A Travellerspoint blog

Koh Phi Phi

The Beach!

sunny 32 °C

Phi Phi was devastated by the Tsunami in 2004 and has since been significantly rebuilt. As our boat got closer we could see a green island with limestone cliffs and long golden beaches surrounded by tropical turquoise water. There were many boats in the marina, from passenger ferrys, modern speed boats to traditional wooden Thai 'taxi boats'. We could see crowds of tourists around the harbour and in cafes and bars either side of the jetty, crikey this looked like the busiest island we had seen so far and by some stretch. We walked through the alleyways in the town, passing markets, food stalls all busy with tourists and locals, locals on bicycles and local traders pushing carts with product to their market stalls / shops. Accents and languages of tourists and holidaymakers from many a country could be heard amongst the local Thai. As our Lonely Planet book had informed us, "backpackers may have discovered Phi Phi first, but Speedo wearing jetsetters have it firmly under their control now!"
After checking into our hostel we took a walk down the beach and stopped for an early evening beer at a beach bar with Thai 'triangle cushions', very relaxing!
In search of food we headed for the place that Lonely Planet described as being 'the only true Thai restaurant' on the island. Having walked around the town it was clear that many 'Thai restaurants' were offering 'steak and chips' or 'Spagetti' on their specials boards, catering for the tourists. The restaurant we chose specialised in Thai food only and had their chefs cooking on woks at the entrance of the restaurant, typical of the food stalls seen in cities and towns on the mainland. The food was fantastic and the atmosphere relaxed and fun. After we had eaten we took a walk around looking for a nice quiet bar by the beach, yet found that the beach bars had turned into really loud music bars, with young travellers handing out flyers promoting 'buckets' of spirits and events like 'fire shows', 'thai boxing' etc. One guy having tried and failed to get us interested in Thai boxing informed us enthusiastically that 'there was a wet T-Shirt contest afterwards'.... he must have thought Chris might enter! Disappointingly it appears that the demand for Faliraki/Benidorm chav resorts has also developed in Thailand. Having asked around we managed to find a more relaxed bar right at the end of the beach to enjoy the rest of the evening, where with every drink ordered came a free satched of mosquito repellent.
Next day we started with a European breakfast in the 'French boulangerie', before walking to 'Long Beach' along a coastal path. We went past remote beach hut accomodation with hammocks hanging on their balconies, stopped for a go on the beachside rope swings before arriving at Long Beach, which is exactly as the name suggests.
At 2:45am Chris was awake and watching FC United's TV debut and 'giant killing' of Rochdale (80 league places above them) in the FA Cup, with Nic being woken each time FC scored as Chris celebrated. Next morning we took a taxi boat to Maya beach (Koh Phi Phi Ley) to 'The Beach' (film). We expected Maya beach to be packed with tourists as like us, as the film (2000) has made this place a tourist hotspot. On our arrival at Koh Phi Phi Ley we could see the harbour was full of toursit boats and that 'the beach' was packed with people. However by luck, within twenty minutes of our arrival most of the tourist boats left leaving Maya beach to ourselves and a handful of other tourists to enjoy. We enjoyed a swim in the shallow bay and then relaxed on the beach enjoying the spectacular scenery. The film has certainly brought a huge amount of tourism to the area, however there was controversy when the film production team made changes, bulldozing and rescaping the beach/bay to make it even more 'paradise like'. The island is now part of the Phi Phi national park to protect it and the Tsunami is said to have restored the bay to it's natural state.
On our way back we asked our boat to stop at Monkey Beach. Once again the name is an accurate description and on our approach we saw monkeys taking food out of the hands of tourists on the beach. Loving animals we got close to them on the beach but not too close that they might scratch or bite us - as we had heard the warnings about rabies.
Arriving back at Phi Phi Don, we decided to walk up to 'View Point', a summit in the middle of the island. It was very hot and hard going, but once at the top the views were well worth the effort. Whilst having dinner that evening in a Thai restaurant, we saw a really cool cat 'chilling out'. A cat was actually sleeping in the beer fridge until the restaurant owners saw it and chucked it out!

Posted by NicChris 08:45 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Satun to Krabi

A journey through heavily flooded villages

sunny 30 °C

After driving through the rural countryside of Langkawi we reached the port where we officially exited Malaysia, then boarded our ferry to Satun. On our arrival, we were provided with Thailand visas for a period of 14 days. To extend them we either have to pay, or cross a border. We first made our way to Satun tourist information and purchased bus tickets to Krabi. We were informed that due to floods, buses had not run for the previous 48 hours and that our bus would be the first to attempt the journey. We were told that the bus would pick us up outside the port, however it turned out that the bus went from the centre of Satun and not the port so the bus operator was providing a 'connection'. The 'connection' turned out to be an open back van that had some 'home made' benches installed for us to perch on. We climbed in, along with a couple of Czech lads and we were all somewhat amused by our mode of transport. With the tour operator (who sold us our bus tickets) stood clinging on to the back of the van and with us clinging on to our backpacks and gripping the bench that we were sat on - we sped off. At the interchange, we were informed that the bus would be leaving half an hour later than scheduled. Further to a great deal of confusion from the operators, a group of us finally boarded a bus that was going to Trang - and once there we would need to change buses to get to Krabi.
Shortly into our journey our bus drove along severely flooded streets and towns, with murky floodwaters flowing fast along streets, through homes, shops - everything! Some locals were in boats floating outside of their homes, others sat on higher ground or raised platforms within buildings, but most were just stood in the deep floodwater. Mopeds were trying to get through some of the lower waters but the only vehicles getting through the 'waist deep' waters were trucks and buses. We saw Thai army deployments using sands bags to try and protect buildings, but for most it appeared too late. Thin walls had been washed away by the floods and we saw many damaged buildings. Despite the flood damage and dangers caused by the floodwater, locals were trying as much as possible to continue their daily business and waving to us tourists as our bus past by. After slowly passing through several different areas of flooding we finally reached Trang bus interchange which was free from floods. Learning that we had forty minutes before our connection would leave, we dashed to get some food from a street stall and enjoyed watching our orders being freshly cooked.
It was around 10pm when we arrived in Krabi and our first priority was to find a bed for the night. We jumped in a tuk tuk style taxi along with the two Czech lads and made our way to our chosen hostel, only to find it closed. Our Tuk Tuk driver insisted on taking us to a hostel that he knew - where we could see the room before deciding whether or not we wanted to stay and it turned out to be a good cheap base for the night. The owner was a real character and he was enjoying the local drink of ice chilled whisky.
The next morning we walked around Krabi in search of some supplies before our planned trip to the islands. Although Krabi was not what you would call overly commercialised, we did find a 'Boots the chemist' within a small department store, so clearly a lot of backpackers and tourists find their way here. In search of some breakfast, we enjoyed a Thai rice dish - it was a little early for chilli but it was all we could find on offer as we didn't find the local 'European cafe' until afterwards. At midday we boarded a boat from Krabi destined for Koh Phi Phi Don, an island that we had heard many times is one of outstanding natural beauty.

Posted by NicChris 08:43 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Langkawi

Humid & overcast long beaches

overcast 31 °C

The next day we took another Air Asia flight from KL to Langkawi island. Famous for it's beaches, we headed to 'Pantai Tengah' which we found to be slightly quieter than it's neighbouring beach resort 'Pantai Cenang'. Once again the weather was cloudy and overcast. We took a quick look at the beach - which offered long golden sands - yet disappointingly quite a bit of rubbish was visible having been washed up at high tide. We had read that rubbish is a major problem for the islands in S.E Asia, as many of the resorts are built up to supply the tourism demand - yet there is no organised infrastructure on many of the islands to effectively deal with waste. Regardless of the rubbish and the cloudy weather, it was clear that the beach had a great deal of potential for holidaymakers to enjoy.
In the evening we walked along the road into Pantai Cenang and noticed that the predominant local dishes here were Indian/Malay. Having enjoyed some excellent roti's and curry we had a drink in an Irish bar that was run by an Irish/Thai couple. He's Irish and she's Thai and in the bar menu they explain how they met when he was travelling and she was a hotel receptionist. She lives with a disability as she only has one arm, to which he has placed a sign above the bar which states: "Single handedly run by a one armed wonder". We had read that Langkawi was the cheapest place for beers in Malaysia and so it turned out to be, even this Irish bar was reasonably priced! Earlier in the day we had seen that right next to our hostel was a fantastic beach bar so we headed there and sat on verander at the waters edge lined with palm trees and relaxed with a cold beer - it was still very hot even at this late hour. Although it was humid the next day, cloud remained. We enjoyed a long walk down the beach and then made our way into the town to check out the availability of boats to Satun (Thailand) for the next day. Once again, Langkawi was a place that we did not see in the best of weather, yet we enjoyed it's relaxed Malaysian atmosphere and just wish we had more time to enjoy the beach.

