Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Sydney - Melbourne - Adelaide

Although we were originally planning to bypass Sydney (don't ask me why!) we thankfully had a change of heart in NZ and booked a flight Christchurch-Sydney. Our four days in what ought to be the capital were spent mosying around the Botanical gardens, gawping at the Opera House (much better looking at night), wishing that the bridge climb wasn't a total rip-off and getting drunk (seriously a bit of a novelty in the last 6 months). We met up with some of Tom's friends now living like kings and queens in Oz (the exchange rate favouring some more than others at the moment!) and a couple we'd previously met in Argentina but the weather wasn't as hot as we were hoping so we never made it to Bondi!
Sydney harbour by day
...and night
From Sydney we flew to Melbourne, a city that we'd already heard good things about - whenever you mention to an Aussie that you're heading there they always ask whether you're going to Sydney or Melbourne and then proceed to convince you of which city is better. Melbourne definitely felt more cultured than Sydney - theatres, European looking boulevards and a huge sports complex with the equivalent of Wimbledon, Wembley and a music venue all in close proximity of one another (from its 1950s Olympics days). We also managed to arrive in Melbourne in time for the weekend's AFL (Aussie Rules) match which was great fun. A few pies and beers later and we were pretty much converts (although the oval shaped pitch is just odd)!

From Melbourne we picked up a car and headed down the Great Ocean Road (one of the most scenic drives in Oz) towards Adelaide.
 The twelve Apostles

 Real Aussie wildlife signs!
Stopping off to take snaps en route we were fortunate enough to see wild koalas taking an afternoon nap in the trees but were less lucky with the kangaroo spotting. At one point we were driving on a stretch of road which must have had at least eight dead roos lying along the hard shoulder - road-kill, Aussie style.
It's a hard life!
Anyway on a chirpier note we arrived in Adelaide with just enough time to head into the Barossa Valley (already having stopped off along the Mornington Peninsula and Coonawarra district on the way down) to sample some of Australia's famous grape juice. 

From Adelaide we flew to Alice Springs this morning and having spent the day planning our time here and soaking up the Northern Territory's sun we're all set for a 3 day trip to Uluru/Ayers Rock at 6am tomorrow, hopefully this time with more luck for the kangeroos!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

South Island New Zealand

One of the many lakes in New Zealand

Looking at the date of our last blog post I can’t believe it’s been a whole 3 weeks since we last gave an update so since we’re now in Sydney, having explored the South Island of New Zealand I’ll bring things up to speed.

We did so much during our three weeks in the South Island (and travelled around in another mode of transport – a campervan). Because there’s so much to write about I’ve tried to condense it as best I can but it is still a very long post! Although it sounds like I’ve written about everything we’ve done it’s actually just the main things (quite incredible how much you can do in three weeks).

Our friend for the next three weeks - "Tanya" the Toyota!

Anyway, we picked up our campervan in Christchurch and travelled straight up the east coast to Kaikoura, a small fishing town teaming with seals, albatross and whales (in the water). We found a local guy who took us out fishing on his boat one sunny morning and ended up catching a LOT of fish. Despite the two of us turning green at various points as the water got more and more choppy, we left Kaikoura with a fridge full of fish and a large crayfish (a NZ lobster).

Elizabeth proud to catch the biggest fish of the day - a red cod

We caught a lot of fish!

The afternoon after our fishing trip we drove further north up the coast to Blenheim, a small town in the Marlborough wine region. The weather was very sunny and after driving around we found the perfect place to park the campervan for the night – a stunning cove hidden between cliffs. The air was warm and balmy on the evening and we spent our time eating a lot of our freshly caught fish and watching the sunset on our own beach.

Watching the sunset from our own private beach

The next day was spent wine-tasting in the region. Having done so much wine-tasting on the trip I think we’re starting to sound like experts and at one of the vineyards (Villa Maria – one of the biggest wine producers in New Zealand and Elizabeth’s favourite) we were given a private tour and got to meet ‘Mr Villa Maria’, the guy who set the company up fifty years ago and remains the owner and managing director to this day (Elizabeth for once was rendered speechless).

Next stop was Abel Tasman where we hired a two-man sea kayak and went exploring along the coastline followed by a few hours walking through the bush. The scenery was stunning – emerald sea, yellow beaches and deep green forests.

