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Monday, 19 December 2011

Some conclusions from the last 3 months

Because it's my blog and I can    

       Starbucks and McDonalds are everywhere
·         And after a few weeks you’re glad of that fact
·         Actually, the same goes for 7/Eleven
·         The best I’ve had so far is FergBurger
·         The best burger outside of that and Gotts in SF is found at The White Lady in Auckland
·         Rotorua does the best brownie ever
·         Kiwis obviously do the best junk food in the world, certainly they produce enough of it, but somehow none of them are fat. The same cannot be said for Marv and I after 3 weeks there
·         South Park has ruined cuttlefish for me forever
·         Hong Kong smells awesome
·         Kuala Lumpur does not
·         Beer isn’t as expensive in London as we think it is
·         Hangovers are always worse in 95% humidty
·         Every decent country drives on the left hand side of the road
·         Fiji is the most chilled out place in the world
·         Kava is probably 95% responsible for this
·         Never Scuba dive with a Swede having a midlife crisis
·         This goes double if he gets a shark tattooed on his foot shortly after returning to shore
·         Young female Asian tourists will always make the ‘peace’ sign in photos and grin inanely
·         This does not increase my feelings of peace towards them
·         The guy with the SLR camera will always be in your way
·         And you will always be in his
·         All Australia nightclubs use the same mix CD
·         Some hostels are better than hotels
·         You can eat like a king for £10 in all the best cities
·         Always travel New Zealand by bus
·         Price may not guarantee quality where food is concerned, but it usually guarantees good bathrooms
·         It doesn’t matter what the dominant religion is in a country is out here; they all still love Christmas
·         The popularity of the Singapore Sling at Raffles has ruined it. Ordering a Vodka Martini, on the other hand, is a solid choice here
·         I will miss the Satay Club

And finally….

·         I still have no clue what I want to do with my life

Merry Christmas folks!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Eating myself to death in Hong Kong (and Macau)

Hong Kong may well be the food capital of the world. In one week in this utterly mental, wonderful city I’m pretty sure I’ve piled back on the weight I’ve lost over the last three months. There is food everywhere, on every street corner and every other shop. It is easily the most delicious smelling city that I’ve visited in my time abroad, at every turn there’s something new enticing you with a delightful aroma. And the beauty of it is that it’s almost all so cheap.

The view over the city
My time in Hong Kong itself was spent mostly on the mainland area of Kowloon, home of the vast majority of the 7million people who live in the autonomous administrative area of China that makes up Hong Kong and my guesthouse (on the 8th floor of a tower block you learn quickly that towersare just as much streets as regular ground level here). But on my first full day in the city I took a ride down to Hong Kong island and up to The Peak aboard one of the vintage trams that still run the incredibly steep route to the top of the hill that overlooks the city and offers the best views of the region. Unfortunately, the smog that hangs over much of Hong Kong made any long-distance views impossible. Still, the short-distance was impressive enough.

Hong Kong may well be the only city in the world where you can accidentally go for Michelin starred food and not take a wallet-pounding as a result. I was already aware of Tim Ho Wan (the home of the cheapest starred food in the world) and had set myself the task of heading to his restaurant for breakfast one day. Yet in my quest to find a decent-looking and reasonably priced eatery with, and this became a running theme, a menu I could understand I happened upon Din Tai Fung. I got myself a number for the queue and, as there was only me dining, quickly jumped the hour-long queue. Not before I’d taken a look at the various recommendations outside the restaurant and realised it had the aforementioned recommendation from the tyre people. I can confirm the food was delicious and recommend anyone going to try the Xiao Long Bao dumplings.

Tim Ho Wan's buns
The next morning I made it to Tim Ho Wan’s eatery and realised that the reputation is not only well deserved, but also attracts staggering numbers of people. I arrived 20 minutes before opening and the queue was already to the corner of the street. An hour later I finally made it inside and found out why, the restaurant only seats 30 people at a time. However the wait was more than worth it, his pork buns were everything I’d read they were. So much so that I ended up back there on my final morning in Hong Kong for seconds (and an even longer queue).

Wednesday is free museum entry day in HK and I took full advantage, scouring the excellent Museum of History with its incredible recreations of Hong Kong’s past from prehistoric to modern times (Singapore and Hong Kong both excel in these museums that you’d expect to pay ridiculous sums for in the UK) and the Space Museum, a fun and interactive guide through humanity’s fixation with space.