Posted by NicChris 08:18 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur

Birthday night out in KL

sunny 32 °C

On our arrival at Kuala Lumpur we again shared a taxi with Colin and Ashley and found a cheap hotel in the centre. It was early Saturday evening and Nic and I headed out for Nic's birthday dinner at a food hawker street in the Golden Triangle. This area of the city was packed with people, street entertainers, bright lights and great food in a carnival like atmosphere. The next day we further explored the centre of KL, using the monorail system that goes around the city we went to Merdeka Square, a grass based square - formerly a cricket pitch - where Malaysia's independence was proclaimed in 1957. We then made our way to the business district and to a shopping mall beneath the Petronas Towers, before taking some pictures of the towers themselves. In the evening we went to the China Town and walked through the bustling street markets that were selling all sorts of 'designer' bags, 'branded' clothing & footwear etc. We had heard that the restaurants here served excellent food and that it was the best place to get a reasonably priced beer - as in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, we had found beer more scarcely available and when it has been available, prices were high. On first appearance we were a little put-off by the China Town restaurants, as they were packed with tourists and very few locals. However, we were hungry and decided to eat and the food was indeed fantastic! Nic heard one bloke on a nearby table say that he'd been there earlier for his lunch earlier and it was so good that he had returned for his dinner!

Posted by NicChris 08:08 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Malaysia Perhentian Islands

Jungle Adventure

storm 32 °C

On Thursday we made enquiries about train availability to get to the North East coast of Malaysia and discovered that there was an overnight train leaving at 6pm. Our original plan had been to make our way up the West Coast of Malaysia, however we had read in Lonely Planet and heard from people who had been, that the Perhentian Islands should not be missed. Nic really wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur but this may have to be sacrificed to go to the Perhentian's. We had also read that the Perhentian island resorts close mid November each year due to the Monsoon season - if we set off from Singapore, we would arrive on the 30th October! Let's do it! We dashed around making preparations for the next stage of our travel, which included shopping for some new shoes for Nic where she was very kindly helped by a local customer who gave Nic her discount card (for the store we were in) and queued with Nic - all this during her lunch time! - another example of people going out of the way to be helpful. We arrived in good time for our departure from Singapore (having learnt our lesson in China with regards to overnight trains and being late!). First impressions of our train was that it looked old and very well used. Having found our beds for the night we settled in as the train set off. We were on Malaysia's East Coast railway, more often referred to as the 'Jungle railway' and we stopped half an hour after leaving Singapore train station for border immigration control. We had to leave the train to have our passports stamped 'exited Singapore' before the train continued into Malaysia. However, we did not officially enter Malaysia via immigration and were informed to keep hold of our train tickets as proof of how we entered, to ensure that we could leave at a later date! Back on the train we had little choice but to rest, read and have an early night, as we were on the top bunks and had no where really to sit up. The train got noisier as more families got on at stops on route and their kids were clearly excited about the train journey as they played on the bunk bed ladders along the carriage. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted through the carriage as smokers puffed away in between carriages. We did not sleep too well and when we did get to sleep we were woken several times by the train severely tilting and braking hard - and this was not a modern tilting train! The next morning we arrived at our destination 'Wakaf Bharu' an hour later than scheduled and an elderly chap from the next beds to us on the train asked where we wanted to go. He very kindly negotiated on our behalf with the local taxi touts that had been waiting in numbers for the train to arrive. It was very hot, humid and raining slightly as we followed our driver to his taxi. We had read that taxi was the best/only option to get to Kuala Besut, the small town where speed boats run to the Perhentian islands. We were lead to the most decrepit taxi we had ever seen! Having managed to prise the boot open to put our backpacks in - it did not then want to shut again. It was raining and it's fair to say the tyres could at best be described as 'slick', with not a tread in sight. We couldn't get into the taxi, as the door handles were missing. The driver climbed in through the passenger door and managed to get a rear door open for us. Once inside we saw that the interior of the taxi was incredibly worn in every way possible. After a couple of attempts the engine did start and we were on our way. Nothing seemed to work apart from the engine in this taxi, the speedometer did not move, no air con, no radio etc. About and hour and a half later we arrived at Kuala Besut, our driver dropping us at a speed boat booking office and the journey had cost us the equivalent of around £12!

We booked tickets for the next 'speed boat' to leave, asked whether or not the boat had a roof (as it was raining) and after being told it did indeed have a roof we waited on the jetty. We were informed that many of the hotels and hostels on the islands had already closed due to the end of the season and given some information about those that were still open. Ominously the Lonely Planet book did say that 'slow boats' were not running at the time their writers had visited, however they would be 'a much safer' option to the 'speed boats'..... A chubby local approached us and informed us he was 'the captain' of our boat and that we could board. Technically the boat did have a roof, however it did not have any sides and therefore we were glad to see that it had stopped raining. There was only ourselves and a family of 6, with 3 young children on our crossing. We set off at immense speed, which for the first few minutes was OK, but then we started to hit some really big waves and the boat was taking off at the front and crashing down again. The youngest of the three children started to cry as the boat continued to take off and land hard into the waves. Waves were crashing over the front of the boat and we were all getting soaked. We were not strapped in and every time the boat left surged upwards we were also been thrown out of our seats. Clinging on to the steel railings that supported the roof, our horror journey continued as thoughts of "worst things happen at sea" sprung to mind! Our 'captain' did eventually slow the boat down after continued complaints from the mum and the continued howling of her youngest child but the waters remained rough and we were all relieved to see the Perhentian's draw closer and finally to arrive in one piece, albeit drenched with sea water. We were informed that due to the poor weather the boat could only dock at Coral bay and not go to other beaches on request, as we had earlier been informed was the norm. We had not booked any accomodation on the island, but we had been given a recommendation for one - which of course was on the other side of the island on Long Beach. There's a pathway across the island through the jungle so we walked up the hill and down the other side through dense jungle woodland, with our heavy backpacks feeling even heavier by the minute. Sweating profusely, we found ourselves on a fairly deserted beach which we walked along to reach the hostels. We checked a couple out and in the process Nic spotted a small monkey in a tree above. We managed to barter for a better price in a really nice hotel as it was the end of the season. The weather was cloudy and humid, so humid that it was hard to take any photographs as the lense immediately steamed up. Even in the cloud, we could see the beauty of the beaches here and were amazed to be able to walk through jungle. We spotted a really colourful lizardlike creature in a bush and a different, much bigger lizardlike creature clinging to the long, high trunk of a palm tree. Many of the tourists on the island were doing snorkelling or diving trips provided by local boat companies - which did not require sunshine! We enjoyed dinner outside right next to the beach, very relaxing. Shattered from our overnight train journey the night before and day of travel we went to bed early, only to be woken by startling flashes of lightening and extremely loud crashes of thunder. The storm was so close that we couldn't count a second between the flashes and the thunder and we learned the next morning that the power had been cut and wireless internet was down due to the storm damage. It was October 30th and Nic's birthday - our plans had been to have relaxing day on the beach. However the hotel that we stayed at was closing the next night for the Monsoon season and the weather forecast on the island remained poor. We hadn't wanted to travel on Nic's birthday but came to the conclusion that it was the best option, rather than get stuck on the island in a monsoon! We had also read that our best option to get to Langkawi was to fly from a nearby airport via Kuala Lumpar and that meant that Nic would get to go to KL afterall and on her birthday as well! We didn't see the Perhentian Islands in the best of weather, which was a shame - however our experience of the islands was still well worth the time and effort getting there!
We were not exactly looking forward to the speed boat journey back to the Malaysian mainland, however it turned out to be much smoother than on the way, as we had a different 'captain' (young lad) who attempted to avoid big waves rather than drive straight through them and the boat was packed with other backpackers (all of whom had also decided to leave due to the weather) meaning that the boat couldn't go as fast due to the weight. We got talking to a Scottish couple, Colin and Ashley who were just embarking on their travels and shared a taxi with them from Kuala Besut to the airport. We had never been to an airport without a flight booking before, however there were 3 airlines all flying to KL. We opted for 'Air Asia' and opted for a flight 2 hours later, although strangely enough there was a flight going 15 minutes later that people were still 'checking in' for! Air Asia has won the best global budget airline award for the last 2 years and we experienced why this was. Modern aircraft, basic no frills service and strategies based on reducing costs (automated checkin etc.) to keep flight prices down.

