Saturday, May 27, 2006

Home at last

We stepped off the plane in San Francisco 13 hours later and headed south in a rental car to my mother's house for a couple of days.

Katie then flew on to Boston (she has to buy a car and get back to work) and I went back to my storage unit in San Francisco to prepare for my remaining boxes to be shipped to Boston. I caught up with her a few days later, completing our trip around the world.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Blue mountains and green-curry

The next day Rodrigo kindly drove us 2 hours west to the Blue Mountains for some hiking.

We decided to do a 3 hour loop which took us down a steep metal staircase into the valley and then along amongst the trees for some time before climbing back up where we paused for lunch with a beautiful view. It felt good to get the blood pumping again and to enjoy the fresh air.

On the drive back into town we stopped at an animal sanctuary to see some more strange Australian creatures. Apparently koalas are quite common in the wild, along the Great Ocean Road, but we had missed them. Here they had plenty, although most of them were fast asleep.

We did get to pat one though - apparently this one has starred on TV a few times, so he's used to the attention.

There were lots of interesting birds too. I was amazed how big this pelican's beak was. He got quite curious with my camera and I didn't want to get too much closer than this.

Of course, the real treat was seeing the kangaroos, especially the mothers with youngsters in their pouches.

We bought ice-cream cones full of bird-seed to feed them and I took this video of Katie and one kangaroo that got a bit too enthusiastic.

The next day we pulled out our Thai cooking recipe book and announced we were going to cook green curry chicken for dinner. We were happy to find almost everything we needed at the grocery store, but something went a little wrong when we quadrupled the recipe (too much coconut milk).

But it tasted alright in the end and there were plenty of leftovers.

On our last night we pulled out both the sofa beds in the living room and made ourselves comfortable for an evening of movie watching with the DVD player hooked up to the projector.

We were both feeling a bit exhausted emotionally by the end of our trip so it was really nice to spend our last week with friends who treated us like family and made our stay so comfortable.

The next morning Nicoletta and Rodrigo kept us company at the airport until it was time to board.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Last stop

We were lucky to spend the last part of our trip with family friends in Sydney. We were picked up from the airport and treated like royalty for 5 days. The apartment was right across the harbour from the Opera House, and in the morning Rodrigo took us for a walk past the marina to take a closer look.

It's an impressive skyline, with a lush park containing the botanical gardens at the foot of the glassy skyscrapers and bordering the harbour.

The Opera House is still majestic in spite of its 40 years.

We capped off our day of tourism by visiting the aquarium.

One of the fun things about places like this in Australia is that there are so many strange animals you never would have imagined existing, and for once you're glad that someone's caught a few of them so you have a chance to see them. The platypus is a good example - webbed front feet, clawed back feet, a mammal with fur that lays eggs. They were quite active in their tank and suprisingly cute.

There were a couple of huge tanks with seals and sharks in them (respectively) which had underwater tubes that you could walk through to get a really great view of everything. You could also hear all the noises the seals were making under water.

Thankfully, the tanks were enormous enough that the sharks had room to swim about, and they glided around in sedentary circles while smaller sea turtles and sting-rays poked about beneath them.

Here's a video of another large shark tank (the big ones are nurse sharks).

Another specimen of interest were the lethal jellyfish that had forced us to wear those stinger suits in the Whitsunday islands. Quite beautiful to watch them swim, and a bit creepy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Back-alley night-life and the eleven Apostles

We stepped off the plane in Melbourne in our flip-flops (thongs as they call them in Australia) unprepared for the cold, wet wind. After we got settled in our huge hostel (a 5-floor, 400-bed, overpriced monstrosity) we met up with my friend Damon who I had traveled around Brazil with last year.

Damon took us to a great, old-school Italian place for dinner and then we walked around town for a few drinks. The hip new thing in Melbourne are these unmarked bars in laneways (the back alleys where the garbage dumpsters and packing crates reside). Take a graffiti-strewn alcove between two buildings, wall it off, put in a couple of gas-powered heat lamps and a bar and open for business. They were fun little places that we never would have found on our own.

The road west from Melbourne to Adelaide, the Great Ocean Road, is the Aussie equivalent of Route 1 in northern California. With a little research, we found we could pick up a rental car downtown and drop it off the next day at the airport for about the same price as taking the shuttle. So we took advantage of this to do a little road trip for a day and headed off along the coast.

The next morning we reached our destination - the twelve apostles (although one collapsed into the ocean recently, so now there are only eleven): a string of sandstone columns left rising out of the sea after the nearby cliffs receeded.