The Grand Lisboa...feeling queasy!
I couldn’t come to this part of the world without catching a ferry to Macau (and not just for the extra stamp it got me in my passport). Described in my guidebook as a “city searching for identity” it’s an incredible mash of Portuguese architecture, Chinese shops and stalls and a scaled-down version of Las Vegas, complete with Wynn and MGM hotels. The Wynn is even styled to be a smaller replica of the grandiose Wynn/Encore complex in the real Vegas. Macau was an easy city to fall in love with; the ruins of the old Portuguese castle looking out over the city, the proliferation of the ubiquitous custard tarts that every bakery seemed to offer and the chance to gamble all your savings away in the space of 2 sq km. Luckily I had to catch a ferry back to HK or I may still be there in the incredible Grand Lisboa (a structure capable of inducing vertigo just by looking at it).

Hong Kong is easily one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve had the privilege of visiting. Some day I will return, if only to pick up more cheap shirts at the night market and to gorge on Tim Ho Wan’s baked buns again.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Land of Smiles, Seafood and Cocktails

In an effort to avoid the flooding in Northern Thailand (which I found out weren’t actually that bad about a week too late) I’d made the decision to hit two of the most popular and relaxed islands, Phuket and Koh Samui, to provide a contrast to the cities I’d been spending so much time in.

Kata Mobile Bar
I arrived in Phuket in the middle of a downpour, my very British luck with the weather wouldn’t change much over the next few days, but made it to Kata Beach, my base for the next few days. What followed was a few days of cocktails and de-stressing. Kata and its neighbour Karon are two of the smaller, but no less bustling, holiday destinations on Phuket and there were plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, some of them without the almost endless supply of hookers that most seemed to offer. My personal favourite had to be the mobile bars encased in VW vans, which mixed some brilliant cocktails on the streets.

Patong Boxing Stadium
Of course what would a trip to Thailand be without taking in some Muay Thai, especially as they had a “special” card put together for the King’s Birthday on 5th December (the Thai people love their king). A short trip to Patong brought me to the Patong Thai Boxing Stadium. This was a full night of fights, involving Thai local fighters, International competitors, women’s boxing and even a child’s bout of two 10-year olds. Typically, the bout involving the 10-year olds delivered the most brutal KO of the night with ‘Rambo’ (for that was the child’s name) delivering a cracking right elbow to his opponent, causing an almost Rashad Evans like reaction.
Bar Tuk Tuk

The second half of the week was spent in Koh Samui, a lot quieter but with no less buzzing a nightlife in the main tourist centre of Chaweng. Having settled in, and found the fantastic Bar Tuk Tuk, I spent the first full day taking a tour of the various sights of Samui Island. These include the “Grandfather” rock, the mummified monk (complete with Ray Bans) and a trip to Naumang Safari Park with its elephant rides and tiger cuddling activities.

Sadly no Enterprise Fries
My inner geek was awakened when I was informed of Captain Kirk’s Seafood restaurant in Chaweng so I took a wander down. The food was good, the ambiance and location very nice but it seems that I was horribly mistaken in my expectation of a theme. Seems like the people of Koh Samui and I have different interpretations of who Captain Kirk is…




Thailand is an amazing country from the glimpse I was able to have (with an uncomfortably high amount of middle aged men hanging out with Thai girls). 9 days is obviously not enough, and I will no doubt be back in the future with Bangkok and the North still to visit. But onwards I need to travel as I enter the final week of my trip and it's time to fulfil a dream I've had for years: Hong Kong.

Friday, 2 December 2011

KL, TR and GT - Malaysia in 10 days

My first experience of Malaysia came 14 months ago with a 4 hour layover at Kuala Lumpur International at stupid-o’clock in the morning. It was not the best introduction to the country and I hoped for much more coming back a year later for a 10-day stint.

The Petronas Towers...big ain't they?
It did not start as planned. It’s a little known fact that there are actually two KL international terminals; there is the big, sleek and modern terminal for 95% of airlines and then there’s the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) where the likes of Air Asia, my airline of choice for this trip, is housed. This is essentially a large warehouse with some immigration desks, a barely manned customs line and a mental taxi rank. Apparently a new modern LCCT is due in 2013; it cannot come soon enough.