Posted by NicChris 05:51 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Singapore

A Fusion of Asia!

semi-overcast 33 °C

We arrived in Singapore late afternoon on Monday and travelled from the airport via a very clean tube system into the city.We found our way to Clarkes Quay tube station and then walked to the apartment block where Phil, Nicole, Katelyn & Jon live. Nicole and Nic first met at a teacher training course and then met again on a flight to Zurich. Chris used to play footy with Phil in Zurich before Phil and Nicole relocated to Singapore with Phil's job. Nicole and Phil had very kindly invited us to stay with them at their lovely apartment whilst we were in Singapore. That evening we enjoyed a takeaway, with Phil showing Chris the local Hawker food stalls on the edge of Singapore's famous China Town. There were dozens of stalls to choose from and the place was absolutely packed with locals. There was so much going on here that you could easily just sit and watch. Interestingly the stall owners preferred trying to tell Phil and Chris what they were to order, rather than Phil and Chris make selections.Phil had seen it all before and insisted on what we wanted. From Phil and Nicole's 7th floor apartment, we had great skyline views of the city by night and we were given an overview of the key areas/landmarks.
The next day we walked down the Singapore riverbanks from the apartment, passing the modern restaurants, bars and clubs on Clarkes Quay which are in former warehouses from the days the river was used as a trading hub. Further down the river we passed the oldest bridge across the river - which had several groups of kids on school trips congregating around it with teachers informing the children of the importance of the bridge for the success of the port in years gone bye. We saw the Merlion statue that was created in the 1960's as a tourist attraction and the creature appears to be a combination of lion and fish. We enjoyed walking through Esplanade Park to the 'Singapore Flyer' - Singapore's 'big wheel'. Opposite we could now see much closer 'Marina Bay Sands', two tower blocks that appear to have a huge ship balanced across the top of them. The building was finished recently and was different to any other tower blocks we had seen before. It's clearly bizarre and could even appear to some as a little tacky, however we found it slightly intriguing and liked the innovation of it's design - much better than just another boring tower block or blocks. Apparently it's possible to go up the towers and walk over 'the boat' at the top, which hangs over the tower tops for great views.
We made our way to Raffles Hotel, home of 'The Singapore Sling' cocktail and took a look around the posh interior, deciding against a cocktail as it was a little too early in the day to start drinking! Next we enjoyed lunch in a food hall that had many vendors selling a huge variety of dishes, each displaying an 'A', 'B', 'C' or 'D' based on how the local inspectors had judged the hygeine of each kitchen to be, with 'A' being the best. In the afternoon we walked to the 'Little India' area of the city and experienced the shops and stalls selling a huge variety of products, the majorty being gold jewellery and clothing/footwear. Food stalls and restaurants lined several streets creating spicey dishes and the area was packed with customers. We visited the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in the middle of Little India which was busy with locals worshipping 'the goddess Kali'. After a long day of walking around the city in very humid weather, we took the strain off our feet by taking the tube to China Town. As we walked around we couldn't help but feel a little confused - from being in 'India' and then 'China' within minutes and actually being in Singapore! The city also has an Arab quarter that we never made it to, however we heard good reports of this area of the city as well. We got back to Phil & Nicole's apartment in the early evening and took advantage of the swimming pool within their complex to cool down. After 4 months of travel we realised that this was only the second time that we have relaxed in/by a swimming pool, such has been our hectic travels - this will surely increase over the next weeks as we travel S.E. Asia. In the evening we returned to Little India and although it had been colourful in the day, it was even brighter and livelier at night and a great place to enjoy a curry!
The next day we visited the Singapore museum and learned about the history of the city from the exhibits and the interactive audio guides that we were given. After the museum we walked down Orchard Road - the main shopping street that covers everything from lower priced department malls to top end brands in modern glitzy buildings. In the evening we went out with Phil, Nicole, Kev and Anouk, all of whom have moved from Zurich to Singapore and had a lovely evening on a Hawker stall street in China Town - finding out about their new lives in Singapore and receiving tips on where we should go on our travels around South East Asia. Thank you very much Nicole, Phil, Kately and Jon for having us, we had a fantastic time in Singapore!

Posted by NicChris 05:39 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Perth & Surrounding West Coast

So much to see & do, so little time!

sunny 23 °C

On our flight from Alice Springs to Perth we flew over Uluru/Ayers Rock and got one last glimpse with a birdseye view. On our arrival in Perth it was very hot and sunny as we made our way from the airport into the city and then out on a train to Rockingham, where we had arranged to pick up our campervan for the week. We drove South towards Margaret River but as darkness fell (and flies were hitting the windscreen so frequently it sounded like rain!) we decided to stop in Busselton, a popular seaside holiday resort. The next morning we continued to Margaret River and took a walk around the quaint shops on the main street, mostly targeting tourists (souveneirs, fudge & ice cream, cafes, bars and restaurants). As well as tourism, the Margaret River region is famous for wine making, with its climate being ideal for year round wine production and we saw many winerys in the area. We drove to the coast to Prevelly beach and walked along a series of boardwalks through sand dunes with many tropical plants growing in them and saw several locals taking a dip in the sea.
We drove South along a scenic coastal route through a Karri forest as far as Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, the point where the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean meet.
In the evening we saw Margaret River beer gardens fill with tourists and holidaymakers in the evening sunshine.

The next day we awoke to see the weather had turned and we drove North towards Perth in rain. We had decided to take the ferry to Penguin Island to go 'Rolf Harris spotting' and as we boarded for the short crossing the weather started to improve with the rain having stopped. We enjoyed watching rescued penguins being fed at the sanctuary before taking a walk around the island, along a beach and over the cliffs. We had heard that there were three sea lions on the island earlier in the day but we didn't spot them on our walk. Just as we were about to leave we were informed by a guide that the sealions were in a series of caves close by. We dashed over hoping to get a glimpse. Nic cut across the beach and spotted a sea lion in a cave and with camera at the ready she was about to take some pictures, when she heard Chris shout "Nic!". Chris had cut across the cliff and seen that as Nic had spotted the sea lion in the cave, another sea lion which had been hidden in the undergrowth (Nic had passed) had bounded out right behind Nic. As Nic turned, she saw just how close this big sea lion was to her and that it had cut her off from her land exit route. After a quick curve around the sea lion and a little paddling in the waves Nic escaped and we were able to take some pictures of the sea lion on the beach, before running back to make the ferry back to the mainland. We didn't spot Rolf Harris, but Penguins and a couple of Sea Lions made the trip well worthwhile.

Once back on the mainland we drove to Fremantle, a port city just 19km Southwest of Perth and took a walk around. We found Fremantle to be a relaxed town with many boutiques / independent businesses and the people here dressed in a wide variety of fashions. We visited several art galleries seeking an Aboriginal canvas to export back to the UK and saw a couple that we liked.

The next morning we left Fremantle and decided to explore Perth city centre. We completed a walking tour around the city, taking in the Western Australia Art Gallery, major buildings, city park, the bell tower, the river banks and then we walked to the biggest city centre park in the world called Kings Park. Here we walked through some excellent gardens and around a tree-top raised boardwalk that provided great views of the park and the city. We liked what we saw of Perth city centre having found it to be modern, clean and big enough to know that you are in a city, but not too big a city to be able to walk around.

We decided to head North up the tourist sunset coastal road in search of a campsite for the evening. We drove through Scarborough while the sun turned pink with the falling sun but we couldn't find a campsite there. Despite stopping along the coast several times and asking locals, we could not find a campsite anywhere nearby - this was the first time that we had experienced this problem in Australia. We arrived at a town called Jondaloop - an area surrounded by modern housing estates containing lots of huge mansions. We found the local campsite on the coast at Jondaloop but it was full, so we decided to make our way into the town centre. It was Thursday night and late night shopping was in full swing at a huge shopping mall. Here we enjoyed a bite to eat at the busy foodhall before making our way back to the campervan. We chose a residential street close to the centre where overnight parking looked to be an option for us and decided to park and sleep there for the night.

