour really only ventured into the very edge of the park for a few hours on the second day, so it was pretty disappointing if you were looking to be in the middle of the jungle. A few rubbish excursions wandering through a field behind the hotel looking for birds, but a few good parts to the experience too. One morning we went out on a canoe early in the morning as the mist was still rising from the river, it was so beautiful and peaceful. Later that day we went down to the river running through the village where the guides were bathing the elephants after their hard mornings work taking tourists through the park (most elephants here are used for transport and patrolling the park). Our guide allowed us to hop up on the elephants back, and he proceeded to give us a shower, spraying us with water from his trunk. Then he shook his head suddenly and we found ourselves floating down the river having been thrown from his back. We got up on top of him again, but his nervous twitch returned and we were thrown off again. Hint taken, seems the elephants don't like people on their backs when they are trying to shower either. Later that day we got into a little platform on top of an elephant, 4 of us and an elephant driver in each box, and we spent an hour and a half wandering through the edge of the park. We were really lucky and spotted a few rhinos, we got a private audience with one of them for about 10 minutes, it was great. Then the same rhino spotted some tourists and their guide who were doing a walking safari in the park and he made off in a trot and started to charge at them. Our elephant came to the rescue, we ran between the rhino and the people, who at this stage were looking for a tree to climb their brown pants up. Gotta admit it was kind of funny.
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After Chitwan it was the bus journey from hell back to Kathmandu. We were at the back of the bus being thrown around like rag dolls. It suddenly made sense why the ceiling of the bus was covered in carpet with the amount of times we went 2 feet in the air and whacked our heads. Also, with the crazy dangerous overtaking manouevres, (Africa-style overtaking 2 trucks/buses on a blind corner with a 50m drop at the side) the likelihood that we'd be in a bus that was upside down was very high, so at least we have a nice soft surface to walk out of the bus.
All in all, if we had to do it all over again we would probably skip Chtiwan and do rafting or something instead.
We spent two and a half days in Kathmandu before leaving for India. Guilty about our poor showing on the culture front first time in Kathmandu, we attacked it with gusto on our first day here. We got up early and walked to the Monkey Temple, a striking collection of Buddhist temples on top of a hill on the edge of the city. The steps up to it were full of monkeys scrambling around, playing with the prayer flags and watching the tourists to see what they could nick from them. After that we wandered through the old part of the city and Durbar Square. This was really cool, an old square full of temples, statues, and palaces. Add to this historic backdrop the people selling fruit, flowers and other random goods and it was wonderful people watching. We spent about half an hour on top of one of the temples watching the action below. We also saw the palace where one of their godesses lives. They have a real living goddess, the Kumari, a young girl chosen in a ceremony a little like the selection of the dalai lama where the candidates (who must first satisfy criteria like colour of hair, eyes, skin, horoscope, shape of her teeth etc) are placed in a room with scary goings on and the goddess is the one to remain calm. She is chosen between the ages of 4 and 12, and can only remain a goddess until her reign ends with puberty or any serious loss of blood. Imagine, "I'm a goddess", wouldn't it be great! Our second day in Kathmandu we had planned to go the Baktapur, but were a bit templed out after our efforts the first day and relaxed and caught up on internet and blog instead. The food in Kathmandu has been fantastic too, being a touristy city, there are some great restaurants here. We found a great local shop though selling Tibetan food like momos and thukpa that we've made a few return visits to.
04/11/2009 - blog update from Kathmandu, Nepal
After effectively living a normal lifestyle for the last 2 months in Oz & NZ, it was time to try something new again and we got that in our brief 4 day stay in the very hot and humid Singapore. Our flight landed fairly late in the evening and as we were driven to our accommodation in a flash jeep the hostel had sent, it was like driving through Vegas or some futuristic city, with thousands of brightly lit sky-scrapers lighting up the skyline.
We had a great time while in Singapore, one of the highlights being wandering as much of the city as we could in out first day there. We basically walked from 8am to 8pm, only stopping to get some grub on the way. The city has an impressive mix of races and cultures. Around Little India was one of our favourite areas, all lit up for Ramadan celebrations. Here we had our first "Hawker Centres" experience, a cross between an old market and a food mall, maybe 50 or 100 different stalls selling all types of food, drinks, desserts. The quality was excellent and for amazing prices. We loved trying out all the different hawker centres, each one with a slightly different twist depending on the locality. It's where all the locals eat too as it's great quality, cheap and it seems to be more economical than cooking for yourself. Little India was also unique because of the Hindu temples there, the spices, and everything else you expect from India with people, colour and smells everywhere we turned. Other highlights from our day walking were Chinatown, wandering around the Esplanade, business district and watching the night sky from the impressive London-Eye-esque Singapore Flyer.
While in Nepal we meet a Swiss couple who have been working in Singapore for 2 yrs and they explained to us some of the lifestyle there. First off, you need to visit the city to understand the envelope of stifling heat and unbelievable humidity that hit us like a wall when we walked off the plane (and this was 10pm!!) As a result of this, most of the people can just move from one air-conditioned environment to another. Thus it rules out jogging, relaxing in a park, or just strolling around the city. Secondly, there are millions people living in an area the size of the Cork city ... basically space is at a very high premium. Although it is a beautiful city, fantastically clean, many stunning modern buildings, and in every little bit of unused space the government have planted some cool trees, but they just have no green space. Much of the city is built on reclaimed land. Most peple seem to live in 40-storey apartment blocks. What we saw of their limited "recreational" spaces consisted of a 24-hour floodlit golf-course and an island with fake beaches and parks where even the rocks are synthetic! This, and the heat limit the lifestyle of the people living here a lot. It seems to have resulted in a country full of manic shoppers, they shop during their 2-hour lunch breaks, after work ...