The morning sun on a pier next to where we camped

After Abel Tasman we had a long drive down to Fox Glacier (this time on the west coast). Having had no problems with the campervan so far our luck was about to change... Driving through a town in the middle of nowhere we noticed flashing lights behind us. The police pulled us over and said we were doing 6mph(!) over the speed limit and promptly fined us on the spot (Elizabeth was driving!). I spent the rest of the journey cursing the policeman (convinced it was “just another way to get money out of tourists”) and getting on my high-horse with Elizabeth for speeding. My feelings of superiority were short-lived however when the following morning I stumbled out of the van to go to the toilet (we were at a holiday park) whilst Elizabeth was having a shower in the shower block. Convinced in my sleepy state that Elizabeth had the van key I closed the door, promptly locking us out of the van.

In case there is any doubt on the part of the reader: Explaining to one’s girlfriend emerging from a shower block at 8am with soaking wet hair and with cold torrential rain as a backdrop that we are now locked out of our van does not go down well...

“Don’t worry” I said, “I’ll be able to break into the van and open the door in no time”. Forty minutes later with a chipped side-window, slightly damaged window seals and drenched from head to foot, I admitted defeat (there’s only so much you can do when armed with only a razor and nailclippers). We had to call a professional in. When the guy arrived I remember asking him if it would take less than an hour for him to get in (I assumed there would be some complicated process of lock moulding and ghost key selection etc). He laughed muttering something under his breath, pulled a coat hanger out from his boot, stuck it in the door and opened it in one fell swoop. The whole thing took less than sixty seconds. I was then asked to pay the agreed $60. He promptly went on his way (something about a broken down cattle truck blocking the main road into town).

Anyway, with that excitement behind us we decided to head to a town on a stunning lake called Wanaka. We had a great time visiting a WWII aviation museum (aviation is massive in NZ, there are airstrips and aeroplanes everywhere - more on that later), went to see a film in a cinema filled with old sofas and bizarrely a Morris Minor and did yet more wine tasting. We also trekked up to a glacier which had stunning views of the area and mountain ranges.

Wine tasting by day...

...and night

Next on the itinerary was Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand (and also the world some might say). We decided on doing three things 1) The Shotover Jet – both of us 2) The Nevis canyon bungy jump – just me and 3) River-boarding – both of us.

The Shotover Jet is basically a jet boat that you sit in and go speeding down rivers, through canyons and spin around in etc. It was very good fun – incredible how close our driver was flinging the jet to the canyon walls and driving very very fast.

Next came my bungy jump. The Nevis bungy is the highest in Australasia and is basically a pod hanging from wires positioned over a very deep canyon that you jump into and it’s very scary...

Although I’ve done a bungy before when I was in Australia that was only a third as high as this one (and they let you buy alcohol before your jump which helps!). Elizabeth came out into the pod and watched me get harnessed up and say my last prayers. The pod’s floor is glass so you can see all the way down to the bottom and watch everyone jumping before you and it looks insane! I ended up being the last jumper of the day meaning I had to wait in the pod for about 30 very nerve-wracking minutes. Walking up to the edge I was trying to look as confident as possible but could feel myself starting to get very shaky. Standing on the edge waiting to jump looking into the abyss with your heart pounding is extremely scary. You suddenly realise just how mad what you’re about to do really is (and start to question why on Earth you’re doing it!). The instructions are to jump out as far as possible to clear the jump-pad and the guy counts you down: 5-4-3-2-1 BUNGY!!! Jumping out and falling is the most insane feeling in the world (and you freefall for a long time). Literally nothing compares to it, it’s the most incredible rush ever! After coming to a halt from all the bouncing you then have to be winched back up – wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t like heights!

The 'chair of death' - looking down into the canyon while getting strapped up

Our final ‘activity’ was the river-boarding: Imagine white-water rafting down rapids but instead of being in a big boat you do it on an individual bodyboard! It was absolutely amazing (and dare I say rather dangerous). There were a couple of times both Elizabeth and I got sucked under by rapids and churned around – you end up emerging from under the water, desperately gasping for breath and then going under again. There were a number of times I was frantically looking for Elizabeth in the water to see her emerge red-faced from under some rapids. Overall verdict: exhausting but amazingly good fun. After all the rapids you get to jump of cliffs and go on a big rope-swing and slide.