The next morning we drove up the coast towards Jurien Bay. We stopped on route to see 'the Pinnacles' - limestone rock formations that stand on sandy desert with a 4km path circling between the rocks, very bizarre to see! On our arrival in Jurien Bay we popped in to the sky dive office where we were booked in for 7am the next morning. Here we watched videos of some of their sky diving and the owner informed us that he was looking forward to 'getting hammered' that evening (knowing that we were booked in at 7am - funny sense of humour these Aussies....)
We decided to have a barbie as our 'last meal ....' (before our scheduled skydives) and enjoyed the early evening sun. We popped to the local pub in an effort to calm the nerves and spoke to the barmaid about sky diving. She had been a few weeks earlier and although she had enjoyed it overall, she informed us that she struggled to breath at 14,000ft. This wasn't what Chris was wanting to hear! After a sleepless night in the campervan we arrived at the sky diving centre at 7am. Nic was ready for her debut skydive, but Chris was feeling sick at the thought of it. Nic met her sky dive instructor Dan, informed him that she was "his new best friend" and after no training (and only a tandem vest brace provided) Nic boarded the plane. On boarding Nic greeted the pilot with "hello Mr.Nice Pilot" and off they went. Dan showed Nic the altitude monitor that was strapped to his arm at 7,000 feet - and informed her that they were "half way up to the drop height" and on looking out of the window Nic couldn't believe that they were only half way as already the earth looked a very long way away. As the plane climbed Dan strapped Nic's vest to his and Nic then spent a few minutes moving around to check for herself that she was indeed fully attached. A few minutes later Dan informed Nic that they were at 14,000 and that he was about to open the door at which point there would be a strong gust of wind. The pilot informed Dan that it was 30 knots outside and Nic wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not, as Dan replied, "REALLY"...and a silent pause before the pilot said, "OK" and Dan opened the airplane door! After the door opened Nic was asked to swing her feet out onto the step and having been told not to grab Dan's arms at all (he needed them for the operation of the parachute) - arms crossed across her chest Nic looked down out of the plane, Dan pulled Nic's head backwards so that she looked upwards as they exited the plane and out of the plane they went. Nic describes her 60 seconds freefall as not feeling like you are falling at all, more like you are flying and that she remembers if feeling extremely windy. The parachute opened and Dan guided them over the coastline, offering Nic a go of the reigns - which she politely declined and they headed down to the flag on the beach where they landed exactly to plan, with Nic's first words being "I'm a Skydiver!"

After Nic's early morning sky dive experience we drove North and spent the afternoon in Fremantle. We had decided to purchase one of the pieces of Aboriginal art that we had seen should it still be available, however of course it had been sold a day earlier! The owner of the gallery took our details and contacted the painter to see if he would do a very similar piece for us that we could purchase via photographs on the internet, so we may yet get the Australia souvenir we wanted.

The next morning we drove to Rockingham and took a short Sunday morning walk down the beach that was busy with locals enjoying swimming and sunbathing. Afterwards we returned our campervan and took the train back into the centre of Perth. Our hostel in Perth had previously won awards for it's high standards and it was indeed very nicely decorated, albeit it was situated in Northbridge - an area of the city that we had been warned against, but we needed a central hostel so that we could get to the airport the next morning. We had walked passed a large Octoberfest event on our way to the hostel, so having checked in we decided to go and try and enjoy a few German beers, however unfortunately tickets had sold out for the Octoberfest. We walked around the bars and restaurants in the lively Northbridge area and passed a 'testosterone bar' that was full of lads that looked like they wanted to fight. We continued and found an Irish bar with 'backpacker offers on beer' and enjoyed a couple of pints whilst 'people watching' the locals who were having a lively Sunday evening! After a bite to eat nearby we started to make our way past the earlier mentioned 'testosterone bar', to see pockets of fighting in the group of drinkers outside it. Next minute a mass brawl broke out with what looked to be everyone in the bar joining in. It spilled out into the street and into another bar across the road, with police sirens following.... ah ha, so this is why we were warned against staying in Northbridge!

Despite this being the last we saw of Perth, overall we really enjoyed our time in and around the city centre and Fremantle and would have liked a little more time on the West coast to explore further.

Posted by NicChris 22:49 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

The Green Desert

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We arrived at Alice Springs airport and went to pick up our hire car, however we were greeted with bad news that following heavy rainfall the previous day the sealed roads to Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon were both closed due to flooding. This was a major blow to us, as we had booked our hire car for the purpose of visiting these landmarks. Good news quickly followed, that the road to Ayers Rock had been re-opened to all vehicles so we set off in our two wheel drive car. Our first destination was Alice Springs supermarket, to stock up on drinking water and supplies incase we got stranded on a deserted road! In the terms of our hire car insurance we were not insured to drive between dusk and dawn due to Kangaroo's - so we needed to hit the road asap to make it to Uluru/Ayers Rock before darkness and in time to see sunset. An hour and a half into our jouney we halted with deep water blocking the road. A similar sized two wheel drive car to ours was stranded having not been able to make it through, not only was the engine flooded but the inside of the car had also filled with flood water. A van had also conked out having made it through due to water in the engine. Another condition in our car hire insurance was that any water damage to the car was to be covered by the hirer. Four wheel drives were making it through ok, but we simply couldn't risk it. So we retreated and spent a couple of hours at 'Jim's Place' (Stuarts Well) a remote roadside cafe and met Jim. Jim is a wellknown outback character who along with his dad built the first road to Kings Canyon. Jim was enjoying a Saturday afternoon beer on his bar verander and he reckoned our best bet was to go back to the flooded road and try to get a four wheel drive to tow us through the flood. After a couple of hours we heard that the flood water was reducing so we went back to the flooded stretch of road and went for it! We made it through and we were on our way once again, albeit behind schedule. Due to the lost time, we could not make it to Ayers Rock in daylight and stopped at the remote outback service station 'Mount Ebeneezer'. Here there was a petrol pump, a building that combined a shop, pub/restaurant that also included an Aboriginal art workshop and gallery and an area to camp around the back. No hostel, motel or hotel though - so we were going to have to spend the night in the car! After a few drinks in the outback pub that had a few locals and a couple of other campervan travellers, the pub closed at 9pm (Friday night!) and we headed out to our car. We experienced first hand how cold it can get overnight in the desert, waking up absolutely frozen despite having as many layers on as we had available. We saw sunrise at 5:45am and couldn't wait any longer to get back on the road, if for no other reason than to get the car heater on!
On route we passed Mount Connel, the outback's most photographed red herring as it is a large mesa (table top mountain) that on first sighting many travellers mistake for Uluru/Ayers Rock. We arrived at Yularu/Ayers Rock Resort around 8am and decided to firstly book a bed to stay that night. We had read that prices of accomodation, food and drink here were extortionate due to the remote location and lack of competition, basically - they have got tourists where they want them! We checked into the cheapest option - a mixed dormitory, however it only had 2 bunk beds so we would only have to share with two others. Having got our beds for the night secured we headed off to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to go and see 'the rock'. The first sighting of Uluru/Ayers Rock is amazing as it's imposing and unusual shape appears in the landscape and as you get closer you can see just how immense it is. The sandy terracotta colour shined in the sunlight, along with shiny black tar-like stains where rainwater streams had run down it. We attempted the base walk around the rock but could not complete the full loop around the rock as the path and surrounding area had flooded. Despite the requests from Aboriginal people not to climb the rock, many tourists could be seen making the steep ascent. After visiting the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, we drove 35 km West within the national park to the start of a 7.4KM, 2.5 hours loop walk called 'Valley of the Winds' which is at Kata Tjuta and 'The Olgas' (36 dome shaped rocks). These huge rocks stand side by side and we enjoyed walking through the valleys and steep sided gorges. Albeit Uluru is more famous, this walk was actually more enjoyable as the track was more challenging and we were rewarded for our efforts with fantastic views.
After our walk we drove back to Uluru to the sunset viewing area, that was packed with other tourists also waiting to see sunset at Ayers Rock. After the sun went down we drove back to the resort, had dinner and shattered from our long day and poor nights sleep in the car the previous night went to bed. There was only ourselves in our dormitory so we slept through, until 5am when we were up again and out to the sunrise viewing area at Ayers Rock. Again, packed with tourists wanting to experience a sunrise at this remote world famous landmark and to take photographs home with them.
As soon as the sun was up, we hit the road to Kings Canyon (which had re-opened the day before as the flood levels reduced), drove through a deep flood water sand bank that had been cleared wide enough to let one vehicle pass and arrived here in the Watarrka National Park before 9:30. Unfortunately as we had to get back to Alice Springs before dusk, we did not have time to complete the Canyon rim walk and had to settle instead by completing the shorter creek walk which follows a rocky river bed to a viewing platform with great views of the towering canyon rim. Kings Canyon resort was even smaller than Ayers Rock and we had no choice but to go to the one cafe available for a bite to eat before driving back to Alice Springs.
Before arriving in the outback we had heard that the desert in this region was unusually green at present due to unprescedented rain, albeit it was still a shock to see just how green. All images in our minds of Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon, The Flying Doctors etc. we could recall were barren, arid, orange/terracotta land yet we experienced vast areas covered with green trees, bush and plants. We also saw rivers, lakes and floods and it resulted in us feeling like we were not actually in the desert at all. There had been signs at the cultural centre informing that in the first four months of 2010, three times as much rain had fallen as in the whole of 2009! Based on the recent floods that we encountered, 2010 is clearly going to be one wet year for this area!
We arrived back in Alice Springs and took a quick look around the town centre in the early evening. Having wandered around several Aboriginal art galleries and encountered many street seller artists we then headed off to find a hostel for the night.