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Confessions of a Shopaholic
Grainne loved it here, after a year of no shopping, now that we're on our last continent the bags can get a bit heavier, so she had license to satisfy the shopping itch a little. The shopping here was great, miles of (air-conditioned!) new shopping centres side-by-side, 3 or 4 floors above ground and 2 or 3 floors under ground! Adjacent shopping centres are linked to each other underground and there are underground passageways to cross the street, eliminating any need for contact with the outdoors. It's a bit of a mission to get out of the maze, or so Grainne claims when she went missing in the Orchard Road shops for about 6 hours! like walking around a maze, once inside or underground trying to find your way out of the maze is no easy task, Grainne conveniently got lost in this maze on Orchard road the main shopping area and managed to take advantage of some of the bargains. Eoin, meanwhile, struggled to escape from the 27th floor of the Marriott across the road...
After sleeping in hostels, friends floors (and in fairness some great places too), we really got to pamper ourselves in Singapore. Like our time staying in the 5* Copacabana Palace in Rio, this was another wedding gift, this time from Grainne's cousin Sinead and her boyfriend Cheng who is from Singapore, as a present they got us some vouchers for the Marriott Hotel on the prime shopping street of Orchard Road. We decided to go all out and get an executive room, giving us access to the executive floor, free food and drink all day, great views of the city etc, every backpacker's dream! It was nearly 36hrs before Eoin even made it down past the pool & spa on the 4th floor of the hotel, managing to regain some of the weight he has lost all year travelling, after the excesses in the Marriot and in Oz.
We're all going to the Zoo tomorrow..
On our third & last day in Singapore, finished with shopping and having seen most of the city, we decided to hit the recommended Singapore Zoo. It was really a day-trip borne out of boredom, but this was actually brilliant, best zoo we have been to. Highlights included watching (through a pane of glass looking into the pool) the polar bears catching a live fish, the unbelievably smart chimps, cute orang utans and the white tiger feeding sessions. The zoo in the past was assisted by Steve Irwin and all his hallmarks are visible here.
06/10/2009 - Singapore
Only 3 weeks in total in Australia but we managed to pack in a whole bunch of highlights and catching up with friends. Being in Oz reminded us of living back in London, definitely the most social country we have been too and with friends of ours living in Sydney and Melbourne it made for a really enjoyable time here, with a fair bit of partying thrown in!!
Sun, Sea and Sand-bank Islands
Our first stop in Oz was Brisbane, all for about 40 minutes as we headed straight across town to jump on a bus to Hervey Bay, the starting point for trips around Fraser Island. At AUD$56 each for a 5 hour greyhound bus trip to this really americanized town with little to no character we were starting to realize fairly quickly that Oz was definitely going to be our most expensive country yet, oh how we miss the $1 for every hour on the buses in central and south america (although in fairness, the roads were much smoother than the pothole-per-metre of central America, and the buses were a tad more comfortable than the 1970's schoolbuses)
We were torn between a couple of destinations on the Gold Coast, a few people had mentioned The WhitSundays to us which sounded like stunningly beautiful islands, but after a week on our tropical paradise in Fiji we felt it would be too much of the same. The other options we considered were heading to the very popular surfers' paradise Byron Bay or to Cairns for the great barrier reef, but our surfing career was suspended with the hammering we took in the El Salvadorean waves and since neither of us scuba either, we opted for the Fraser Island experience in the end and from talking to other travellers who have been to all the above, I think we made the right choice.
After arriving late in Hervey Bay, since we were short on time, we booked a 3-day tour of Fraser with a company called Cool Dingo. Not huge fans of doing group tours (especially those advertised like this one as as ...gulp... "18-30's fun bus") and there is a great self-drive option for Fraser which we probably would have choosen only that we arrived late and all the jeeps were already organised and full, so we opted for this 3-day tour instead. In actual fact it was a fantastic trip with so many highlights and a very nice group (though a little too big with about 30 of us).
Crazy Karl was our guide & driver of our 4x4 monster of a bus and he really made the trip for us. The guy was pure Aussie bush man, with a collection of poems he had written from funny times in his life, plenty jokes, a quick wit, and stories from the time when he shut down his business, sold everything in his house and went travelling around Oz in a camper with his missus for what was meant to be 3 years and ended up being over 11yrs before he made it back to Hervey Bay & Fraser. He even taught us a song called the Crocodile Roll, which we can sing beautifully after a few beers.
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Fraser Island itself is an absolutely magical place. It is 250km long but outside of a few rocks in one corner is entirely built on layers of sand. It has a real array of environments. We visited & swam in the stunning Lake McKensie with it's powder white sandy beaches & crystal clear fresh waters, you could drink the water as you swam. Quite possibly (drum roll, big statement coming up..) the best beach we've been to, the perfect combination of floury white sand that doesn't stick to you and turquoise blue water that doesn't taste of salt when you take a mouthful. We also drove the long stretches of beach on the eastern side, watching the humpback whales & their babys breaching the water only about 20m out. From a headland called Indian Head high overlooking the ocean below we saw very clearly the stingrays, sharks, turtles and whales in the water below. Other great moments included walking around the sand dunes at Lake Wabby, exploring a shipwreck, floating down Eli Creek which runs through the forest (the clearest water you can imagine), and finally the highlight for us Lake Birrabeen: tourist free and even nicer then Lake McKensie. Another bonus was the buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner with great cookies & muffins thrown in, conscious of the increasing budget of Oz we built up a nice secret stash for when the trip was finished :-)
On the negative side, it's a pity there are so many 4x4 cars, buses, etc allowed onto the island, especially so many self-drives who look like they've never been in a 4WD before, never mind driving one through the demanding sand paths and soft tracks of Fraser Island. Many end up overturning their 4x4 or getting stuck on the deep sand, a fair few serious accidents happen here, and the vehicles slightly spoil this piece of paradise. When I become Prime Minister of Australia this national park will be vehicle free, it's small enough to hike through and many of the beautful lakes are close to the boat harbour anyway. And I'll cut income tax too.