The view from the hostel
The first 4 nights in Malaysia were spent in Kuala Lumpur. KL suffered from the problem of having to follow Singapore, a city I and quite a few others I met loved. It’s a bigger city, in many ways dirtier (although no dirtier than a lot of Asian cities) than Singapore and with a bit less to do. My time in KL consisted of wandering around photographing the various landmarks, taking my customary trip to the top of the observation tower (the most disappointing of all the observation decks so far- unfortunately the bridge at the Petronas Towers was closed) and spending my nights eating street food and drinking with the incredible view at the rooftop bar at my hostel. I was told that Reggae Mansion was a blessing and a curse as a hostel; it’s got one of the best bars in town and, because of this, you never want to leave it. What they don't mention is that trying to shift a hangover in 95% humidity is almost impossible.
Tanah Rata

Tired of the smoke and sweat of tropical cities, I headed to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands for three nights. Here, and on the bus ride in on the incredible VIP service for RM35, you get to see so much more of rural Malaysia. A solid 10 degrees cooler than KL, Tanah Rata is not much more than a collection of food and tour stands around the main road through the mountains, with some guesthouses scattered around. It’s unusually proud of the local strawberry and tea crops (I could buy a Cornish Cream Tea from no less than 5 otherwise Malay cafes) and had a variety of walks into the mountains. I hit during the rainy season, which read to monsoon conditions every afternoon. This was fine by me, I was normally tired from a morning hiking around the local roads.

Just one of Penanag's 1000 churches
I finished my time in Malaysia in George Town, located in Penang in the North West of the country. It’s much smaller than Kuala Lumpur, in spite of being the second biggest town in Malaysia, and is the Hanoi to KL’s Saigon – much less developed with very few pavements meaning you work your way around amidst the traffic, but retaining the charm that only a city of this size can. It’s also overrun with churches, mosques and all sorts of mid 19th Century buildings to admire as well as the likes of the Red Garden food court, where Christmas classics were blaring out in 25 degree heat as I ate Japanese BBQ. The surreal experiences out here never seem to end,

It’d be amiss of me to not recommend the excellent Penang Museum. Charting the history of George Town from its beginnings as a British settlement and documenting the various races who make up the city, it cost RM1 to get in (£0.20) and passed a diverting hour.  All in all Penang may well be my favourite stop on the Malaysian leg of the journey.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Singapore, Satay and Slings

Singapore strikes you as everything that a modern city should be; it’s clean, it’s efficient and it’s by and large very safe. I landed on a Friday evening and thanks to the MRT (metro) system was at my hostel within 35 minutes. It’s like a mash of cultures; traditional Asia meets the Western ideal of a city.

Singapore is known as a ‘fine city’ with good reason, the following all carry penalties of at least S$100: Spitting, Drinking or eating on the MRT, Chewing gum, Littering, Jaywalking and failing to flush a public toilet. Unfortunately government guidelines do not advise you on the subject of floaters. I can only assume you’re meant to stay with it until the end, although the majority public toilets have a flush that could kill a small animal.

The SCC...and $Billions of real estate
Having spent my first night quickly scooting around Boat Quay and the financial district near my hostel in Chinatown I set off early the next day for a proper wander. And so I spent the first two days in the city; literally wandering from one incredible sight to the next. I took in the views on the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel and with a queuing system that puts the London Eye to shame as you wander through an interactive gallery detailing the building of the wheel. I was also delighted to find that the Start/Finish straight of the F1 track is open for anyone to wander around and took a stroll here. The Botanical Gardens also offered a fantastic free experience, allowing you to wander amongst varied flora and also providing a guide to the evolution of plants in a walk that you'd normally expect to pay for.

The onset of Christmas was never more apparent than wandering around Orchard Road, the Regent Street of Singapore, as there were a dozen huge shopping malls selling Armani, Versace and DKNY all geared towards Christmas blaring out Band Aid and the like whilst I slowly melted in the heat of the midday sun. Christmas shopping in this weather is even worse than in the cold of London.

The elephant show at Singapore Zoo
 Escaping the madness I headed to the Singapore Museum (complete with half-priced entry thanks to my HSBC card) which featured an incredible exhibit on the founding of Singapore told from both historical and personal perspectives. After 2 ½ hours of wandering I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface and that there was so much more to see. A very good use of S$6. Another excellent tourist attraction is the justifiably world-famous Singapore Zoo, where the majority of animals are kept behind moats rather than cages and apes swing from the trees above your head. A day out well spent.

The Satay Club in action
Whilst I was here I felt I had to sample some of the things that have made Singapore famous over the years. Monday night (after an abortive search on the Saturday night) I finally found the Satay Club, a street full of Satay vendors all selling delicious barbecued meats and rich satay sauce. It was absolutely delicious and my dinner cost me £10 in total, including beer (normally found at £7 - £8 a pint!). On Tuesday night I treated myself and headed to Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar, home of the Singapore Sling. The bar itself is very cool, and provides another chance to throw peanuts on the floor, but the fact that the Singapore Slings are mass produced (everyone is drinking them) sort of killed the illusion. Still a very tasty Sling and I followed it up with a well-made Vodka Martini before being utterly fleeced at an American-themed deli in the hotel with a good reputation but prices that made me glad I’d had a stiff drink before I got there!
The Raffles Long Bar




From here I head on to Kuala Lumpur and a 10-day stretch in Malaysia where I’m trying to get from KL to Penang using local transport and every Singaporean has told me to “watch out for your bags”. This can only go well…

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Swimming with reef sharks

The final leg of my Australian trip began as I landed in Cairns at 7:30pm after a 12 hour trip from Surfer’s Paradise. I was here for one thing and one thing only; the Great Barrier Reef and to get some diving done.

