Wednesday, April 26, 2006

More Volcanos

Following the road south in our tiny rented car, we spent a couple of nights in Tongariro National Park. We had intended to do the famous one-day crossing but Katie's feet were in pretty bad shape still from the caving, and the hike is a fairly demanding 17km (with no option of returning to the starting point because of the shuttle transport). So instead we did a quick afternoon walk and retired to the hot-tub at our motel.

Pushing on the next day for Wellington we went looking for an outdoor store to get some warmer gear in preparation for colder weather on the south island. To our delight, we discovered that Kathmandu was on the last day of their Easter sale and practically everything was 50-70% off. It was the first time anything in New Zealand had been cheaper than back in the States.

We had just enough time after our shopping spree to grab a sandwich and drive down to the ferry where we were all loaded aboard for the 3 hour crossing.

The weather had turned, and we heard of storms coming up from the south. The overcast gave the south island a bleak and chilly aspect and by the time we picked up my sister, Susanne, at the airport in Christchurch the next day it had started raining.

It rained, and rained and rained. Fortunately we were cozy inside our campervan (having dropped off our car). We drove south, battered by wind and rain to Dunedin where we met up with Alice and Livia, who I had stayed with last year in Rio, but were now also traveling in New Zealand.

In the morning it was still pouring, so we visiited the Cadbury's chocolate factory where we saw a ton of chocolate being poured over a chocolate waterfall. Afterwards, we learned that the road north was closed due to flooding (so Alice and Livia had to fly up to Christchurch to make it to their connecting flight) and we headed south.

Unfortunately, after an hour or so, we found the road to the south closed as well, and the fields all around us were under several feet of water. At one point we were even wondering if we would make it back to Dundedin without getting stranded.

By the next morning, the rivers had receeded a little and the road to Queenstown was open again. Somewhat improbably, we awoke the next morning to brilliant blue skies.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Falling to earth

While we waited for our turn to jump, we had a chance to admire the rest of the morning's jumpers. From 12000ft there was about a 30 second freefall before the chute was deployed. This flutters around above you, not looking very promising for an alarmingly long couple of seconds, and then suddenly makes up its mind and unfurls into a miraculous canopy.

Watching this over and over again, it seemed just a matter of time before one of them wouldn't open in time. But by the time we were ready to get suited up, we must have seen a couple of hundred jumpers land safely which was a measure of intellectual reassurace.

In fact, I was pretty excited to give it a go - it was just the jumping out the door bit which I thought would be bad. But then I decided it would make it easier if there was something else to focus on, so I asked my tandem instructor if we could do a somersault out the door.

Katie was last in the plane and consequently the first out. She and her tandem partner shuffled to the roll-up door and dangled their feet. She gave a quick smile to the exit camera and then she was gone. Then it was my turn. I have to say the initial plunge is pretty heart-stopping, but not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Somehow, the ground being 2 miles below gives your brain a bit of a breather before the moment of truth.

Anyway, I got a somersault and a corkscrew during the 200kph freefall, and a fabulous view of Lake Taupo below us, and the volcanos of Tongariro National Park in the distance. In fact we could see the Pacific to the east and the Tasman Sea in the distant west.

Mercifully, I was barely aware of the chute opening until the final jerk, and then we were just floating around in relative silence. I had a quick go at steering the canopy which was suprisingly maneuverable and then we did some steep spirals to descend to the airfield where we slid in to land smoothly on the grass. It was an absolute blast.

We bought a DVD of the jumpers in our group but sent it home before we were able to find a computer with a DVD reader to grab any more pictures.

Easter on Waiheke island

We bade farewell to Asia after 3 and a half months and stepped off the plane the next morning in Auckland. We had been generously invited to spend Easter weekend with Rochelle's family on Waiheke island, a short ferry ride from downtown.

The island was beautiful - a Martha's Vineyard without the attitude - and the house we were staying in had a spectacular view over the water.

It was wonderful to enjoy a piping hot shower with clean, fluffy towels followed by a splendid home-cooked meal. We were thoroughly spoiled for two days, and very grateful.

After much research and deliberation, we managed to book a cheap rental car for the trip down to Christchurch, and then a campervan for the rest of the time in the south island.