Most over-rated animal
We had to laugh at the big deal made about the Dingo, in our opinion this is definitely the most over-rated animal in the world, when it comes down to it, they are just wild bloody dogs which in nearly every other country in the world they have the sense to put them down! Grainne did have one close encounter with one, while out for a run in the outback of the West MacDonald ranges, a confused dingo came out on the road after her, wondering why one of these 2-legged creatures was not in a 4 wheeled vehicle, and what she was chasing. She did as she was told and stared the wild dog in the eyes til he lost interest and wandered away. Very brave for a girl afraid of a 6-month old poodle (if you're reading, hi Bruno!).
Free again after this great tour, we got the flock out of Hervey Bay at 6am the next morning and headed to Noosa for a night to break up the journey to Brisbane. A trendy sea-side town about 2hrs out of Brisbane, would be a great place to chill out & surf for a few days. Next day it was back to Ireland? (Brisbane), we couldn't get over the Irish accents everywhere we turned, the hostels, the bars, the trains, the buses, shops, there seems to be so many Irish living in Oz at the moment, sign of the times back home I suppose.
Drama to rival a Bollywood flick
While in Noosa we realized getting our Indian visa was going to be a little bit harder than we thought. 10 (working... we'll get back to this) days harder in fact. Why the h£ll they need 10 working days to process a tourist visa we will never know. Anyway, as luck would have it, we had realised just in time, with 11 working days til our flight to Singapore, so we filled out all the forms and posted over our passports from Noosa to their consulate in Syndey hoping for the best that it will be processed by the time we leave from Sydney at the end of our trip... OK, I know the suspense is just killing you, so I will disrupt our nice chronological order here and skip to the Happily Ever After bit. We spent about $30 on calling the Indian Visa office ($1 a minute, the worst scamming telephone service since Ryanair, lots of waiting and some very rude officials) and by the time we got to Sydney we were no closer to knowing if we would get our visas. We called in to the visa office there, and they informed us that because the 11 working days included 3 (totally seperate!!) public holidays, 2 Indian and 1 Australian, our visa would not be processed on time. So we asked them nicely if we could at least have our passports back for our flight to Singapore in 4 days. The conversation went a bit like:
"Can we please a least have the passports back to leave Australia"
"The system says your visa is currently being processed, Sir"
"Actually the visa is not important any more, we just need our passports back so we can fly to Singapore"
"The system says your visa is currently being processed, Sir"
"OK, we don't care about the fecking visa, just give us our passports back"
"OK we will post your passports back to your home in Ireland for you"
... etc... Arrrgh! Eventually they got us to fill out another form, and told us that maybe it might be possible to get the passports back on time but without the tourist visa, and we would have to forfeit the AUD$300 we paid for this elusive stamp in our passports. At this stage we were totally over India and didn't really care anyway. On the morning of our flight to Singapore, with about 4 hours to go, we finally got our passports back, WITH the Indian visa stamp!!
Team Focus failed fairly badly here, we had booked our flights in Oz months ago and got some great deals, but we never looked at booking our camper van for Alice Springs so when we got here, we were gutted to find there was no campervans available in any of the rental businesses, so, again, we begrudgingly ended up on a 3-day tour of Uluru, Kings Canyon & the Olga's, and, again we were delighted we did. This trip was brilliant plus fantastic value at AUD$250 all-in grub, accom, etc with Mulga's Rock Tour. A funny thing about Alice Springs is that the time difference to home is 8 & 1/2 hrs!!
Originally we couldn't decide whether we would hit the outback or not but we were so happy in the end we did, it seems to be a real Australian Experience, the long boring roads, sandy nothingness, wildlife, bush-camping. The trip was made especially good fun, yet again, by our bus driver and guide Halley. She made sure we weren't getting any extra z's over her for the 6 hour bus journeys by making sure we were all kept awake and entertained. She organised the Bus Olympics, as the teams fought it out to win the free pitchers of beer at the end, with games such as bowling down the aisle of the bus with a duct-tape ball and cups stacked up as bowls, quizes etc. Unforunately (yes, we are aware that the evidence is mounting up the Team Focus are losing their focus) our team "Bush Wackies" just failed to win on the last day on the sudden death eating dry Weetabix final, although special mention must go to Eoin taking about 4 Weetabix for the team in the space of 2 minutes.
Anyway, back to the reason we were on this bus journey.. Sometimes you visit famous places and they don't live up to your expectations, but Uluru (Ayers Rock) is definitely not one of them, it is spectacular and the sunrise/sunset at this incredibly red rock, just blow you away. The Kings Canyon & beautiful red rock formations at the Olgas nearby were well worth it too, beautiful places and sleeping in "swags" (like tough sleeping bags with a sleeping mat built in) under the stars with our bonfire nearby was brilliant.