Because we were so exhausted from all the adventure we decided to spend the afternoon after river-boarding doing even more wine-tasting. Dare I say we’re actually starting to sound like we know what we’re talking about (I won’t pretend that I actually do know what I’m talking about).

Typical scenes of New Zealand

Next we went to Milford Sound – the fjordland region of New Zealand that has some stunning scenery (only it sadly rained whilst we were there). We had the final mishap with the campervan here when Elizabeth left the lights on all day and ran the battery out (fortunately this was easily solved by using an Aussie guy’s jump-leads and an Argentinean couple’s battery).

Mirror lakes - the drive to Milford Sound

To get from Milford Sound to Dunedin (our next and penultimate stop) requires a long drive with nothing much to do in between (according to the guide books). However by some kind of serendipitous force the journey ended up giving me one of the coolest (and most unexpected) experiences of our trip so far. We had planned to just drive from west coast to east straight with a break somewhere for food but a few days earlier I’d been talking with a woman about the drive and asked if she knew anything worth stopping for - “Not really, unless you happen to like old aeroplanes” came the response. Obviously this is something I happen to very much like. She told us about a hangar in the middle of nowhere where a few enthusiasts work on and renovate old aeroplanes. Needless to say we decided to pay it a visit!

We almost missed the turn for it and then almost didn’t bother going in thinking we should just continue driving to Dunedin to make good time. But in the end we drove in and (to my delight) saw that there were indeed lots of old aeroplanes (mainly biplanes). It just so happened that on that day there was also a group of Australian tourists on a bus tour who were all aircraft enthusiasts. Because of that they had called in a couple of pilots who were taking the Aussies up for rides in a 1930’s Tiger Moth (an iconic biplane). To cut a long story short I got chatting to the woman who seemed to be coordinating the whole thing and managed to persuade her to let me take a flight! (This might not seem a big deal but to an aircraft geek like me it’s incredible). I then chatted to the pilot, casually informing him that I had a licence back in the UK with 70 hours experience and he said the words I was hoping to hear: “Get in the front – you’re flying”.

The Tiger Moth is an absolute classic, built in the 1930s it uses the most basic of controls to fly (the control stick for example is simply connected to a few wires that can be seen running outside the aircraft and are attached to the elevators and rudder etc). Sat in the open cockpit in my leather flying jacket, flying hat and goggles (all I needed was a white scarf) ready to take off from our grass field and take to the skies I realised I was about to experience one of my all time flying fantasies. We ramped up the engine and started gaining speed – the wind hitting me harder in the face before lifting into the air and turning sharply to power away from the ground. I climbed us to 1,000ft and followed the path of a river below, turning sharply and feeling the Gs with somewhat unnecessary regularity. It was absolutely incredible, a true flying experience. Because the open cockpit leaves you exposed to the elements the sensory experience is incredible, it’s so different to flying a normal Cessna or other light aircraft. We did some very steep turns (the plane used to be a trainer for the RAF and is very aerobatic) and then showed off by doing a ‘fly-by’ just above the ground past the hangars in front of the bus load of people. Touching down back in our field and taxiing back to the hangar I couldn’t get the smile off my face. It was at that moment in time that I resolved to buy myself one (when I next have some money).

With Elizabeth driving (I was a bit too excited) we headed to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula where we had a kind offer to stay with Cathy and Alex (some old friends of Elizabeth's friend Jean). It was very nice to be able to have showers, cook in a proper kitchen (after all the campervanning with no running water), watch a bit of TV and Cathy and Alex were very friendly hosts. We had a lovely couple of days exploring the Peninsula and the city and watching “little blue” penguins come ashore one evening to feed their young.

A friendly local

The bizarre naturally-round boulders north of Dunedin

Finally we ended our stay in NZ in Christchurch, a picturesque cathedral city. Our last night in the campervan was spent in the spookiest field ever, really isolated and in the middle of nowhere. There was no one around when we went to sleep but awoke the next morning to see horse drawn chariots being ridden around the field in the morning mist – altogether very weird.

New Zealand has been a great (although expensive!) experience and I leave it with two ambitions 1) To own a Tiger Moth and 2) To get Elizabeth (and I) to do the biggest bungy jump in the world in China when we’re there in a few months!

Now it’s time for Australia...