Posted by NicChris 00:54 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Adelaide

Catching up with old friend!

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Kathryn very kindly cooked us a lovely dinner and the evening was spent with old friends Nic and Kathryn catching up and recalling funny stories from their college years.
The next morning we headed straight into the heart of the city and wandered around the main shopping streets around Rundle Mall before taking a look around the South Australia Museum. In the evening we went out for dinner to a Nepalese restaurant with Kathryn and her Aussie boyfriend Asher and had a lovely time. The next day we went to 'Central Market' which had a fantastic array of foods and goods on offer, a market that has clearly made a lot of effort to keep up with modern times and was being rewarded by loyal customers. It was hard to leave without eating anything but it was early morning and we had to make our way out of the City to the seaside resort of Glenelg. A forty minute tram journey brought us to Glenelg, where we walked along the pier and watched a local, who was wading waist deep in the waves with a sand scoop and metal detector. Glenelg is Adelaide's version of Melbourne's St Kilda, and it was similar in terms of being full of cafes, bars and restaurants albeit it was not quite as funky.
We found Adelaide to be the most 'British' of cities we have visited in Australia, with similar architecture, transport and shopping streets.
Thank you very much for having us Kathryn, we had a great time!

Posted by NicChris 00:52 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Great Ocean Drive

The long and winding road!

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On Sunday we picked up our hire car from Melbourne and set off in the direction of Adelaide, via the Great Ocean Rd. We enjoyed a day of bright sunshine and made brief stops at Torquay (famous for surfing and the brand 'Ripcurl'), Anglesea and the 'Spit Point Lighthouse' (used in the Kids TV program 'Round the Twist', and the holiday towns of Lorne and Apollo Bay. We made our way to the Port Campbell National Park, firstly to the 'Gibson Steps' and then to 'the Twelve Apostles' (although only 6 rock stacks remain as the erosion that formed them in the first place continued and demolished them) in time for sunset. We stayed overnight in Port Campbell at a brand new hostel that was close to the town's busy and welcoming pub. The next day we continued our drive making stops at 'The Arch', 'London Bridge' and 'The Grotto' - coastal rock formations that have resulted from erosion of the coastline. We stopped for lunch in Warrnambool before continuing our drive and arriving at the seaside town of Robe where we stayed in an 1885 sandstone mansion that had been converted into a hostel. Although the building was full of character, it was in need of internal modernisation and pest control, as we awoke to the sound of a cricket bouncing off the wall next to the bed!
On Tuesday we drove to Adelaide, stopping on the outskirts of the city at Hahndorf on route. Hahndorf is Australia's oldest surviving Geramn settlement (1839) and is a very pretty town with shops that focus on supplying tourists with 'ye olde worlde' souvenirs, in particular art and crafts. Cafe's, bars and restaurants offer German foods such as Bratwursts as well as wider tourist favourites such as ice creams, fudges, chocolates and sweets.
We then drove to Mount Lofty in the Adelaide Hills to a lookout with views over the city of Adelaide. Making the most of the last hour with the car we drove out to the historic Port of Adelaide where many new developments are in progress before returning our hire car in the city. With our backpacks on once again we took a bus to the Parkside area of the city to the home of Kathryn, a friend of Nic's from college who moved out to Australia four years ago.

Posted by NicChris 00:50 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Melbourne

Best city in OZ (so far)!

sunny

From Melbourne airport we made our way into the city centre and after brief glimpse of the CBD we headed South to a suburb called Caulfield (famous for the horse racing course). Jacinta, a teacher who Nic worked with in Switzerland is from Melbourne and she had kindly arranged with her brother, Chris (nicknamed by his mates 'Compost' as he's a muscular chap who eats a lot) and his partner Ania for us to stay with them in their Victorian Melbourne home. We also met Subi and Diesel their friendly Burmen house cats.

The next day the sun was shining so we made our way on the tram to St Kilda, a seaside resort with many cafes, bars and restaurants. We enjoyed brunch and then took a walk down the pier which offered great views of the city. We walked through Luna Park fair ground and then perused the cake shops for which St.Kilda is famous for and we were forced to purchase a big cake from one of them... local rules! Having enjoyed St. Kilda we made our way into Melbourne city centre and took ourseleves on a walking tour of the city recommended in Lonely planet that gave us a great overview of the CBD.

The next day we made our way out of the city deep in the suburbs in search of 'Pin Oak Crescent' - better known to many as 'Ramsey Street', the home of Aussie soap 'Neighbours'. The cul-de-sac is much smaller in real life than it appears on TV. There wasn't any filming taking place when we were there so the street was open to the public and there were several other tourists taking pictures and a school trip arrived. Security patrols the street and informs visitors not to take pictures of the residents, but other than that we were free to snap away.
After our Neighbours experience we made our way back into the city and took a walk around the sporting complex region which contains the MCG. No cricket was being played, however the Melbourne Marathon finish line was being set-up outside the ground ready for the event on the upcoming Sunday. We then jumped on a free tourist bus and made our way to 'Queen Victoria market', the largest market in the southern hemisphere. After a brief glimpse in an art gallery, cut short as it was closing - we headed to the South Bank area of the city for the first time. The riverside here is lined with high rise recent developments, with trendy metropolitan bars and restaurants at the bases which were packed with office workers who were starting their weekends with Friday afterwork drinks. We made our way to the Sky Tower and took a lift to the 88th floor to the Sky Deck, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. The panoramic views were fantstic and we enjoyed watching the city change from bright evening sunshine to sunset.

We spent Saturday enjoying a walk through Melbourne, starting with the trendy shops around the Chapel Street area which were lined with brands and busy with young funky customers before moving on to the scenic Botanic Gardens. The weather in Melbourne had been kind to us and it was once again a very sunny day which showed the city and it's attractions in it's best light. We walked into the centre of town and visited two Art Galleries before finishing up by taking a look at the huge Casino on the South Bank which was already packed with gamblers on around the casino tables. On our way back to Chris and Ania's home in Caulfield we passed hordes of punters that were leaving the racecourse. We had passed the racecourse on our way into town earlier in the day and seen smartly dressed blokes and ladies dressed up with hats and all, however after an afternoon at the races in the Melbourne sun, it was clear that many had overdone the 'refreshments' as we saw several women stagger out of the exits, hats all cock-eyed and barefoot with their heels in their hands - it looked like a great afternoon had been had by all!
That evening we went out for dinner in St.Kilda with Chris and Ania, had a lovely evening together and saw St.Kilda's streets, bars and restaurants packed with people enjoying a Saturday night out. We both really really liked what we saw of Melbourne and found it to be a vibrant, modern city with lots going on and we greatly appreciated being able to stay with Chris and Ania who gave us a lot of advice on the city and a lovely home to stay in, thank you very much Chris & Ania.