Cairns City Centre
Having checked in at my hostel and slept off the journey, I awoke to explore Cairns, which is pretty much the Queenstown of Australia. You can do anything here; Bungee Jump with AJ Hackett (the purveyors of my Auckland Bridge Jump), skydive the beach, head in to the rainforest, white water raft or head out to the reef. All this means that Cairns itself is pretty devoid of anything to keep you entertained during the day, save the fantastic outdoor pool by the seafront. Cairns lacks a proper beach to speak of, so this is your substitute.

My own BCD for the trip
However this was no matter as I was able to fill my time by reading, sunbathing, watching Junior Dos Santos KO Cain Velasquez and generally bumming around until my 6am pick up on Monday to head out to the reef. Booked through Pro Dive Cairns we departed for 2 nights and 11 dives at 3 different reefs around the whole of the Great Barrier. Sufficed to say that diving that many times in such a short period comes with a lot of accompanied exhaustion. All you do on a Pro Dive trip is eat, sleep and dive. But this is what I came to do and it seemed pointless having my freshly minted PADI qualification and coming all the way to North East Australia if I didn’t get as much diving in as I could. After an initial nervous first couple of dives (still coming to terms with the idea of actually being under 18m of water) I hit my stride and was soon neck deep in sharks, stingrays (not this kind) and sea turtles.

There's sharks in there somewhere
One of the many highlights of the trip was taking my first two night dives. The second night dive involved the crew of the ScubaPro II throwing a load of fish food in to excite the fish around the boat. This had the effect of attracting half a dozen fairly large (1.5 – 2m) reef sharks and the dive, as much as it was, consisted of hanging 5m under the boat and watching as they circled around you, eyeing the fish up for a snack. The best times to see the reef it seems is very early in the morning, when there’s a lot of cleaning going on and schools of fish are everywhere, and late at night when the waters are dark and some creepy critters come out. At one of the dive sites we picked up an interested Green Humphead Parrotfish, which hung around the underside of the boat occasionally giving divers a shock whenever it appeared over their shoulder. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to the Aquahibian Terror Fish (5 minutes Googling well spent).

After 3 days of intensive diving we returned to land for our final dive – into beer. Our final swansong as a dive group was as chaotic and disgraceful as you’d expect from a group who have spent the last 3 days on a boat or at depths. Sufficed to say my last clear memory is of dancing on a table in the Woolshed.




So onward I travel tomorrow; with a 10am flight to Singapore and the next leg of my journey into the unknown world (to me) of South East Asia. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Surfer's Paradise in 2 days and with a hangover

Surfer’s Paradise is the kind of place that needs to be seen to be believed. For starters, that any country would have a town named Surfer’s Paradise is slightly strange to me as town names are meant to have deep and ancient meanings (San Diego named after Saint Diego, Dartford named after the fording of the River Darenth, London named after the Belgian town of Nodnol) but as part of a marketing campaign in the 1930s the town changed its name and by gum did it work.



Surfer’s Paradise today is like Blackpool, uprooted and moved to the Gold Coast of Australia and then injected with steroids. It is, as one fellow traveller aptly put it, Skeg-Vegas. Giant  gleaming high-rises overlook miles and miles of golden beaches. Tattooed, muscled surfers are everywhere. Never have I felt less tanned in my entire life…and I used to live 5 minutes’ drive from Essex.

Skypoint City
I arrived at Surfer’s with the intention of chilling out for a couple of days before my long trip up to Cairns. This intention was shattered when I was coerced into going clubbing at 10pm by some of my new room mates. Several beers, jager shots and hours later I crawled into bed at 3am. Quite the set up for my first full day in Surfer’s; spent mostly meandering around the town and continuing my trend of visiting high rise observation deck . Tuesday proved slightly more fruitful with another venture to the top of the Skypoint for my ritual ‘coffee in a high place’ and a trip to the highly recommended Infinity attraction; a sort of funhouse of mirrors and special effects. Estimated ride time: 40 minutes. Actual time for me to get around: more like 20minutes. Sufficed to say this is something it’s probably better to do as a group; not that it’s in any way bad. It was a lot of fun. Just a bit short when done on your own.

