Saturday, 3 December 2011

Aus (1) - Melbourne to The Grampians

Melbourne riverside

When I finally arrived in Melbourne at 2am after the hassle with Air Pacific, I went straight to the hotel and slept. I had two full days to explore the city before picking up a hire car and hitting the road (and in Australia these are very long roads). The next morning I walked towards town and grabbed a coffee. The couples on the table next to me were all dressed up. When you see a bunch of rough looking guys in suits with wide-knot ties they're either Championship footballers, estate agents or there's a wedding. But it wasn't just the adjacent table. The whole city was full of suits and glamorous women. It was the Melbourne Cup day. Now, I find horse racing tedious (though I appreciate it provides gainful employment to men with bad teeth and growth hormone deficiencies) but here it captivates the city so much that it's declared a public holiday in the Melbourne metropolitan area. Big screens were erected for the event and the riverside was buzzing.
Just like NYC, but they drive on the left
Melbourne was born when John Batman bought several hundred thousand hectares of land from the Aborigines. Buying or selling land was a foreign concept for them so Batman managed to secure the land for just some tools, flour and clothes. I shouldn't laugh but it's funny when you see information signs that describe how "Batman took advantage of the Aborigines".

Melbourne has a great food scene: I had some great value feeds in Chinatown and apparently it's one of the best places to get Modern Australian (Mod Oz) cuisine, although I don't really know what that is... as one of my friends said, "Mod Oz is just... food". I burned a lot of these huge meals off by walking around the compact city centre and its many parks.

I picked up car and headed for the principal wine region of Victoria, the Yarra Valley. I decided to stay in Healesville, for the lack of a better option and like most of the wine towns I've been to it was the standard mix of fancy B&Bs, Cellar Doors and swanky bistros. I tried to hire a bicycle to attempt to repeat my trip around Marlborough in NZ but in the end I had to admit defeat and take the car. That meant wine tasting but no drinking and, as with most things, spitting out is the least preferred option (ahem...).

I drove south to the Great Ocean Road, 250km of beautiful road hugging the Victoria coast. I passed through small surf towns like Torquay and Anglesea before arriving at the lovely village of Lorne. It was a Saturday and happened to be the first hot weekend of spring, and everyone from Melbourne had made the trip to the coast for surfing and beach time. I walked along the beach to the pier where a group of people fishing had attracted an audience. One guy had snagged a huge 1.5m wide Bull Ray and spent at least half an hour dragging it to shore in order to take the hook out.
Bull Ray at Lorne
This piece of coastline is good for spotting koalas and while driving out of Lorne I kept my eyes peeled for them in the trees. At Kennett River I took a short walk through the forest, looking off into the distance, but this fella was right over my head when I got back to the car: 
Koala, Kennett River

Further down the Road, I passed the 12 Apostles, beautiful rock formations rising out of the ocean, now whittled down to just 6 stacks by the waves. After another close call with fuel I arrived in Port Fairy, a quaint town of sandstone cottages, a little marina and a lighthouse. Black Wallabies hopped around the scrubland near the ocean. At sunset the sky was black with Short-tailed Shearwaters coming back to shore for the evening.
The 12 Apostles
Lighthouse, Port Fairy
The next morning I went to nearby Tower Hill Reserve to walk around the volcanic caldera. There were more koalas here and they seemed completely oblivious to me creeping up close and taking photos. I also saw my first wild emu, which was a lot scrattier than I expected - nothing like those in the cartoons - and my first kangaroo, which comically chased an emu across the carpark. Ever since I arrived in Aus I'd been paranoid of leaving food in my room lest it attract spiders, insects or some other creature with anger management issues. I got chatting with a local family about my mild (I would say healthy) nervousness of Australian animals and they did nothing to put my mind at ease. In fact they pointed out that koalas, which I thought were quite cute even if they did smell of piss, have sharp claws and can attack when you're too close. Also they mentioned that, given these were the first hot days of spring, snakes would be coming out of hibernation and warming up on the paths. Awesome.
A scratty emu 
After gingerly walking around the reserve, I drove inland to Hall's Gap, a very popular one-street village in the mountains of the Grampians National Park. So popular that it has only 300 residents and around 6000 beds. The mountains aren't spectacular, they're all less than 1000m, but they rise quite dramatically out of the flat expanse of wheat fields of the Wimmera. I stayed a couple of days at an eco lodge on the edge of the village, walking in the hills and watching the kangaroos graze of the cricket pitch around the back of the lodge.
'Roos at Hall's Gap

Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Rain was falling steadily as I landed at Nadi airport on Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu. We'd had beautiful, cloudless skies until our descent over this nation of islands but after all, we were heading to the start of the wet season. I was beginning to think that I should have put more thought into the weather when planning my trip (SE Asia in wet season, NZ in spring, North Australia in the heat and humidity of summer). I waited for my bags at the carousel and watched as the other passengers removed their damp luggage and went on their way. Suddenly the carousel stopped and about 10 of us looked around nervously. A fellow passenger went to make an enquiry. Apparently the rain had become heavy so the baggage handlers, not wanting to get soaked, decided not to go back to the plane to collect the remaining pieces of luggage. About 20 minutes later the rain calmed down, the carousel restarted and I finally got my bag. That was my first introduction to "Fiji time", the art of taking it easy.

I took a chance coming to Fiji a little unprepared. I hadn't booked any diving - I was still a bit tender from an ear infection - nor had I booked any accommodation. I'd heard that Nadi, being essentially a transport hub, is a bit rough around the edges, with the true beauty of Fiji being in the outer islands, so I hoped to stay in the hotel across the road from the airport and book a flight to a nearby island as soon as possible. Luckily I managed to get the last room in the hotel (a lot of passengers from my flight thought the same thing but managed to collect their luggage and get there before me), and found one of the last seats on an early morning flight to Savusavu on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.

In NZ I found it a little weird that their dollar coin looked exactly like a pound coin, Queen's head and everything, just half the value. In Fiji there was something odd about the currency. It took me a while to realise that my uneasiness arose from the fact that the Queen is looking directly at you and smiling. Not being an avid fan of the Queen's speech, or the royals in general, I don't think I've ever seen her face-on.

I walked to the airport the following morning (all of 5mins away), and checked in:
"Oh sorry, did you not get a call? The plane is delayed by 3 hours and we can't fly to Savusavu, we have to fly to Labasa and transfer by car from there."
Little did I know this was just the start of Fijian plane woes. Labasa airport was probably the smallest I've ever been to. We practically unloaded our luggage from the plane ourselves. From there it was a hastily organised shared taxi through to Savusavu on the other side of the island, which turned out to be a fun drive through tiny villages and tropical forests with an environmental scientist / spear fisherman (personally, I'd never heard of that combination before) who had to travel with wads of paper in his ears. Probably some horrific ear-drum popping accident from the fishing... I didn't ask as I would probably have been grossed out.

High Street, Savusavu
I think Savusavu is the biggest town on Vanua Levu but it was only one street with a few cafes, hotels, a market and a marina. As I was still waiting for my ear infection to fully clear up I had to stay above the water so I did some snorkelling around the reef, spent an inordinate amount of time chilling by the pool, drank Fijian milkshakes and ate great Indian food. The food portions are generally enormous, as are most of the people (I'm no expert on correlation - remember I got made redundant from correlation trading - but I think there's one here). There's a large Indo-Fijian community in Fiji as a whole, which has brought tons of great Indian food and a few fusion experiments.

Encouraged to come over from India to work on sugar cane plantations in the time of colonial rule, Indian workers settled. As they were generally more business savvy than the native Fijians, many became wealthy and this has created tensions, leading to several coups and leadership struggles since the late 80s. Generally the ethnic Fijians I spoke to were tolerant of this sizeable community (over a third of the population are of Indian origin; Divali is a national holiday in Fiji) but occasionally some shopkeepers in the larger towns were keen to point out that a product was made by ethnic Fijians in real Fijian villages, rather than by "the Indians".