Posted by NicChris 00:47 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

New Zealand - South Island (Part Five)

all seasons in one day 18 °C

We drove North along the East coast of the South island to Kaikoura, a thriving little seaside town. We took an instant like to Kaikoura, it's houses and streets were quaint and well kept, it's picturesque coastal setting with mountainous backdrop and it's shops, cafe's, restaurants and bars appeared busy and to have potential. We decided to spend our afternoon completing a nearby cliff-top coastal walk as the weather was sunny and warm. On our exit from the car park, we could immediately see seals and their pups resting on the rocks. As the tide was out we were able to walk along the rocks and get closer to the seals. Instead of taking our planned cliff top walk, we continued to walk along the base of the cliffs along the rocks that were exposed due to the low tide. The further we walked, the more seals we saw, with some rock islands covered in large numbers of resting seals. We managed to make our way along the coast of the peninsula, jumping from rock to rock during low tide and climb our way back up to the cliff top path to return. It was a fantastic walk, so much so that Nic declared it her favourite walk ever! In the evening we walked into the town, with high hopes for a decent Friday night. However, the Friday night in Kaikoura that we experienced had to be put down to it being early Spring and still out of season. The open mic night in the first bar we entered consisted of one band that were'nt the best and unfortunately there we no other acts to challenge them. The highlights of the evening consisted of a game of pool and an amusing T-Shirt slogan, worn by a hugely overweight kiwi. He wasn't even that tall but he was so wide and round that you had to see him to believe. Clearly he was proud of it - as his T-Shirt slogan read: "I am in shape, ROUND IS A SHAPE".
The next day we took advantage of the warm, sunny weather in Kaikoura before in the early evening driving along a very scenic route to Hanmer Springs. Hanmer Springs is famous for it's natural thermal water springs and surrounding mountains. We walked into the town and it's bars and restaurants were busy and enjoyed a couple of drinks. We awoke on the Sunday morning to rain pelting our campervan. Undeterred we continued with our plans for a walk in Hanmer Forest and spent a couple of hours climbing a route of walkways to the top of a mountain to a lookout point surrounded by exotic forest trees.
On Monday we completed another scenic walk before going to the famous Hanmer Springs and relaxing in their natural thermal pools. We had hoped that this famous attraction would be quieter on a weekday, however we didn't know until we got there that it was the first day of the Spring school holidays, so the centre was still very busy. Nontheless we enjoyed relaxing in the hot pools in bright sunshine before continuing on our journey, this time back towards Christchurch. We drove along the Christchurch peninsula to a place called Akaroa where our campsite overlooked the harbour town from a vantage point on the hillside. The clocks had gone forward by an hour the night before and for the first time in New Zealand we experienced a longer evening in terms of daylight. This town was settled by the French in 1840 and still has "rue's" in the street namings. It was very picturesque with quaint restaurants and shops, once again a resort that clearly relies on tourism in the Summer months and was out of season and very quiet during our visit.
On Tuesday we drove to Littleton and saw close up many examples of the damage to buildings caused by the earthquake a couple of weeks earlier, with older buildings being cordoned off and visible cracks and damage. All buildings had been inspected by local authorities and displayed a window sticker that stated whether or not the building was safe for use or not. Many businesses were still closed as the inspections had declared their buildings unfit for use, including the main supermarket in the town. In the afternoon we drove to Spencerville, enjoyed a walk along the sand dunes on the coast and spent the last night of thirty four in our campervan.
On Wednesday we returned our campervan in Christchurch and checked into our hostel in the city. Water & power had been restored to the area where our hostel was, however on walking into the centre we saw that many roads and buildings were still cordoned off. We saw demolition sites where older buildings that had suffered extensive damage during the quake had already been flattened. The city was trying to get back to normal and buildings that had been passed for usage were open and trading. The cathedral, main museum and art gallery had escpaed from major damage. In the museum an old dolls house exhibit has been left in the state that resulted from the earthquake and it's contents had been thrown all over. Early on Thursday morning whilst Chris was watching Champions league football the hostel shook for several seconds as Christchurch was hit by yet another after-shock, albeit on a much smaller scale than the recent big earthquake. We enjoyed sunny weather whilst we were in Christchurch and walked and cycled around the colourful and excellently maintained botanic gardens and city parks.
On Saturday morning we took an Air New Zealand flight from Christchurch to Aukland. The short flight was brightened up by the amusing safety video that the airline had created with the All Blacks starring in it. Instead of the usual standard dull safety message they had brightened it up with a number of jokes and amusing footage, which included an elderly lady streaking through the plane to show her appreciation of the All Blacks rugby team. Another example that laid back Kiwi's don't take life too seriously. Coincidentally we had the Canterbury rugby team on our plane as they were playing Auckland that afternoon. Thankfully there were no old ladies streaking on our plane, although passengers did sing happy birthday to the physio of the Canterbury rugby team.
Auckland is New Zealand's largest city and for the first time in New Zealand, we felt like we were in a city. There has been massive development here over the last 5 years as the city has built on having hosted the America's Cup and is now developing further in preparation to stage the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Auckland has 48 dead volcanoes, a population of 1.3 million (the whole of NZ is 4 million), the largest polynesian population in the world and more boats per capita than any other city. Kiwi's call it their 'baby Sydney' and with the harbour, it's bridge and high rise CBD it certainly has several similarities!
We enjoyed a free harbour cruise on a 75 year old tug boat that the local council and volunteers maintain to promote Auckland tourism and inform tourists of the history of the port and city. We went around the port, underneath the bridge where the bungy jumpers were leaping from. On Saturday night we enjoyed a couple of drinks down at the busy 'Viaduct' area of the city, with live music and packed bars and streets.
On Sunday we walked to the museum which is set in garden/park grounds which had a variety of exhibitions, including Maori however the highlight was an excellent area all about Volcanic activity of the years up until present day. We entered a room that was set-up like a home lounge and watched footage of a volcanic emergency as the room literally shook with simulated earthquakes. Also within the volcanic exhibit were touch screens providing information on the latest earthquakes that had been registered on North & South islands, something we read with interest having felt some of the after-shocks a couple of days earlier in Christchurch. After the museum we walked into the city through a couple of parks and along the main shopping street in warm sunny weather.
On Monday we took a ferry to the beautiful Waiheke.island on a hot sunny day. We walked from the ferry port to the small town of Oneroa, along Oneroa beach, then up and around Newton reserve to Hekerua Bay which had stunning coastal views which we enjoyed whilst having our picnic lunch. With our 'warm up' complete we then crossed the island via several 'tramping' routes and arrived at an esplanade at 'Blackpool beach' in Huruhi bay. Very different to the English Blackpool beach, we enjoyed a leisurely traffic free walk down the beach passing expensive looking sea view homes, coastal wildlife and a Mauri reserve. We found another pathway that took us uphill and inland to the summit of the island, from where we had a fantastic view of Auckland city in the distance - with sky tower standing out above the rest of the city. From here we took a country lane like road and arrived at Mudbrick vineyard. This small, local winery set on the hillside also has a posh and expensive glass fronted restaurant with views over the islands coastline to Auckland city. It also has beautifully maintained gardens and an outdoor bar area. We enjoyed our wine tasting and a short break from walking as we sat and relaxed in the outdoor sofas before walking a short distance to their neighbours, 'Cable Bay vineyard' which is a larger, more modern winery and although the wine was very nice, it could not match their stylish neighbours for views and scenery. After a lovely day on Waiheke island we took a ferry back to Auckland in the early evening sun.

Posted by NicChris 00:03 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

New Zealand - South Island (Part Four)