Surfer’s Paradise is really geared towards the long-term visitor. In the brief couple of days I was there I got the sense that a week here (complete with an all-access pass to all of the local theme parks) is the definitive getaway for a lot of folks in this area. As it was, I merely spent a relaxing couple of days bumming around and attempting (and on one day succeeding) to drink my hostel bar dry of Tooheys. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Brisbane, Fraser Island and lots of Dingoes

The goal was to be in Brisbane by last weekend and another long journey via greyhound was the most efficient way to do it. I took an overnight break in Byron Bay, where the heavens opened and proceeded to soak me at 8am as I stepped off the night bus. Luckily it dried out as the day went on and I found myself in a hot tub drinking beer at 4pm with a bunch of other reprobates. Hostelling will always be a good way of making friends quickly.

Coopers enjoys the Roar
Upon arriving in Brisbane the next day, hungover and a little disoriented, I met up with the man who had 6 months previously given us all 2 weeks’ notice that he was emigrating; Coopers. Overwhelmed by the emotion of seeing a familiar face, we promptly headed to the nearest pub and had a couple of beers to calm ourselves, before heading out to spend Friday night in the only way you can when the opportunity arises – watching Hyundai A League Football. For a brief ten minute spell it seemed like Brisbane were in trouble, going 1-0 down early. Then for the second time in two days the floodgates opened. This time in the manner of goals. Brisbane were 5-1 up at half-time and 7-1 up by the end. We then discovered they were unbeaten in 32 games and the current A-League champions. Not bad going.

Could be Skippy...probably not though
The Saturday brought us to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary; where you can hug Koalas, pet Kangaroos and generally look around all sort of Australian beasties. It killed a few hours, and allowed the chance to get up close with a lot of the wildlife I’d otherwise missed seeing on the Australian leg of my journey so far. However Koala-hugging was off the agenda. They had a disturbing habit of pooping over everyone and at $20 a pop to be soiled, I passed on the opportunity. The rest of the weekend was spent wandering around Brisbane, mostly staying on the South Bank drinking beers and admiring the scenery. Brisbane’s museums are reasonably short on exhibitions right now, with the two biggest currently closed for refurbishment, the town hall also being refurbished and the Museum of Brisbane offering slightly more niche galleries on social commentary.


Dingo pups
Tuesday came and with it came a 5:30am wake up to get to Fraser Island. Fraser Island, it turns out, is the world’s largest natural sand island, supporting dense ecosystem of forests, sub-tropical rainforests and multiple different types of animal. Almost all of them lethal. Of the 10 deadliest snakes in the world, 6 of them can be found on Fraser Island. Wild dingoes are also present in numbers of about 200 and the island is covered with warnings about the dangers. Dingoes, it would seem, really will eat your babies. And your food. And you. They were not to be trifled with (or any other form of desert). Still, I saw a few, including some pups, and they were impressively cute. Just a shame they'd rip my face off given half a chance.

That's a forest, embedded in a sand dune!
Fraser Island itself though is a wonder of nature. A place of incredible beauty and mind boggling natural sights. The fact that such dense forestation can grow on an island comprised almost entirely of sand with no soil is something that I struggled to wrap my head around. It has a multitude of freshwater lakes for swimming in, which I dutifully obliged; which tempers the fact that the ocean surrounding it is completely unusable due to the massive amount of sharks, rays and jellyfish to be found in it. Undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights was to be found at the top of a 2km long sand dune, which was in the process of covering an entire forest. Having passed through a Saharan tundra of sand banks we scaled the summit to see a living forest extending out far beneath us. Mind well and truly boggled at this stage. 


Shipwrecked on Fraser
The island is awash with things you'd never expect, including the wreck of an old passenger ferry that was washed up here in the 1930s and is now in and of itself a tourist attraction.

After three days on Fraser Island (and a swim in Eli Creek, where you can wade around up to your knees until you suddenly come across a pool that is shoulder deep) it was time to return to Brisbane, with sand absolutely everywhere. In two weeks I will be on a plane leaving Australia from Cairns and in that time I have 1,800km to travel. Looks like I might be getting on a plane earlier than I expected…



Don't let a dingo eat your baby




Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sydney

Somewhat famous lndmarks
Sydney has a wow factor that only a city with the kind of iconic landmarks of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge can provide. Melbourne was a lovely city (and apparently “The Most Liveable in the World” according to something I read in the last couple of days…yeah I can see that) but it lacked the feeling of “welcome to Oz” that Sydney has.