I hopped on the ferry to Taveuni (Fiji's 3rd largest island), which happened to be the first really scratty transport that I'd taken in a long time - plenty of roaches and diesel fumes - but an incredibly scenic trip between the islands. I spent a week on the island, with two relaxed dives every day. The reef was only a 15 minute boat ride from the resort. The place itself was quite remote - I had to pre-order my meals in advance so they could get enough ingredients from the nearest town. The diving was fantastic, the most consistently good diving I've ever done. Here I saw my first shark (a fairly common whitetip reef shark) and would later see a Great Hammerhead and Bronze Whalers, numerous turtles and amazing walls of soft corals.

Aside from the underwater sights, Taveuni is famous for being a point of land that's crossed by the 180 degree meridian - an imaginary line where the international date line should be if it didn't formally weave its way around the island. The meridian was marked by a battered sign at the edge of an equally battered rugby pitch in the middle of nowhere. A very beautiful nowhere nonetheless.
The rather shabby 180 degree meridian marker
I flew back to Nadi on a small 19-seater plane and got some beautiful shots of the reef below. Sometimes it's easy to forget on the larger planes, but when you feel every bump slight change of direction on the small ones you're reminded that you're actually flying, doing something strange and unnatural.
Fringing reef between Vanua Levu and Taveuni
I checked in for my flight to Melbourne and sat on the plane. I was thinking how happy I was not to be flying with Qantas for a change, as this was in the middle of the industrial disputes, when captain comes over the radio to say there's electrical problems. We waited on the tarmac for an hour then headed back to the terminal. This was an evening flight so naturally nobody was around or motivated to fix it so I had to spend a night in a hotel opposite the airport (in fact the very same room in the same hotel I stayed in on my first night in Fiji.. very weird). When we finally boarded the rescheduled plane the following evening there was some relief... until the captain says there's a problem with one of the engines. Everyone sighs, but finally they fix it and we're on our way to Melbourne. I had no firm plans in Aus so a extra night in Fiji, fully paid, was a good thing, and there are certainly worse places to be stranded.
Diving in the Somosomo Strait, Taveuni

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

NZ South Island 4 - Queenstown, west coast and out

Queenstown from ~15,000ft

After the trip to Milford Sound I drove to Queenstown, which has a reputation of being the adrenaline seekers' capital of NZ. Here you can throw your body from the top of, out of, or through practically anything and what's more, it's a beautiful place to do any of the above. On entering the city the demographic suddenly changes - the average age seems to plummet to somewhere in the early 20s.

I limited myself to a skydive in the interests of preventing my bank balance running dry in the space of a weekend. For some reason I had an aversion to throwing myself off a canyon attached to a rope, but was ok with the idea of being thrown out of a plane at 16,000 ft. Maybe it's that ground appears to rush up a lot quicker on a bungy jump. We arrive at the airfield in the morning and go through the safety briefing, which was way shorter than I had expected - essentially "put your head back, curl your legs around the plane like a banana shape, hold on to your harness and enjoy". My group were all newbies to skydiving and didn't know what to expect so we all listened intently, full of nervous energy while the technicians folded used parachutes behind us (I'm going to call them technicians and not "work-experience guys" to make it feel safer). There was something strangely unnerving about them re-folding a chute - I think I'd feel better if they did that in another room so in my head each one was factory-fresh and ready to work, without manual intervention, but I was too pumped up to really care.

20 of us packed into the tiny plane, sat on the floor, legs wrapped around the person in front like an airborne bobsleigh team, and strapped to our professional who would do all the hard work. We took off and climbed for what seemed like forever, all the time I was thinking about the harness. I scuba dive and I've seen the average scuba rental equipment. There are problems with regulators, tanks and buoyancy jackets all the time, but they're usually tiny things that can be fixed with a good ol' fashioned hammer hit or just sorted out once you're underwater, and you just make do. If something goes wrong down there then chances are there's plenty of help nearby and fairly easy failsafes if there isn't. With skydiving I felt like there was not much going on behind the scenes. I relinquished all control to my tandem partner and just hoped for the best.

The plane door opened and we lurched to the side as the pilot fought the change in aerodynamics. We'd reached 10,000ft and the first tandem pair unceremoniously slid to the open hatch on their arses, in the manner of a dog with a bad case of worms and everyone else watched in anticipation. In a few seconds it was over. A quick 3-count and the instructor threw himself out of the door. The wind changed timbre slightly and they had disappeared from view. Everyone in the plane gasped. I think we all thought there'd be more involved, but I guess in essence we're just throwing ourselves out of a plane... there's not much skill involved in the falling part.