We made it back to Melbourne just in time to drop off the car and jump on our flight to Sydney.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Great Barrier Reef

In Cairns in the morning we mulled over the myriad options for scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. We were told that the weather was pretty rough which put us off a multi-day boat trip. In the end we booked a day trip on a smaller boat and just did 2 dives.

It was a very rough journey, and we were thoroughly soaked before we even got in the water. I was almost flung off my bench a couple of times and a lot of barf bags were being used around me.

The first dive was pretty dull compared to other dives we have done in terms of fish and coral, but it was our first unaccompanied dive which added some excitement. At the end of the dive we weren't sure how close to the boat we would be, and when we surfaced we couldn't see it anywhere on the horizon which is pretty worrying until you turn around and discover the boat is right behind you.

After lunch we rinsed scraps from our plates behind the boat and an enormous Giant Travelli appeared to gobble them up. It was about 4 feet long.

The second dive had some cool, narrow swim-throughs between walls of coral which I liked and we saw an enormous giant clam. I was still a bit disappointed by how few fish there were - but we have been told that many of the reefs close to Cairns are so over-visited that the fish have been scared off. Or perhaps we are just spoilt now from the diving in Asia.

We have just two weeks left on the trip now, so I am starting to think about the return home. In many ways, it will be wonderful to sleep under the same roof for a while, but at the same time I'm sad the end of my wanderings is almost over at least for now.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Visa crisis

For some unknown reason, our flight from Christchurch to Brisbane left at 6:15am, so we dutifully dragged ourselves in at 4:15 to check-in. At this point we discovered to our horror that a visa was required for both of us to enter Australia.

We were pretty embarrassed to have messed up on this (having successfully navigated through all the visa hurdles in Asia). But we hadn't required visas for New Zealand, or Hong Kong, or Malaysia and I hadn't thought to double check Australia (they're a Commonwealth country for heaven's sake).

Anyway, we were told it was possible to get a visa online (but only 50% of people managed to accomplish this in time to make their flight). So we rushed over to the prehistoric looking internet kiosk in the airport and wrestled with its dysfunctional track-ball and the agonisingly lame browser software that wouldn't let more than one window open at a time, until we managed to complete both applications. We then ran back to check in and jumped on our flight.

We had a long layover in Brisbane before catching a flight to Proserpine and eventually made it to Airlie Beach where we checked into one of the cheaper hostels in town (full of 20-somethings in full party mode and an attached nightclub hosting a wet t-shirt contest). Thankfully, our room turned out to be suprisingly quiet and we had a good night's sleep.

In the morning we climbed aboard the Waltzing Matilde - a nice 16m ketch with 2 crew and 8 other passengers - for a 3 day sailing trip around the Whitsunday islands.

The weather was a bit grey to start off with but the air was warm and we were able to sit on deck eating cheese and crackers with our wine while we watched the sunset.
On the second day we had plenty of sunshine and after going ashore in the dinghy we walked over a hill to beautiful Whitehaven beach.

We all had to wear stinger suits for swimming because of the risk of nasty jellyfish stings (potentially lethal). In the afternoon, Katie and I opted to go for a scuba dive where we saw some pretty big wrasse.

We were all limited to one 3 minute shower per day (in the evening), so we had to get used to staying salty during the day. We were fortunate that only 10 of the possible 14 passengers were on the boat, so we had our cabin to ourselves. This helped since we found it next to impossible trying to sleep in our small double bed with the boat rolling around at night - so one of us moved to the single berth below our bunk.

On the second night we anchored opposite Hayman island which has a very exclusive resort on it. We watched a lovely sunset while seaplanes and helicopters went to and fro, whisking the rich and famous back and forth.

Back on dry land, we took a bus up to Cairns which took most of the day. It was slightly odd to be on a bus again after so much traveling by other means.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Northward bound

Our deadline to leave New Zealand was looming, so we piled back into our campervan and drove north west to the coastal road.

This involved crossing the divide in the Southern Alps which marks the watershed. We had been told we couldn't take our campervan on the most direct route because of the risk of burning out our breaks on the descent, so we drove the long way round, which was also very scenic.

At dusk we pulled into a campsite in a national park just in time to watch the sun set on the peaks around us.

The next morning we reached the coast and filled up with diesel before turning north. We followed this road for miles between sightings of other humans. To our right, rose rain-forest covered hills or marshy wetlands and our constant companion on our left was the beautifully calm Tasman Sea, fringed by pebbly beaches strewn with driftwood.

Every time the road crossed a river or creek it would narrow to one lane for the bridge, with one direction having priority. The longer bridges had little lay-bys where you could pull in to let oncoming traffic squeeze pass.