New SEALand

all seasons in one day 11 °C

Thankfully the roads to Dunedin were open and clear of snow. As we drove the news on the radio was informing of further building roofs in the Invercargill area having collapsed under the weight of the snow. It was now being reported as "the worst storms to hit the country since the 70's!" and the civil defence had closed the whole town down. The next morning we woke, still happy to have escaped from the snow related problems we had experienced in Invercargill and set off to explore the city of Dunedin. Dunedin is New Zealand's fourth largest city, a University city with a fifth of the population made up of students. Settled by Scot's back in 1848, the city has more historic buildings than other NZ cities we have visited. With it being settled by Scots we were convinced it was pronounounced 'Dun E Din', making similarities with Scotlands Dundee, however after some baffled looks from locals we found out it's actually 'Dun Edin'. There is still a kilt shop in Dunedin, however English folk - don't be put off, there's also a brewery (Speights), chocolate factory (Cadbury's), the World's steepest street, proximity to fantastic coastal scenery and wildlife including Albatross, Seals, Penguins, Sea Lions and much more.
We popped into museums, art galleries and shops and in late afternoon we walked out of the city centre in search of 'the steepest street in the world', Baldwin street. We had been told by a Kiwi at our campsite that somewhere in America had also claimed to have the steepest street and the Guinness book of records had sent out inspectors to check. The street in Dunedin was declared by the Guinness book of records as the official steepest street, so apparently the American's re-named their 'street' to a 'road' in order to have the steepest road in the world instead! This got me thinking, wouldn't it be great if NZ had a second street just slightly less steep than the global No.1 that they could re-name to 'road'.......
The lengthy walk to Baldwin street turned out to be a good warm up for us - as on arrival at the base of the street we started to climb it's 270 steps on foot. Hopefully we felt far more achievement than the cheats that were getting out of taxi's at the top! Earlier at the campsite we had been shown photo's of an annual charity event (each July) on the street sponsored by the local Cadbury's chocolate factory whereby locals purchase small numbered chocolate balls that are released from the top and the first chocolates to reach the bottom win prizes, shame we missed that one although it does sound like a waste of good chocolate! After having descended the steepest street in the world we walked back into the city and rewarded ourselves with a pint in a lovely warm bar. We moved onto a small Irish bar, where Chris was able to watch the weekend English Premier league highlights, 'happy days!' During the course of the evening we got talking to three other travellers, a Spanish bloke from Madrid, a French girl from Paris and a Danish girl from somewhere 'not called Copenhagen' in Denmark who had all met whilst travelling through NZ, and we spent a very pleasant evening exchanging views and experiences on our travels so far and future plans.

The next day we explored the Otago Peninsula, which is said to have some of the finest views of the Southern coastline and has renowned ecotourism attractions including several wildlife centres. We headed for the Royal Albatross Centre and watched a film about the local Albatross breed, learning about the local colony and the wider threats to the species from global long line fishing in particular. Unfortunately the timing of our visit was not the best in the year to spot Albatross, so we decided against the 'Albatross tour' and drove to the nearby 'Natures Wonders' reserve, which is a privately owned farm on the forefront of the Otago Peninsula headland that has been turned into a conservation area. We were 'fashioned up' NZ style with 'Natures Wonders' green waterproof macs before we boarded our '8 wheel drive' all terrain vehicle, called "Argo" which we were informed have been imported from Canada where they are used for rescues on ice - apparently they float on water....if the ice breaks!.

The tour started with an ascent to the top of the local headland peak, which provided us with fantastic panoramic views of the peninsula headland area despite the gale force winds that were battering against us. We then descended in the lively Argo to a viewing area, much more sheltered from the winds where we could see a breeding colony of Coromorant birds (also known as 'Spotted Shag' birds) nestled on a rugged cliff face rising from the crashing Pacific Ocean waves below. Also, on the rocks below were our first sightings of New Zealand Fur Seals and their pups. We then walked down to a fur seal viewing area, walking a path that had fur seals and their pups right next to us and they hardly acknowledged our presence. We took many photo's, in particular of one star seal that seemed to enjoy having his photo taken. It was fantastic to see the seals in their natural habitat! We moved on to a purpose built hide at 'Penguin beach', where we spotted a couple of the rare and shy 'Yellow Eyed Penguins' in the distance on the cliff face and then were able to get closer to 'Little Blue Penguins' (smallest penguins in the world) in their nests. The tour was a truly fantastic experience and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. The conservation area has been well organised, with excellent hides and a beach that humans have not set foot on for the last eleven years - which has made it an attractive and safe place for the wildlife to breed and return to.

We drove back towards Dunedin along the very scenic coastal road of the peninsula before saying goodbye to Dunedin and continuing North. We stopped at the Moeraki Boulders. These are spherical boulder formations, some of which are upto 4 metres in circumference that are scattered along the beach at Moeraki and best seen at low tide. These boulders were impressively immense and perfectly spherical. Chris is convinced that they were previously Dinosaurs footballs!

We drove on to Oamaru and arrived early evening which turned out to be perfect timing. Oamaru harbour is home to hundreds of Blue Penguins that waddle ashore at dusk each evening. We made our way to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, a natural nesting area for the world's smallest penguin species and took our seats in the grandstand seating that enables views of the floodlit (with an orange lighting that the Penguins cannot see) path that these penguins take each evening. We witnessed several 'rafts' of Penguins swimming ashore and waddling up the rocks and noisly make their way to their nests, with over 130 being counted entering the nesting area before we left. No photographs or videos are allowed inside the colony, however we came across several penguins that had chosen not to nest inside the colony on our way back to the campervan and a couple just so happened to waddle into our photographs!

The next morning we walked around the town centre and popped into the visitor centre and watched a video that informed us of the history of the town. The town had previously grown and thrived on shipping from it's port, with buildings crafted from local limestone (Oamaru Whitestone). Stone buildings of this age are unusual in NZ, with wood being the building material choice in other areas, however Oamaru did not have any forests or trees, but it did have limestone and used it to great effect. The town continued to grow until vessels increased in size and the port was quickly deemed no longer large enough and the town went into rapid decline. The town was left with the highest debt in the whole of New Zealand after expansions had been mortgaged before the slump. Many of the fine Oamaru stone buildings have survived and can be seen in the historic quarter. The town centre now appears all these years later to have made itself viable via other industries, and like the rest of NZ, Tourism being it's No.1 source.

Having driven North we arrived in Timaru in the early afternoon and went for a walk around the scenic coastline and beach, in what was once again a warm sunshine Spring day, a stark contrast to the Winter weather we had experienced for the previous week. Timaru is home to Caroline Bay, a very popular beach with holidaymakers. After a short walk around the town centre shops and having seen many buildings with Edwardian architecture we decided to continue our road trip.

On Thursday morning we woke to fantastic lakeside and mountain views in bright sunshine at Lake Tekapo and decided to take advantage of the weather and local scenery. We started to make our way up a walking track to the summit of 'Mount John', but we were prevented from reaching the top by a steep icy path that was unpassable. At the base of our walking trail we had passed an outdoor spa pool centre and an ice skating rink both of which had stunning mountain views and were already busy with customers. We continued to walk down the lakeside enjoying the snow topped mountains and bright blue waters of the lake that looked superb in the morning sun. This area reminded us both of Swiss mountain/lake landscapes we have enjoyed so much in recent years. After our walk we drove to Lake Pukaki to a view point of New Zealand's highest mountain, Mount Cook. It was a clear sunny day and the views were spectacular. In the afternoon we drove along the inland scenic tourist route and enjoyed further mountain and rural views. We continued North in the direction of Christchurch and made our way around the City to the North, arriving early evening in Amberley on the coast.

Posted by NicChris 22:51 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

New Zealand - South Island (Part Three)

4x4 To The Rescue!

all seasons in one day

We arrived back in Te Anau and decided to stay there for the night. We had been given vouchers for the much recommended Fiordland film created by a helicopter pilot over a period of 6 years and which showed highlights of the area across all 4 seasons. Having enjoyed the film we were inspired to do some walking the next morning on the Keppler track. On setting out for our walk we were fashioned up in full waterproofs as it was sleet/raining. Much of the walk that we did was through forest and it protected us from the worst of the weather. The scenery was fantastic and we only met one other person on the track, a Scottish bloke complaining about the weather.

In the afternoon we drove from Te Anau to Invercargill (the Southernmost town) and chose a farm based campsite. The farm had a 4 week old pet lamb and Nic was able to feed it in the evening along with some other campers. As we approached the field, the farmer called the lamb over and it bolted from the rest of the lambs and sheep straight over to us - in the same way a pet dog would respond to it's owner. 'Lamby' guzzled it's bottle and was petted by all. As a result, the lamb chops in our campervan fridge were left where they were that evening....
Weather warnings had been issued, with a storm about to batter both North and South islands so with the heater on full we wrapped up and settled in for the night.