We reached 16,000ft and my turn was up. A quick 3-count and we were falling. The sound of the rushing air thankfully drowned out my screaming like a girl. The biggest thrill was definitely in the first few seconds before reaching terminal velocity, when my brain registered I was falling but somehow not landing yet. I had 60 seconds of freefall at 125mph and it was all over too quickly. The parachute came was deployed (thank goodness) and I got chance to really savour the view. After the noise of the free-fall, this was total calm and only the slightest of rustling of the chute to break the silence... and the fast beating of my heart in my ears. It was an amazing rush and something I'd do again, but I fear that once you've tried it, the experience just won't be the same the next time.

The following day, still on a bit of a high from the dive, I went on a wine tour of the region, mostly because I needed a good session on the grapes to relax. It was nice to be driven around this time, rather than using a somewhat wobbly bike like back in the Marlborough region and the group was a good laugh... what I remember anyway...
A very wet walk to Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier
Queenstown was a great city but I had to take the final leg of my NZ journey up the west coast and back to North Island. Somehow I'd managed to get an ear infection as I left Queenstown which ordinarily would have kept me in bed for a few days but I had over 700 miles to cover in less than a week and places to see along the way. Fortunately for me this happened while I was travelling through a less interesting part of the country. I decided to drive over to the Franz-Joseph and Fox glaciers. For glaciers these two move pretty quickly, especially Franz-Joesph which has managed advancement rates of 70cm per day in the past. When I arrived the walkways over to the Fox glacier were strewn with boulders from recent landslides and park wardens were busy trying to place rocks in a small river that had appeared very quickly, so people wouldn't have to wade through. The glacial landscape is extremely dynamic. I had the impression that glaciers move on a geological time-scale, whose effects wouldn't be noticeable from day to day. The glorious weather was starting to disappear and the west coast became its usual self, with gloomy overcast mornings and patchy rain. I couldn't beat the odds for that long.

That evening I slept in Hokitika, a small town with nothing to do. Well, there was an exhibtion on Whitebait but I stick by my original statement. The hotel was heavily discounted as they were doing loud building work in some of the rooms. I happened to be the only person in the place at the time. The owner did warn me it'd be noisy, with a persistence that made me think that he didn't want any business at all. I couldn't hear anything through my left ear anyway so if I turned to the right the building work just disappeared - there are definite advantages to having middle-ear infections. It's not just Hokitika, all the west coast towns are bleak and generally uninteresting. Haast, is a dive, with just one cafe, which only offered burgers or whitebait (see a pattern here?), Greymouth is an industrial town which is inviting as its name suggests, and Karamea's prime tourist attraction seems to be an estuary.

I sauntered further up the coast and passing through Punakaiki, famous for its odd "pancake rock" formations, popping peanut M&Ms and painkillers in equal measure and decided to make a bee-line for the nearest city, which happened to be lovely Nelson. Nelson is a very chilled place at the geographical centre of the country, with an al fresco coffee scene, good food and wine, and has one of the most pleasing climates in NZ, getting lots and lots of sunshine.  All in all, a good place to recover.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki
I said goodbye to the Sunny in Picton and jumped back on the Interislander ferry to Wellington, where it was a quick overnight and a morning train to Auckland. NZ doesn't have much of a national train service and the Wellington to Auckland route is run exclusively as tourist attraction rather than an efficient form of transport. While it was nice to see all the sights I passed in the car in a much more relaxed way, 12 hours of rolling commentary over the tannoy was a bit much. The highlight, a few hours north of Wellington, was when the guard asked us to look out for the local nutter who, every day, waves a red plastic bag at the train as it passes his hut.

A month in NZ was a good amount of time to see the main sights and it didn't feel rushed, but I think 6 weeks would have been ideal to try some longer walks and see a bit more of this incredibly picturesque country. By now I was ready to get back to warmer climes and hit the beach. Luckily Fiji was up next...