Our first stop was the Waitomo caves, which are famous for their glow-worms. We went on a 4-hour tour that involved a fair bit of scrambling, crawling and slithering through narrow, muddy openings and splashing, swimming and inner-tubing along a chilly underground river (we were wearing chunky 5mm thick wetsuits).

It had been raining hard all night and morning, so the water level was high, and at one point we had to dive below a submerged ceiling to continue down the passageway. Good fun, but Katie's feet suffered quite a bit from the rubber boots we were wearing which has jeapordized our plans to go hiking in a few days.

We drove on to Rotarua that evening and thoroughly warmed ourselves up with a visit to some thermal pools - a bit smelly, but very pleasant with views out onto the lake and a few stars overhead.

In the morning we did a little grocery shopping and I had a proper bowl of cereal for breakfast for the first time since London. Then we were back on the road again (slowly getting used to driving on the left again) to Lake Taupo - the site of one of the largest known volcanic eruptions ever (25,000 years ago).

The lake's setting is beautiful, surrounded by rolling green hills and snow-clad volcanoes in the distance. We decided to sign up for sky-diving lessons the next day.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Hong Kong

While we were still in the land of affordable luxury, we decided to treat ourselves to a posh dinner on our last night in Kuta. We had a delicious meal next to our own private waterfall, complete with a companionable tortoise that swam over to us and begged for scraps.

It was a bit of shock then to arrive in Hong Kong to find our world was suddenly 5 times more expensive and we were back to slumming it. We stayed in Kowloon in one of the budget hotel buildings - a battered, grim concrete hulk with a warren of corridors and a colorful cross-section of tenants.

Our room was on the 5th floor (of 13) with no window. It was about 9'x10' and contained two slim beds, a shower cubicle with a toilet and tiny sink, and a TV in the corner above one of the beds. It was pretty clean, but there was a nasty drain smell and we discovered a cockroach roaming amongst our belongings on two occasions. However, it was better than I had feared based on descriptions we had read earlier, and it turned out to be only $25 a night (we had been expecting $35). Still, it was a bit of a rude return to the first world.

In the morning, we took the ferry across to Hong Kong island and the tram up to Victoria Peak where we went for a nice stroll with panoramic views (although the weather was grey and misty).

Hong Kong has this great smart-card system called Octopus, which you can swipe to pay for almost anything (transport, convenience stores, museums, etc). It's just like cash, except much, much faster - you just leap on a bus and hold up your wallet as you walk past. If there's a discount for the return trip, it knows you made the outward journey ealier and adjusts the fare automatically.

You can pick one up at the airport on arrival and return it when you leave and get any unused credit refunded - excellent system.

Every evening, about 30 different buildings along the harbour participate in a light-show, with lasers and searchlights and flashing neon. We caught the tail end of it, before enduring an unpleasantly grissly turkish fast-food dinner, and returning for an early night.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Volcano mafia

After Ubud, we made our way to Penelokan - a town on the edge of a huge old volcano crater that is so large it now contains a lake and its own smaller 7000' volcano within it.

We were planing on climbing this peak, Gunung Batur, but first we had to find a hotel. The ridge was lined with massive restaurants, all padlocked and silent. We eventually persuaded a hotel that was basically shut for construction to take us in. The view from our balcony was spectacular.

We knew that the locals in the village with access to the mountain insist that you must have a guide to climb the volcano, but I had not realised how expensive this would be or how militant the operation had become. They were expecting tourists to pay $15 per person to for the benefit of a guide for a 3 hour hike. And that didn't include any transportation to the village or food (our hotel was asking $35 per person for a one-day 'package'). Bear in mind that in Thailand we payed $25 each for a 3-day hill-trek including guide, transportation, and basic meals). There were enough stories of hikers attempting to circumvent this system being threatened with violence or robbed, that we decided not to risk it, and we decided to boycott the climb instead.

We went for a walk down to the lake, but we were pestered continuously by almost everyone, all desperate to make some money giving a ride, selling a painting or necklace. The interactions would start friendly, and then turn plaintive, sometimes ending quite tense and resentful.