The next morning we woke to a covering of snow and treacherous roads. The radio was reporting power lines to be down to thousands of NZ homes and locally in Invercargill the roof of a Supermarket had been blown off and a side wall of the rugby ground had collapsed. Apparently it very rarely snows here, the last time it was this thick it has been in the 90ies. The snow continued to fall as we arrived at the local museum / information centre. The star attraction here being a Tuatarium where 'Henry' a Tuatara that is over 100 years old. Tuatara's are reptile descendants of dinosaurs and exceptionally rare. They are also nocturnal and therefore all we saw was Henry's home. We did see some baby Tuatara's, that looked like little lizards. Then a branch fell off a tree outside under the weight of the snow and the museum announced that it was closing immediately for safety reasons. After some digging the snow out from under the wheels we managed to get our campervan moving and onto the roads that were very slow going. We headed for the nearest campsite and checked in. With snow covering the campsite ground it was impossible to see where the solid parking sites were and we ended up on soft ground and the back wheels of the van sank deeper as they span helplessly in the mud. Well and trully stuck in a rut, with snow still falling - we headed into the town on foot in search of a warm dry pub. On route we stopped at the Invercargill brewery - the Southernmost brewery in the world and sampled several of their products. We were informed by staff in the brewery that the snow had never been this deep before in Invercargill and that the town could not cope, with a complete lack of snow clearance operation. On leaving the brewery we walked down the main street of the town. It was two o clock on Saturday afternoon - the busiest shopping day of the week and we find all shops closed - with signs in their windows 'due to the extreme weather conditions...' etc.
As we approached a roundabout there were several youths having a snowball fight, having already built what appeared to be two snow men. As we got closer we saw that the second snowman, was not what we had initially assumed. It was actuaully a 'snow penis' and a police officer had pulled over and collared the snow sculptors. After some stern words from the police officer, the snow penis was destroyed by the lads who had built it as a small crowd of passers by gathered.
We continued down the main street, with our feet getting soaked every time we had to cross a side street as snow was melting and water flowing heavily. We found an Irish bar that was open and settled by the open fire, shoes and socks off as we dried them out by the fire. After some home cooked Irish stew hotpot and a couple of beers the bar staff informed us that they were closing at 5pm 'for the safety of all patrons'. Thankfully we found another pub open nearby that said it would stay open if people continued to drink there... so we settled in for the evening!
We woke on Sunday morning to even more snowfall. We managed to find a plank of wood and a couple bricks to try and get under the stranded wheels of our van and with a couple of fella's pushing we tried to get the van out of the mud. We failed and in the process the van sunk in a little further. On calling the local tow truck company we were informed that their vehicles could not get out of their depot due to the snow.... that will be the rescue vehicles that are stuck then, great! As the weather improved later in the morning we received an update that the tow van was on it's way. Six hours later and no sign of the tow van, with all sorts of excuses being given!
Chris spotted a big 4x4 in the corner of the campsite and went in search of the owner. The owner turned out to be a top bloke, who was very keen to tow us out and get us underway - saying that he was embarrassed that his fellow kiwi's had failed to help us earlier. His beast of a vehicle pulled us out in no time and we were back on the road and heading to Dunedin.

Posted by NicChris 15:26 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

New Zealand - South Island (Part Two)

NZ keeps getting better....

all seasons in one day 1 °C

On Saturday we left Franz Josef township and continued South. Our first stop on route was nearby Fox Glacier - the second glacier that can be found in South New Zealand. That's two glaciers in the South Pacific in a temperate rainforest, apparently nowhere else in the world outside arctic regions will you find glaciers just 300m above sea level and just 12km from the sea. Just one week earlier a sky dive plane had crashed here killing all nine persons on board, New Zealand's worst air disaster for years and making headline news on the same day as the Christchurch earthquake. With Fox Glacier and Franz Josef townships being small tight knit populations we met some locals that had known the pilot and tandem sky dive instructors on board. The pool competition Chris had entered normally had sky dive prizes, however this had been changed by the bar owners as a mark of respect to their pals who had died. From our brief visit to Fox Glacier township it was clear that it's smaller and much quieter than Franz Josef, albeit just as scenic. However, due to the rainy weather and low cloud we decided to continue our journey South to Wanaka and the mountain and lake scenery on route was once again spectacular. During our overnight stay we found Wanaka to be a very pleasant town, with a good choice of bars and restaurants and a lovely lake surrounded by vast mountains. Whilst we were there we shared the town with many young ski and snowboarders using the town as a base to access the nearby slopes. According to some locals that we met, Wanaka is very similar to how Queenstown was 20 years ago.
After a Sunday morning walk around a small part of Wanaka lake, we continued our journey South towards Queenstown, stopping for lunch at the historic town area of a place called Cromwell - the old town had been demolished, flooded and then recently re-created in it's original design by local volunteers. They've done a good job of the re-building and it looks very authentic. This is yet another town with a lake and fantastic mountain scenery. After lunch outside by the waterside we continued towards Queenstown, stopping briefly to see the late stages of a classic car show.
On our arrival in Queenstown we took an immediate liking to the place. This may have been helped by the sun that was shining on the lakes and mountains, however the way the town has been developed and maintained to such high standards ensured that despite the weather turning during our stay, we left with the same feeling that we had when we arrived, what a fantastic place!
On Monday morning we walked through Queenstown park and gardens which were lovely and along the lakeside path enjoying the stunning views and watching the tourist boats pass by. In the afternoon we decided to climb the Mountain for a combination of exercise and budget reasons (during the hour and a half it took us we did not see anyone else walking up - the cablecar gondola's were however packed). After some deceivingly well placed concrete steps at the lower part of the mountain we ended up following arrows across alpine undergrowth for a trail that was extremely steep and pretty precarious and challenging in parts. We continued our climb and were rewarded with some fantastic views from the summit. New Zealand has been packed with tourist activities and Queenstown was no exception. At the top of the mountain there was a busy luge run being enjoyed by kids and many 'big kids', a helicopter pad for flights over the area, the original 'bungy' platform, paragliders, a new zip wire park, viewing platforms and of course a cafe/restaurant and large souvenir shop next to the cablecar gondola. We also loved Queenstown's traditional bars, with real log fires and architecture full of character, full of locals many of those that we met were also characters and we enjoyed good nights out with live music and playing pool.

We left Queenstown on Wednesday and headed for Milford Sound via Te Anau where we stopped for lunch with a view of the lake in the bright sunshine! To drive to Milford Sound it is compulsory to carry snow chains, luckily we had some stashed in the back of the van. The road to Milford passes through spectacular scenery and we stopped to enjoy some of these and take photo's on route, including 'Mirror Lakes' where we were able to walk along a boardwalk close to the lake and the dramatic scenery behind it.To get to Milford Sound, you have to pass through 'Homer tunnel', which is narrow and unlit, this being difficult enough to navigate but Chris had also forgotten that he still had his sunglasses on when we first entered the tunnel! The tunnel has literaly been chiseled through the moutain rock and apart from the occastional reflectors and passing bays, it was a black hole!
Milford Sound is in the Fiordland National Park and is frequently used as the photograph that Marketing companies use to promote travel to New Zealand. It's 14 nautical miles to the Tasman sea are lined with mountain peaks and wildlife, with the entrance to the Sound apparently so well hidden that Captain Cook sailed passed it when charting the waters 200 years ago.
As we drove to Milford there were roadside signs informing that the road would be closed at 5:30pm. We assumed that the road was closed every night and continued to our planned destination. On arriving in Milford, a remote place with a harbour and one bar/shop, we were informed that the road had been closed due to heavy snowfall being forecast overnight and that it was likely to be closed for the next couple of days..... ah ha - that's going to change our travel plan then! We spent the evening cooking dinner in the lodge, talking to other travellers about their experiences in Milford and the locals about their lives in NZ. Once again the topic of the major fault (which South island is above) was raised and the expectation of a huge earthquake being 'over-due' (according to experts) which will devastate large areas of South island. The Kiwi's we met accept this time bomb as part of their daily life and expect it to happen in their lifetime. Its fair to say that following this conversation and the storm gaining momentum throughout the night...rain, sleet and gales battered against us, swaying and shaking our van which combined with the remote location had Nic waking up concerned that perhaps they didn't need to wait much longer!! Thankfully, surviving the night, the storm nevertheless continued into the next morning and seemed relentless, with the exit road remaining closed. We had a relaxed morning before deciding to brave it and get out for another walk around Milford. Just as we were about to leave the van we were informed that the road would be opened for a convoy to leave Milford together. Having discovered that the weather was forecast to deteriorate even more and the strong possibility that we may be stuck for a couple more days, we decided to join the 15+ vehicles, having been instructed to stay in line and not to stop, the road was opened for us to pass through and then closed again behind us. The gritting machines and snow clearance had been co-ordinated to coincide with the convoy timing and we passed through the steepest and most windy part of the road which would have been treacherous without the special treatment. It's fair to say that we did not see Milford Sound in the best of weather, however we did witness it's fantastic landscapes and the heavy rain filled mountain rivers and waterfalls which cascaded down the huge mountain cliffs and the mist combined with the remoteness of Milford meant that we found it a mystical location and were once again reminded of the power of natural forces!

Posted by NicChris 04:07 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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