17 minutes to the top of "The Rock"
It was our last day of the tour and the plan for the morning was to climb Ayers Rock and then head back to Alice Springs. Unfortunately when we got there the climb was closed due to high winds so we were given 2 anti-climatic hours to walk around the rock before getting back on our bus. We were walking a bit faster than the group (the first signs of recovery from Team Focus) and when we got back to the carpark, we had about 25 minutes to spare before the bus would leave. We then noticed that people were now starting to climb up the rock. Since there was a good chance we might not come back here, we decided to go for it and proceeded to run/climb up the rock as fast as we could, we got some bizarre looks from people as we were zooming past them up the steep rock face and then running across the rolling contours of the rock on the top. In the end although knackered it was great being up there having this amazing place to ourselves (just as well since we were covered in sweat). It took us 17 minutes to the top, we snapped some quick pics, then we legged it back down in 15 minutes, just 10mins late for our bus, only to be met by some of our tour as they started the climb! Halley had told them she decided to grant us 2hrs extra to stay here and climb the rock when they got back to the bus and saw it was now open!
To climb or not to climbThe day after the houseparty, we went to stay with Eoin's parents' friends, Mary & Tom, who, as it turns out, live about 50 yards down the road from the houseparty house! It was a real treat staying in their amazing new home (we had forgotten how soft sheets were meant to be!) and they really treated us to the luxury tour of Melbourne's pubs and restaurants, as well as cooking up some fantastic meals for us. We didn't quite have the recovery we were expecting after the houseparty, that Sunday night Tom and Mary led us astray yet again, the night finishing up with 2 bottles of Jameson back in their house! They treated us to so much great food and drink and managed to give us even worse hangovers then our night at the Irish party! Lucky we weren't the ones who had to get up for work in the morning! Outside of partying, the rest of our time here was running off the hangovers around Albert Park, Botanical Gardens, visiting the MCG for a tour of the grounds with Mary and Tom, checking out the city & catching up with Aussie buddies Rhys and Ice-Man for pints. We had trekked with them in Chile (Torres Del Paine) 9 months before this so it was good catching up and having a bit of banter and one last card game of Asshole, good old Ice-Man is stuck with the title for quite some time to come now :-)
In terms of Ayers Rock, there is some conflicting information around about whether we should climb the rock or not. Signs up in the information centre request people to not climb it as it is disrespectful to the Aboriginal Culture. On the other hand our guide spent time living with the local Aboriginal community, she discussed this with them and they said they had no issues with tourists climbing the rock, just so long as they stayed away from some of the sacred areas at the base of the rock. Their main issue is when someone dies climbing the rock, (there have been quite a few!!) they end up having to enter a 3-week mourning cycle!! According to some sources, the government don't want people to climb the Rock for safety reasons, but when people ignored their pleas to not climb it for safety reasons, the governemnt 5 years ago changed tact and claimed it should not be climbed for spiritual reasons as more people take heed of this. they were trying this out for a 5 year period, which is just ending now, so the debate about whether it should be allowed to climb it or not is once again active. We were delighted we climbed it as it was an amazing experience, and are crossing our fingers the government closes the Rock now that we've had our 2 minutes at the top ;o)
The cardboard box game
The group we had for this trip was, once again, brilliant, Sarah the Welsh doc, Oren the crazy Israeli, and a group of 4 lovely Chinese girls doing a catering course in Adelaide. One funny memory from the trip was when we played the cardboard box game, i.e. box on the ground, hands behind back & you have to pick it up with your teeth without your knees touching the ground. Eoin, using his own adapted technique was doing great until we got to the end of the game, where it was Eoin up against a Korean girl and a Chinese girl, who have obviously been playing this game their whole life, as even with no edges left on the box, these women could still pick the dammed thing up with their teeth!! We were thinking of digging a hole and putting the sheet of cardboard 2 feet under to see if they could still make it look easy! And Eoin split his trousers all in vain :-) For Asians Oz seems to be a very popular choice & we had great entertainment watching the daily fashion show from the South Koreans on our bus trip in Fraser and then all the Japanesse climbing Ayers Rock with their white gloves on, Michael Jackson style, bizarre!
This is based on info we got from our guide, but it's amazing how badly the Aussies have treated the aboriginal community in the past. Some of the things we heard were shocking, to think that only 42 years ago it was still legal to kill an Aboriginal!! Obviously the government are now trying to right all these wrongs, but it is a very difficult situation. The quick solution seems to be give the communities a bit of money, but as a result you have massive problems with alcoholism and all the other associated problems, violence etc. Alice Springs has more car dealerships per capita then any other city in the world, as the government gives the people money every 6 months to buy new cars but unfortunately they haven't been taught to drive or maintain these cars. They also given them $100 per week for food in supermarket vouchers, which they swap with locals for a slab of VB beer instead. very sad situation, and hopefully one which can somehow be resolved sooner rather than later, whisllt preserving the culture and dignity of these people.
Amazingly with all the time we had in the outback, we never managed to see a Kangeroo on the entire trip, bar a dead one on the road between Alice and Kings Canyon, not too sure whether this counts or not.
West MacDonnell Ranges
After our tour of the Rock we rented a car for a few days and headed out to the West MacDonnell Ranges for some day hikes and chilling in the water holes out in the desert. We slept in a permanent tent for the 2 nights, bringing us back to our time in Africa. This was a lovely few days, but the heat was intense and it was really bush scrub for the walks, with no shelter at all. Worth the side trip, nice scenery, but no way we could live in this heat.
Party Time - Melbourne.