With the area so badly affected by the decline in tourism it seemed ridiculous that one village could be charging such extortionate rates and driving away tourists.

After our slightly disheartening experience in Penelokan we headed down along the coast to Tulamben, one of Bali's most famous dive sites - the shipwreck of the U.S.S Liberty (a cargo ship torpedoed during WWII).

The wreck is just offshore, so you can do the dives from the beach. The dive companies hire local porters to carry your tanks down to the beach for you.

Unfortunately, I developed an ear-infection just before we arrived, accompanied by a high fever which confined me to my bed for 2 days and didn't clear up enough after 5 days to allow me to do a dive before we left.

At least I had a nice hotel to convalesce in, and Katie did do 4 dives, which she says were some of the best she has done - so it will remain on my list of places to come back to.

Then it was back to Kuta for a day before heading on to Hong Kong for a short visit.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Shadow puppets and a honey-scrub

The following day was indeed, very quiet. We confined ourselves to the hotel, and it rained a good part of the day too (which was fine - we've had our share of blazing sunshine and a real tropical downpour is still a novelty for us). The hotel had taken the approach of keeping a full staff during the day but shutting down for the evening to observe the Nyepi holiday. Predictably, just before the restaurant's scheduled 5pm closing time, the entire hotel ordered an early dinner which quickly swamped the kitchen which apparently had not anticipated this surge and was running out of food. The club sandwich was no longer available so we ordered spaghetti - but an hour later it appeared that that order had disappeared and now they only had french fries. Next they ran out of cooking gas (I felt so sorry for the staff who were dealing with all these desperate guests) for the deep-fryer. Eventually, we ended up with toast and scrambled eggs for dinner.

The day after Nyepi we explored a bit more, although a lot of shops were still shut. In our long search for an internet cafe we passed the memorial for the first Bali bombing (Oct. 2002) and finally found one next door to a gutted building at the site of the second bombing (Oct 2005). It definitely makes you a bit edgy.

We caught a minibus up to the town of Ubud, which I vaguely remember being a few houses and restaurants amongst the paddy fields. The main street down to the monkey forest is now chock full of fancy shops and spas and elegant bungalows.

We met a fellow at the intersection where we were dropped off and ended up staying at his bungalows, which are set in a beautifully garden with a swimming pool.

Our first afternoon we walked down to the monkey sanctuary to hang out with the monkeys and feed them bananas. They were pretty well fed, and therefore well behaved, but that didn't stop them trying to climb up and grab the entire bunch from your hand.

That night we went to see a shadow-puppet show. This is a backstage shot showing the intricate puppets and the lantern that casts the shadow onto the screen during the performance. Since it's all in Balinese and Indonesian, you don't understand much of what is going on, but it's interesting to watch.

Kuta wasn't teeming with tourists as I'm sure it used to be, but it was reasonably busy. By comparison, Ubud was almost deserted. It was all the more striking since in addition to its attractive old-school wooden buildings with beautiful carved beams and roofs, it was full of exquisitely designed upmarket restaurants and spas, complete with gurgling waterfalls into lily ponds, marbled floors and sumptuous tropical gardens - and all of these places were open for business and generally completely empty.

I think the owners have deep enough pockets to soldier on in the face of the current economic situation (it has been like this since the bombing last October), but it's quite a sad sight. The upside for us was that you could get some very good deals on accommodation and very reasonable restaurant prices at places we would normally consider to be out of our range.

We went on a pretty hike along a ridge outside town which took us into rice fields and a landscape that reminded me more of what the town had looked liked during my childhood visit.

Afterwards, we took a dip in the pool and then we treated ourselves to a honey-scrub massage and soak at one of the spas. This was fabulous, except for the fact that after we walked into the room, the nice lady told us we should get undressed and put on 'this' and handed us each an identical pair of stetchy, black mesh, disposable granny-panties (the idea being that you don't want your own underwear covered in sticky honey massage oil).

I would have preferred to be stark naked to be honest, but didn't want to upset anyone. So with Katie giggling hysterically (a big help), I gathered all my reserves of fortitude and masculinity, and did what I had to do.

The massage was great and the soak in the hot, flower-petal bath looking out over the paddy fields was sublime.