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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