We only spent about 3 days in total getting to know the city, but from what we saw this is definitely a place we could live in. It is a lovely sized city with plenty green space, culture and great pubs and restaurants and the locals' thirst and love of sport really adds to the place. When we booked our flights to Melbourne 4 months ago, we noticed a cheap deal for our Saturday afternoon flight, that's because the AFL grand final was on the same time, so we forfeited the chance of trying to pick up a ticket which we later found out we probably would have got :-( and booked the cheap flight for this day, knowing we could catch some of the after party instead. Of all sports, the Melbourners are crazy about AFL, Australian Rules. It is a great game to watch, we saw half of the final in the airport in Alice Springs and it really is exciting, like Gaelic Football with an extra dose of violence thrown in for good measure. Landing in Melbourne about 7pm, we were back in our hostel in no time thanks to the great airport link, then headed straight to a good Aussie (oops Irish) house party for the AFL day. Eoin's buddy Tommy from college lives in Melbourne and he invited up to his girlfriends house for a party, typically being an Irish party in Oz, there was only 1 Aussie there, but a whole bunch of Irish people we happened to know from home and hadn't even realised they were in Melbourne! It was a brilliant night, especially as we had arrived late without finding a Bottle-O (offie) en route, so ended up scabbing free beer for the night (will sort you out back in Tipp Tommy!! thanks again we promise we won't put up photos of you in the skimpy top :-)) The Irish scene in Melbourne was very similar to London it was great being back in a good old houseparty again away from the transient social scene of the backpacking nights out.
Great Ocean Drive
In between partying and checking out the city in Melboune, we did a 2 day side trip along the Great Ocean Drive, taking in the Twelve Apostles, Gibson steps, etc. Despite the fact that was meant to be the winter and Melbourne has notoriously (for Australia!) bad weather (and we did experience some of it in the rest of our time in Melbourne), we really lucked out on our Great Ocean Drive weather. The first day was beautifully sunny, and the 2nd day stayed dry too. The drive was fantastic, athough we could have done with a few more days to explore it more, it is definitely one of the nicest drives we have ever been on and a definite if you ever visit Melbourne. We managed to get up close and personal with a sleepy Koala bear in the wild. We also encountered some more whales here, Right Whales with their babies, who give birth right next to the beach (Logan's beach) we spent a good hour just watching them one morning, an amazingly cool experience.
Sydney - More Partying....On the tourist front, we wandered the city, checking out the harbour bridge, Sydney Opera House where we even watched a show that, you guessed it, Grainne felt asleep in (just like the time in Maddison Sq Garden where she fell asleep watching The Police), wandered the botanical gardens, did a beautiful coastal walk from Coogee to Bondi beach and another from Manly to The Split, shopped around Darling Harbour and generally just enjoyed big city life again.
After our 6 days in Melboure we jumped on our AUD$40 flight with VirginBlue to Sydney. Fortunately, Micheal, our friend from home is working there and was sound enough along with his flatmates to put us up for our time here, saving us a bundle of money on accomodation and treating us to a nice inflatable mattress on their living room floor, just like Eoin did for Michael years ago in London (cordoned off with clothes horse for old times sake!). Like Melbourne this is definitely a city we could live in, although Melbourne slightly edges Sydney for us, although the beaches, the weather, the social life, parks, public swimming pools etc in Syndey are all a big attraction, it's a little bit busy. We had a blast here for the 6 days here, as it was a bank holiday weekend, we partied most nights with the gang, hitting some of the main social areas like the Rocks and Heros bar on Sunday night, Michaels friend Denise's house party where Grainne bumped into her 2nd cousin, and Eoin also managed to catch up with his cousin Anne-Marie Clancy later in the weekend. The weather was horrible for the weekend, but luckily we had done lots of sight-seeing on the 2 sunny days we had.
14/09/2009 - blog update from Brisbane
A fairly respectable 5 weeks since our last update, and what a change in scenery. From chilly Chile to Chilly NZ, but that's about all they had in common! NZ was a refreshing change of scenery, a real break from the backpacking. After 7 months of:
- days in a row spent on buses
- hauling our rucksacks around
- choosing between eating street-food and facing the dodgy stomach, or making do with hostel kitchens comprising a camping stove and one pot, and
- "supermarkets" where cereal is considered a luxury item and costs $11, and the most exciting thing you can conjure up for dinner is pasta with tuna and ketchup
we now had in its place
- a car and all the freedom that goes with it, stopping off at spots when we liked, and making our plans as flexible as possible
- a boot to throw and accumulate our junk
- the best-equipped hostels ever (more like fancy B&Bs with use of a restaurant-standard kitchen at times, hot water bottles, electric blanetts and paint on the walls :-)!)
- well-stocked, reasonably-priced supermarkets.
NZ was great. Although it did have its downside, at times we missed the adventure of travelling on buses (adrenaline-sport as it was in some countries like Bolivia), and also, we have to say the banter-level in NZ was disappointingly low, the locals not too much craic, and most of the backpackers were German and about as much fun as a poke in the eye. Oh, and the weather in NZ... more about that later.
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We landed in Auckland at 4am on Sunday 9th August, having succumbed a day to the International Date Line. After eventually getting our rental car (a classy Nissan Sunny, circa 1999) we hit the supermarket in our excitement, filled the boot to the brim with everything we used to eat back home and made for the hostel. We were like 2 kids in a candy shop in the supermarket. On the way into town, we were wondering if there was some major sports event on, as we passed hundreds of cyclists and runners, but no, it turns out that's what they get up to at 6:30 on a Sunday morning! We spent a day wandering around Auckland, pretty nice city, but the following day, keen to make use of our new toy the car, we headed off for a drive to the Coromondel Peninsula, about an hour away. Really beautiful place, lovely wild beaches the highlight of which was cathedral cove, windy country roads, and a Hot Water Beach, where the volcanic activity underground created really hot water coming up through the sand, if you dug a hole to make a jacuzzi, or even stuck your feet into the sand, it was often too hot to even stay there. Really random when it was freezing cold outside like a day on an Irish beach in winter.
