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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…. 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

How to go from Nelson to Auckland in 3 days or less

One of the major problems in traveling from Nelson to Auckland in the space of three days is that it leaves you very little time to appreciate the towns you go through on your way. Picton, Wellington and Rotorua have all passed in a blur of travel leaving us just enough time to check in to our hostels, grab a camera and do a brief dusk/night tour of both the capital city of New Zealand and one of the more reputed picturesque locations on the North Island.


So much win!
That being said, we still came across some quietly brilliant finds. A night out in Wellington, once we'd got off the ferry, involved stops at the cocktail bar Matterhorn, with the best stocked bar I have ever seen and a bartender who took some real joy in his work, along with the “biggest student bar” in Wellington, which featured a wheel of fortune, guess the right colour an your beers were free. 



Badger's Piss and Peanuts

The award for “Bar of the night”, if not of the trip so far has to go to The Bangalore Polo Club, where one can enjoy a pint of Badger’s Piss Beer along with all the free peanuts you can handle. You take your pint glass full of peanuts (complete with shell) and shell them at your table, throwing the shells to the floor. Wandering in at midnight produces an experience akin to visiting the monkey house at London Zoo, in the best possible way of course.


Onward to Rotorua, via a shocking Intercity coach ride that delayed us by over 2 hours, where we found a waterfront and a night market both worthy of checking out. The market provided dinner, with the finest brownie either Marv or I have ever encountered (apologies to Ellie Jackson, now maker of the second finest brownie in the world). Marv was so bowled over he almost proposed to the stand’s proprietor on the spot. Also, for a night of great blues music and niche beers, heading over to The Belgian Bar was a good move, where the manager Peter was more than happy to chat about how the Irish had drank him completely dry.
The view from Rotorua

Make it to Auckland we did though, in spite of the tightness of our schedule, and we finally got to the purpose of this whole trip thus far; England vs Scotland at the incredible Eden Park. I will blog about Auckland separately, as it deserves a chapter to itself, but it’s struck me as an incredible city with the kind of all-night partying that can leave a man as a shell of himself…