The Fern Enclosure
Wandering around the city on my first day my first sight of the Harbour Bridge/Opera House double team couldn’t have been better; rounding a corner of the Botanical Gardens they suddenly emerged from behind some trees. I was, shall we say, mildly impressed. The rest of the city had the standard features of a major Southern Hemisphere metropolis; a waterfront, some tall and shiny buildings, a massive viewing tower. Yet Sydney also has some of the most amazing public spaces I’ve seen; the Botanical Gardens are a massive reserve of every single different kind of plant, both tropical and non, that you could find. There’s even a fern enclosure. As in an enclosure for ferns. Genius.

Going up the Westfield Tower gives you the best view over the city’s suburbs and coastline (as you’d expect from a 200m high viewing tower), but I got the feeling that the building of some of Sydney’s more modern skyscrapers had somewhat obscured the view of the city itself. Still, I was able to maintain my new tradition of coffees in tall buildings and enjoy the view.

Bondi Beach. It's a beach
Some unseasonably warm weather, even for Sydney, of 34 degrees persuaded me to hit Bondi Beach on the Monday. Famed for its surf and bronzed inhabitants, Bondi Beach is the go-to place for people looking to escape the city and catch some waves. A brief 30 minute bus ride out of town brought me to Bondi and it was…well it was a beach. It’s a nice beach, don’t get me wrong but to be honest, it lives and dies by whether or not you’re there to catch surf/sunbathe or if you’re actually looking for something to do. I never thought I’d find myself wanting for some Blackpool-style slot machines and gaming halls in Australia. Luckily there’s a nice coastal walk you can take that kills an hour or so. And I'd have been far more receptive had I not recently spent a week on a beach in Fiji.

4 Pines "Speciality" Brew
Tuesday brought rain (Rain! In Australia!?) which made my decision to catch the ferry to Manly (another beach location) slightly dubious, yet the 4 Pines microbrewery there made the trip worthwhile; serving excellent beer and some brilliant food.

I was also able to indulge my more cultured side on Tuesday by heading to the Opera House to take in a Bell Shakespeare production of Julius Caesar. In a joke I’ve already made on facebook (but have no problem repeating here) I was slightly hoping for an “et tu Bruce” reference. Regrettably there was none. However the play itself was a damn fine attempt (if slightly strange to hear Shakespeare with an Aussie accent) and Kate Mulvany was excellent as Cassius. Check it out; theatre criticism in my blog. Even I thought that would never happen.

Sufficed to say I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Sydney. As I sat sipping a beer staring at the bridge at dusk I realised I could get used to this town (if not the food prices - $2.50 for a red pepper! $2.50!!) but tonight marks the nightbus to Byron Bay, a stop-over on my route to Brisbane and a friendly face in the form of Coopers. 

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Melbourne - Sun, Sea, Staph Infection

The long route back to London continued as I landed in Melbourne at 1am. The plan had been to spend a couple of days here before moving on to Canberra. Of course, that plan didn’t take in to account that I would be spending the first morning in the city in the Emergency wing of St Vincent’s Hospital, conveniently located across the road from my hostel. Cue a rapid change of plans and my staying in Melbourne until Friday. For those who are interested; I ended up being diagnosed with a severe Strep infection and a moderate Staph infection along with a couple of other nasty critters. As you can also tell by the fact I’m writing this blog; I’m on the mend.


Luckily Melbourne is a vibrant city with more than enough to do to keep me entertained for a week. I spent most of Monday and Tuesday am wandering around exploring the city and looking for a book shop (Melbourne, it seems, has a scarcity of them). I also had the chance to find a couple of cool little eateries and Max Brynner's Chocolate Shop; maker of the most chocolatey Mocca I've ever had. 

The very top step of the MCG...it's high
Then I turned my attention to some of the more traditional tourist activities, starting with a trip to the Melbourne Cricket Ground and National Sport Museum. I’m by no means a cricket fan, a fact which seemed to confuse my tour guide, a nice bloke by the name of Peter, but you can’t come to Melbourne as a sports fan and not go and look around this Mecca of sports. It’s a vastly impressive ground, seating 90,000 and the tour was incredibly informative, aided by the fact it was one-on-one. Plus I got to sit in the MCG Members Chairs whilst wearing an England Rugby shirt. That shouldn’t have amused me like it did.

Also worth a look (again as a sports fan) was the National Sports Museum, at the same location if for no other reason than it provides an excellent look into how the always confusing, occasionally entertaining and often violent sport of Aussie Rules football came in to being. I just wish I’d left longer than an hour to look around it.