The following day we left Auckland for real, and headed south to Rotorua, the wipers getting a warm-up workout, as it poured rain for the next 3 days solid. In Rotorua, we really eased ourselves into the adrenaline sports arena by both of us getting into a rubber ball which was filled with water (thankfully hot!) and rolling this giant ball down a hill. Its called "zorbing", good fun but the hill wasn't long enough! Rotorua is a volcanic hot-spot, literally, loads of natural hot-springs and geysers, looking across the landscape you can see loads of areas with steam rising from them, bubbling pools etc. Oh, and all this results in an overbearing stink of eggs in the town. We never quite got used to that. It's also famous for being the centre of the Maori culture in NZ, we got chatting to some Maori locals there and they were the nicest people we met in NZ. Just don't mention the World Cup Or France and they don't rate Jonah Lomu at all, "there are loads more fellas who were way better then him!!". The next day after climbing a hill for views over the volcanic region around Rotorua, but failing to see much with the rain and mist, we surrendered and returned to town to check out the hot-springs. Luxury! Sitting in the hot pools that varied in temperature from 37 degrees to a roasting 43 degrees, looking out over the lake with the rain falling, was great.
After that we decided to put the sight-seeing on hold and hit the slopes. Another rainy drive to a town called National Park, a ""ski village" close to 2 ski-fields, the main ones on the north Island. Not quite the same as a European definition of a ski village, more like 2 parallel roads with a handful of hostels all spread out, maybe a restaurant and a hire shop. Very different to Europe, you have to drive to the slopes and the concept of apres-ski doesn't seem to have taken off (although apart from Queenstown we saw very little evidence of any nightlife in NZ in general). We only got one day up the slopes as the following day the lifts weren't operating cos of wind. We had a really great day though. Went to a ski-field called Turoa. It was blissfully quiet, no need to dodge the skiers (not that we ploughed through them, there were just so few people on the slopes) and the snow was really good. We wowed the Kiwis with our snowboarding gear... rather than splashing out $30 a day on renting the jacket and pants, we found a secondhand shop in Santiago that sold these hideous 1970's jumpsuits for $3. The belts and shoulder-pads came free. We got a lot of jealous stares, but got used to the attention after a while. no need for further description, the pictures below speak for themselves really.
We left National Park, surprise surprise in the rain, and made our way along the gravelly and underwhelming Wanganui River Road, hailed as a highlight in the Lonely Planet (maybe the rain affected our judgement), then passed very quickly through Wanganui town and Palmerstown North, improvising along the way as these possible nice stop-over towns were rapidly struck off our list, and decided to make our way to Napier. I'm sure its a nice place, and is meant to have a pretty cool art-deco thing going on, but it just poured rain all the time we were there, so left again the next morning. Having unsuccessfully tried to locate the nightlife the night before, wandering up and down the main street on a Saturday night without bumping into a single person and finding the bars closing or empty, we decided to try the vineyards on our way out of town. We found a really nice place, Brookfields, and the nice lady there gave us loads of free samples until we felt guilted into buying a bottle. After that we headed straight for Wellington, coincidently passing once again "Yummy Mummy Cheesecakes" where we had bought possibly the best cheesecake in the world the day before, so we stopped in again for a second one, just to make sure.
We really liked Wellington. We spent 2 nights here in a brilliant hostel in an area called Plimmerton, about 20mins drive outside the city, and right on the coast. We spent most of our day in Wellington in the Te Papa museum, a class place, even though neither of us philistines are normally much good at museums but there were plenty of special effect things to keep us entertained.
Sunny North of the South
We got a ferry from Wellingon to Picton in the South Island, and suddenly our weather luck changed. We headed for a place calle Anakiwa, at the start of the Queen Charloote track (one of many multi-day tramps (hikes to me and you) that we'd love to have done in full, but the wrong season for it - we'll have to come back in summertime to do some hiking). We spent the rest of that day and all the next day doing 2 sections of the Queen Charlotte hike, out along the Marlsborough Sounds. It was really beautiful, lovely green peninsulas jutting out to blue-blue water. Oh, and loads of curious seals too. We headed for Nelson after that, a wealthy wine-growing town in the north of the south island. This was a really nice town, a lovely path from town out along the coast and some great cafes. We stayed there a night, and the next day drove up to the northern tip of the South Island. We drove around the outside of the Abel Tasman National Park, over a hill along a windy road, and then followed the Golden Bay up to farewell Spit, a sand-bank a few miles long right at the top of the island. We stopped for our picnic at a totally deserted long white sandy beach, and then went to a beach called Warariki, one of our favourite places we've hit all year. We hiked through farmland, passed picturesque rolling green hills (with sheep of course) and a river with seals playing in it randomly, before hitting this perfect wide sandy beach, about a mile long. the tide was out when we were there, so it was even more spectacular, acres of pure white sand, wild waves rolling in and sand-dunes at the top. We saw a few people at one side of the beach, the only others out there, and wandered over to see what was gathering the crowd (of 5), and found a rock-pool full of seal pups, jumping and playing, performing for the crowd. It was really cool. It seems the parents leave them in there when the tide goes out, as the adults go out to sea to look for food, the pups stay in this creche. they found an octopus under the shelf of the rock while we were there, and pulled him out, tore off 2 of his legs, and somehow the now-sextapus survived the ordeal and escaped. We were all rooting for him. It was getting dark and we had a long drive back over the hill, so we tore ourselves away from the show, and made one more stop at some cool cliffs with a view over Farewell Spit, before heading on to a hostel right outside Abel Tasman National Park.