We reached the famous Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers in the late afternoon and had just enough time to walk over to the Fox glacier for a look. The next day, Katie and Susanne went for a glacier climb while I caught up on the last few blog entries and started researching some of our Australian travel plans (having had my share of glaciers in Argentina and Alaska).

We pushed on up the coast and then turned inland to cross back over the mountains at Arthur's Pass. The campervan was in first gear in a number of places and the windy road was quite narrow too.

We ended up doing the last bit in the dark, and every time a big truck swung round a corner towards us there was a tense moment as we all tried to calculate just how far to the left we could squeeze our campervan and just how much space was left between us and the truck.

Soon after the pass we found a place to park for the night, and in the morning we finished the journey back to Christchurch (after a little delay helping a poor woman who's campervan battery had gone flat in the night and couldn't start her engine).

Monday, May 01, 2006

Thrills and spills

Queenstown is another one of those towns that seems to exist entirely to cater to visitors, with every shopfront offering tours, gear or adventures of one kind or another. Taking full advantage of the good weather, we decided to start with the Shotover Canyon jetboat ride.

Jetboats are a New Zealand invention and they involve small boats with very large engines (usually two V6 or V8 engines) powering inboard propellers that suck water in and shoot it out the back at high velocity like a jet engine (they have no rudder, but the flow is steerable and some even have thrust-reverser buckets like on a jet engine). The result is a boat that can accelerate from 20kph to 100kph in 2 seconds, over water just 2 inches deep.

Our ride started with a few 360' turns, and then ploughed into a narrow, rocky canyon at up to 80kph. The driver would swerve towards the rocks and than just miss them (by about 6 inches) at the last minute. Even the video is a bit scary.

It was quite a rush - I started to wonder why nobody was using these boats on the Mekong until I found out that each one costs about $150,000.

The jetboat ride was over soon enough, and after that adrenalin warm-up, I decided I wanted to take the plunge and do a bungy jump. There are numerous bungy choices in Queenstown, incuding several bridge jumps, a ledge over downtown that you can also do at night, and the highest jump of all which is from a purpose-built gondola hanging 134m (440ft) over a river canyon. Thinking that I will probably only do this once in my life, I opted for full experience and signed up for the big one (Katie chose to watch).

You ride out over the gaping canyon on a little contraption that docks with the gondola. Inside we waited in turn to be strapped up and briefed on the jump. Every couple of minutes, a jumper would launch into the void and we would watch through the floor as they became a small dot below us with the bungy snaking down behind. There would be a quick jolt as the bungy went taught and then after a few bounces a winch whizzed them breathlessly back up again.

I cannot describe in words the sheer terror of shuffling up to the edge of the door with your ankles tied together and looking out at the yawning emptiness below. The only thing that made me jump was a sense of pride and knowing that I had already paid.

I winced and leant forward until there was no going back, and then leapt out and down head first and wide-eyed. Heart-stopping terror; time enough to register that I am still falling; my vision is tunnelled on the river rushing up towards me impossibly fast but my thinking brain is stricken numb; then the sweet mercy of the bungy; it stretches and tightens as I continue to fall and finally with the blood pounding in my head I have a split second of motionlessness about 20ft above the water before I am yanked 150ft back into the air and am weightless again. This time I notice how close the canyon walls are on both sides of me and manage a breath. On the second bounce I release my feet and swing around to an upright position to be winched back up.

All captured on video thanks to Katie.

It was certainly quite a thrill, but I don't feel any urge to do it again for quite a while.

What I had really wanted to do in Queenstown, was rent a small plane and fly over to Milford Sound. The Wakatipu Aero Club lets a pilot rent planes with an accompanying instructor (thereby avoiding the paperwork hassles of obtaining a temporary NZ license) and I was very happy with their service. This arrangement works out to be a lot cheaper than buying 3 seats on a flightseeing trip and I got to do all the flying.

The scenery was breathtaking, and we skimmed over ridges and down valleys with snow-capped mountains towering over us.

I made a landing at Milford airport, picturesquely situated at the mouth of the Sound (you can see it in one of the photos above), surrounded by steep mountains on three sides.

We passed several magnificent lakes and waterfalls on the famous Milford Track and my favorite moment came on the way back when one of the other flightseeing planes came up on our tail and did a fly-by about 30ft off our left wing.

This video gives you some idea of how magical it was.

With the afternoon still available we jumped at the chance to go sailing on the 1992 America's Cup boat, NZ14, on lake Wakatipu (a friend of Susanne's works on the boat). With a 115ft mast, it has an impressive amount of sail, especially with the spinaker up, and there are countless gears and 'grinders' for hoisting sails and managing sheets that are under enormous tension.

It was a very relaxing way to wind down from the excitement of the last two days.