Great Ocean Road
Wednesday was entirely occupied by a day trip to The Great Ocean Road, operated by Wildlife Tours and involving a 7am pick up and a near 10pm return. Even with the long day it’s a spectacular drive, along a 300km stretch of some of Australia’s most stunning coastline, peppered with sandy beaches and huge rock formations jutting out of the sea. It offered me my first view of a Koala (no kangaroos yet though). There was even a rainforest on the route.

In an effort to save money I spent Thursday wandering around Queen Victoria market, where I was able to pick up a kangaroo fillet for dinner (tasting report = bloody delicious. Gamey and tender) and a trip to ACMI, the Australian Centre for Moving Image, a free and interactive museum focussing on the rise of Film/TV/Digital Entertainment in Australia. It was actually a lot of fun, incorporating classic movie clips, interactive games and the ability to record yourself in Bullet-Time (remembering that The Matrix was filmed in Australia).

Tomorrow I finally leave on the overnight bus to Sydney. Hopefully my time there will go slightly smoother than the start of my time in Melbourne.


Sunday, 16 October 2011

Fiji - or 'how a week without the internet is actually awesome'

 To try to sum up the last week I’ve had in Fiji strikes me as almost impossible. I’ve seen very little of the country itself (Fiji is made up of dozens of islands and my journey here has been limited to two) yet I feel like I’ve seen a great deal about Fijians. The hospitality and the sense of family I’ve felt this week is not one I expected to find anywhere on my trip; yet I suppose that if it were to come from anywhere then Fiji would’ve been the leading candidate.

I landed in Nadi, the third largest town and jumping-off point for all island hopping, in the middle of a downpour and the rain continued throughout my first weekend here. I was pretty sure at this stage that my luck with the weather had followed me from New Zealand, and England being knocked out of the rugby hardly helped. During this weekend I was also introduced to the Fijian ritual of drinking Kava, a powdered root that is mixed with water and used for “special” ceremonies. What happens in mainland Fiji, or at least to me, is that the owner of the restaurant you dine at offers to show you ‘the real Fiji’, leads you to his mate’s shop where you drink Kava as a welcome ceremony and you’re then compelled to buy some local handicraft in return for their generosity. Cue an old-style Fijian club being packaged and sent home and me leaving slightly lighter of cash for the privilege.

I was here. Actually here!
All this changed on Monday, when I set sail for Mana Lagoon Backpackers on Mana Island. Upon arrival I was greeted with the Bula song (Bula being a Fijian all purpose greeting/”cheers” word) from the staff, who all took time to introduce themselves to me. The weather started to slightly improve, though not much, and I was ushered to a room that would make prison accommodation look like a 5* hotel. A mixed bag, for sure. My first night on Mana I discovered I shared my room with three mice, who I had to ask repeatedly to keep it down as their fun and games were disturbing my sleep.
Fire Dancing

Then the next day the sun came out and suddenly I saw why everyone falls in love with Fiji. Mana Island was transformed into a paradise and I realised that you spend so little time in your room that the reason their basic is because anything more would be a waste. During the days I would sit on the beach reading and at night the staff would arrange entertainment (Island Dancing, involving fire and knife dances was easily my favourite). Then we would sit up until the small hours drinking Kava together whilst Ronnie, one of the staff, would play guitar. It was, to all intents and purposes, a little like a hippy commune, only without the bad smell.

I was talked into a SCUBA course that occupied me for most of the days with a lot of reading and testing before making my first four dives on Wednesday and Thursday. To be honest, it’s hard to find a better way of studying than just lying on a beach reading about the potential for your lungs to explode inside of your body if you don’t breathe out when surfacing. My first two dives (to 6m) passed with little incident, though my inability to properly equalise on my first dive gave me a migraine that lasted all night). My second two dives, to 18m and 9m, had a little more incident. My fourth dive in particular consisted of my swallowing a mouthful of seawater (which should be almost impossible) and then some frantic swimming a little while later when a giant ray decided it was going to take an unhealthy interest in us; tail raised and all. At the time I didn’t realise how much trouble we were potentially in until the instructor Tuks told me on the boat afterwards “man, that f*cking ray…I’ve never been so scared underwater than when it moved towards us”. Tuks dives roughly 3 times a day and has been diving for 15+ years. Guess I nearly became the English Steve Irwin.
Sunset

When it was eventually time to leave Mana, after 5 days of sunburn and good times, I have to say I felt a pang of sadness. I can’t describe just how relaxing it was to not have the internet or my phone to distract me. It meant that you actually formed bonds with the people around you as you all pretty much became friends by default. But back to reality I came, and tonight I’m faced with a late night flight to Melbourne…

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Auckland (Part Two)

Auckland is a city big enough to warrant more than one blog entry, especially as the last was done whilst I was waiting to throw myself off a bridge. I may have overlooked a few things.