We spent the next day hiking about 20km of the famous Abel Tasman track. We got a boat to Barks Bay, then walked back to the park entrance along the spectacular white-sand and turquoise water coast of Abel Tasman National Park. You can also kayak this route, another thing to add to the "next time" list!
Hell of the West
After spending another night in Nelson, we left the north and headed south along the west coast. This was a gorgeous drive, from Nelson to Westport, then along the coast to Greymouth. Some lovely wild coastline, the Pancake Rocks and great viewpoints from the windy hilltop road. We spent the night in Greymouth as a stopover, bit of a dive really, but a nice hostel there. That was the night the All Blacks played the Wallabies, so we went down the local to watch it. We got in there to an average sized bar, with about 50 people there, all seated and chatting quietly. We asked the barlady if they were showing the match and she said they were, that was why the place was packed!! If that is a busy Saturday night, we can only imagine what the place is like on a Tuesday! We were expecting a good atmosphere for the match, but it was a bit disappointing, the fans weren't very vocal, except to whinge about their team, they didn't even pause in their conversations when the anthem or Hakka were on, and over half of them left at half time, no doubt past the bed time. In fairness, I don't think the West Coast is renowned for its rugby following, in the North Island where most of the Maori population lives, it is meant to be much stronger, as well as the rugby strongholds of the south island like Canterbury and Dunedin. Anyway, had a good night, sampled a few pitchers of the local ale too, pretty tasty.
Next day we woke to torrential rain, we drove south, planning to stop at Fox and Franz-Josef Galciers on the way for some hikes and to spend the night. Unfortunately the rain was so bad we couldn't even make out the glaciers so hiking was definitely out of the question. We drove right past them and made our way inland towards Wanaka. As soon as we hit for the mountains via the Haast Pass, the skies cleared. We spent most of the day doing the scenic Haast Pass drive, stopping off to hike to waterfalls, viewpoints over lakes, and checking out the snow-capped mountains, this drive was definitely another big highlight from our time in NZ.
Wanaka is a really nice little lakeside town, quieter than nearby Queenstown, and probably a better base for the slopes, being nearer to the best skifield, Treble Cone. We spent our first day there in Treble Cone, a gorgeous skifield overlooking Lake Wanaka below, very like Bariloche in Argentina. Once again we wowed the locals with our style and snowboarding moves. We were like local celebrities, the girl who was meant to be checking lift passes before we got on the lift everytime didn't even ask us for ours, she said she had heard of us already. Some nice runs there, even though there are only 2 chairlifts they seem to make good use of the area and have lots of different runs down. Great snow too, they had had 25cm the day before, so conditions were excellent. The following day the resorts were all closed because a storm blew in, just as well cos Grainne had a back injury from throwing shapes on the board the day before. We spent a great day in Wanaka anyway, spent the morning in Puzzling World, a cool museum place with illusion rooms etc, and a huge 2-level maze outside, which took us about half an hour to find our way out of, after finding our way to the 4 corners! In the evening we went to Cinema Paradiso, a really cool little cinema with about 30 different mix and match sofas and armchairs, even a lazy boy, and a pimped up VW Beetle that you can sit in too. They have an interval, timed to coincide with the fresh cookies coming out of the over - delicious! They also have a bar and restaurant, so you can bring your beer and dinner in with you. the following day we went back to Treble Cone, it had reopened, even though they'd had a huge dump of snow, conditions weren't great, they only opened one lift so it was pretty packed, esp cos lots of the other skifields around hadn't yet reopened. There was some really nice off-piste in the morning though, before it got all cut up. The day after the skifields were on hold or closed, so we decided to hang up our snowboarding boots for a while and head to nearby Queenstown.
Queenstown is a really cool place, stunningly located on the shores of a lake, with snow-capped mountains all round, much bigger and livlier than Wanaka, mainly with Aussie tourists there on a ski holiday. On the way there from Wanaka we passed a bungee-jump and had some laugh at a middle-aged Japanese woman trying to psyche herself up to take the plunge she eventually did!). Until then we had no interest in bungee, but after seeing that, and chatting to people in Queenstown, we got a little infected by the bug. We had a few drinks and a Fergburger (epic, possibly the best burger in the world) the night before and decided bungee would definitely be a great idea, esp cos the rain was forecast to continue and the skifields were meant to stay closed, so hiking and snowboarding were off the menu (on top of that Grainne's back was still too sore to walk very far or snowboard, but bungee sounded like just what the doctor ordered!). The next morning we signed up to do the Nevis Bungee, 134m, one of the highest in the world, and did the jump that afternoon. Nevis has the added "thrill" of the launch platform being suspended in a canyon in a little pod, that you need to get in a little pulley trolley thing to get out to. That was warm-up enough. the jump itself was a great rush. Freefalling for 8 seconds, the scariest part was actually jumping off the ledge. Grainne had done a skydive before in Namibia, but said this was scarier cos the skydive was tandem, and someone else takes the decision to jump into thin air for you, here you had to switch off your brain and do it yourself. The first few seconds were the best, such an adrenaline rush, just falling headfirst towards the ground, after that when you bounce up and down a few times, you don't really know whether you're coming or going. It's very gentle when it pulls you back up, not a jerking motion that you'd imagine. A great thrill, i don't think either of us has the bungee bug or anything and this is probably the end of our bungee career but it was a cool thing to experience. That night we went out in Queenstown again to a cool bar called Winnies, good craic with nice pizzas and a roof that opens. Our last day in Queenstown it was a bit rainy for hiking or sightseeing or snowboarding, so we headed about an hour away to the Lord of the Rings area of Glenorchy. Unfortunately we brought the rain with us, although it did clear once or twice for some lovely views, another place to come back to, plus would love to try the routeburn tramp which starts from there, meant to be one of the best in NZ.