That, to be honest dear reader, is the crux of it. Auckland, and New Zealand, offer so much to do that you almost forget what you did yesterday in anticipation of what you will do today.

A trip to Waiheke Island to visit some of their wineries was on the pre-rugby agenda last Saturday. We were able to take in the incredible scenery and get nicely lubricated in anticipation of the rugby. The Around Waiheke tour company’s half day trip was affordable and, whilst a little rough and ready, took in three great wineries including Wild on Waiheke , where we were also able to taste some great beers, and Kennedy Point, the only 100% organic winery in New Zealand.



There’s also Sky City, mentioned in my previous blog, where you can take a trip to the observation deck and enjoy the highest coffee in town. Nothing quite like a Chai Latte whilst the sun goes down (yes…that read a little effeminate).

New Zealand also continues its fine run of destroying my health. Alongside the incredible Fergburger in Queenstown, the brownies from Rotorua and the overwhelming urge NZ has to put at least one of Bacon, Egg and Cheese on everything savoury (and some things not) comes The White Lady – a burger van located inside of an old tram cart serving high quality burgers at all hours of the night. Good god this place is killing me.

Today’s activity though overshadowed them all as the AJ Hackett Bungy Company very kindly threw me off Auckland Harbour Bridge. The nerves I felt whilst climbing up almost made me overlook the incredible view of the city it offered. Still I managed to (shakily) get a photo and carry on climbing. Then came the overwhelming task of getting myself harnessed up and slowly edging towards the bungee platform. I can honestly say I have never experienced anything like the feeling I had looking over the edge knowing I’d have to jump. I managed to pose like a badass for the camera in front of me, whilst the camera to the side captured the true scale of my nerves. Then suddenly it was time and against every instinct I threw myself forward.
Post-jump. That's half adrenaline, half relief

Do it. That’s all I can say to you. Just do it.   

New Zealand has been great; Australia has a lot to live up to. But first…Fiji

Auckland (and a little bit of Taupo)

Sky City


Auckland is a city that seems to want to be a bit of everything. Huge 1980s skyscrapers rise out of the skyline containing all of the major New Zealand banks, whilst smaller buildings house a range of local-style bars and the waterfront tries to capture the night-time clubbing vibe of other waterfront cities. Standing amidst it all is the SkyCity, a 200+ meter needle that stands above everything and provides stunning views of the city from its 202m observation deck.

Arriving in Auckland last Friday we quickly went out and had a scout around the town and found it to be comparable to most major cities in so much as the price of dinner and beer was immediately higher than most other places we’ve been. Not by a great amount, but enough to notice. That being said there are some great places worth visiting, including The Bluestone Room which is located in the oldest commercial building in town and has a well in the floor that the earliest settlers used to draw water. They also do beer towers, which are very cool.
Bagrock in action

On Friday night, the night before England vs Scotland, we headed to the Vector Arena to the Spirit of Bannockburn festival – a night of Scottish revelry featuring the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, purveying BagRock (a blend of Bagpipes and Rock Music) and Des McLean (reputedly Billy Connolly’s favourite comedian). Never have I seen so many kilts in one place and the mood was jovial, if decidedly anti-English. If you get the chance to check out the Chilli Pipers I can only recommend it, if only because there’s nothing stranger than hearing We Will Rock You played on bagpipes.

Speaking of kilts everywhere, the England vs Scotland game at the 65,000 capacity Eden Park was a near sell-out with loads of passion from both sets of fans and paying out for our half-way line seats was a great move as we had a great view of all of the action. Just a shame that the game wasn’t up to the hype until Chris Ashton’s stunning late try. But a win’s a win and the atmosphere inside the ground more than made up for the poor rugby on display.

Yet another missed Wilko kick...
For a break from the city we headed to Taupo, a small town on a lake about 5 hours away from Auckland. The bad weather we’ve been experiencing managed to follow us on the first day, where we holed up inside of our hostel to participate in the Beer Pong tournament. Myself and Simon (a fellow travelling rugby fan we first met in Dunedin) managed to make it to the Semi-Finals before finally being eliminated by a pair of 60+ year olds…words cannot describe the humiliation.
Orakei Korako

The next day was spent visiting the Orakei Korako geothermal geysers, a short 30 minute drive out of the town. Utterly incredible scenery awaited us, along with the overpowering stench of sulphur belched out from the Earth every so often. Still, it looked like nothing else on earth and made for a pleasant afternoon trip.

Now I’m back in Auckland. The sun is shining. There’s a nice breeze. And I’ve foolishly agreed to o and jump off the Harbour Bridge on a Bungy…..oh crap….