We left Queenstown in the rain and headed south for Te Anau, near Milford and Doubtful Sounds, fjords in the very south of the country. We wanted to drive the road that day out to Milford Sounds but the road was closed due to avalanche risk. We stayed in a great hostel there, more like a homestay really as you share all the facilities with the hostel owner, Rosie, and her family. She was lovely, real motherly, gave us hot water bottles and all, and she won Eoin over with homemade fruitcake. The next day we did a trip to Doubtful Sounds, bigger and much less touristy than Milford Sounds (the biggest tourist attraction in NZ), it was recommended to us by loads of Kiwis we'd met along the way. We got a boat across Lake Manapouri, the nerd in us (Grainne) enjoyed the tour around the West Arm Power station, then we got in a bus over a hill to get on another boat out in the sounds. The weather was so-so, much better than the day before, but still a bit misty and showery, but that added to the place... inlets and huge green hills looming out of the sea that winds like a river out to the open ocean about 2 hours into the cruise, huge waterfalls coming down every hundred metres and snow capped mountains above. The region is one of the wettest places in the world, legend has it that it rains even more than Ireland, well a good bit more up to 9 metres per year.
Snowed In & Chilled Out
Next stop was Mt Cook, we drove there in a longish days driving from Te Anau, arriving in the evening just as the snow was starting to fall, making a quick stop for another Fergburger on the way in Queenstown!!. The snow fell all night, next morning we woke to find 6 inches of snow on the car.
Our plans for hiking and checking out Mt Cook scuppered, we left there and started to head towards Christchurch, rumours of fine weather that side of the country. We didn't have to go that far though, about an hour down the mountain from Mt Cook village, the weather cleared to perfect blue skies as we passed through a beautiful village called Lake Tekapo, on the shores of.. you guessed it, Lake Tekapo.
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We went up to the Observatory on the top of a hill which has spectacular views over the snowy mountains all round, and the unbelievably turquoise waters of the lake below (due to the glacier grinding the rocks below into sediments which float in the water and give it that milky blue colour). We also popped into these hot springs there, gorgeously situated with views over the lake and mountains. We were enjoying it so much we decided to cancel plans to head to christchurch and stay there a night. Went for a walk around the lake that evening and the next day headed for Christchurch. First we went past the city to an area about an hour north where we stopped at a beach for our picnic and then headed to an area called Waipara for some winetasting. We went to this place called the Mud House Winery, where we paid $5 between us to sample 17 different wines. Was great. Very educational obviously. Conveniently it was Eoin's turn to drive that aftenoon, so he was observing! Had a look at Christchurch that evening, a nice city, and I think if we had to choose anywhere on our travels to settle down and work for a while it would be here. Great weather (even in the coldish winter, they still get lots of clear days), no traffic, most accommodation only a walk away from town, a huge park in the middle of town with golf course, sports pitches including 18 rugby pitches,s etc, and the gorgeous Banks Peninsula only a short drive away. Only problem is the 24 hr flight back to Ireland. That evening we spent with Brian & Jeannette, a friend of Eoin's from college who is living in Christchurch. They were unbelievable hosts for a pair of smelly backpackers who only gave them a call that afternoon, we were fed and watered and had a lovely evening, it was great to be in a home, not a hostel, for a change, with no check-out time, and also to catch up with people from home is always great, you sometimes get tired of the transience of backpacker friends.
Our last few days in NZ we spent in the fabulous banks Peninsula, about an hours drive outside Christchurch. the weather was gorgeous, blue skies and about 15 degrees, but cold at night. Actually the drive there took us about 3 hours, it was so scenic, and we took the long way round too, going over a dodgy twisty 4WD-only road (where, if we'd met another car, we faced reversing 10km back down the hill it was that narrow!) We stayed in a great hostel there, in a place called Barrys Bay. Out in the middle of nowhere, the place had lovely gardens with picnic areas, hammocks, free bikes, a great kitchen etc. It was only us and another couple there, an Aussie girl Peta and her Kiwi boyfriend David who were lovely. We headed on a tough cycle to the French town of Akaroa (only 12 km, its a slippery slope, and how we have fallen! - but in fairness it was very hilly, and the bikes were very heavy!) one afternoon, and the next day we did a hike in Hawerei Reserve, nice to get out and about, but really the best views were to be had on the windy Summit Road, along the tops of the mountains (volcanic craters actually), with great viewpoints along the way.
Fiji... One Year into the Honeymoon
After all the rain and cold in NZ, we were really dying for some sunshine (I know, God help us when we get back home mid-winter!) To celebrate our first anniversary (can't believe it has been a year, but what a year it's been!) we headed to Fiji on our holidays for a week. People who were asking us were we in Fiji on our honeymoon were well confused when we told them it was our honeymoon and anniversary all at once! After a night in dodgy Nadi, we headed for the Yasawa Islands, to Waya Island and Octopus Resort. Picture-perfect white sandy beaches, a lovely hut and fabulous food, this place was great. Some good fun there, we met a lovely Cork couple, Diarmuid and Caroline and took part in some of the cringe-worthy "entertainment" things, taking away the title of baloon-keepy-uppy champions. Not normally our thing to do this package resort style thing, but in Fiji there really isn't any other option. Although we prefer the freedom of wandering round, cooking for ourselves, shopping in the local village for coconut bread etc like Little Corn Island, there's no denying the week in Fiji was really relaxing, and the food some of the best we've had travelling. The snorkelling there was excellent too, with a reef just off the beach where we stayed. We also did a hike one day up to the top of a mountain, "Lost" style, which kept Grainne from developing island fever too badly. Next stop, Australia.