Down under

AustraliaDestinationsDown under

Pans and injuries

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In the time that I’ve been away, I’ve managed to: scrap the knees and shin on the same leg twice, cracked half a toenail, somehow contract an infection of a nail cuticle (probably caused by hang nail) that made the finger swell, got a gash across my hand from the toilet door (!), grew numerous blisters and ankle bruises from walking too much, suffered a mild heatstroke and a sunburn on the face in the Australian sun. Also got my hiking shoes ripped good, tore some other parts of my clothes. The maladies of travel, as small as they are, remind me that I’m still partly enjoying myself and still away from where I usually live.

I leave Sydney today, wryly looking at the scars gained during these 17 days and think, inadvertently, about all the people that I’ve met over differing circumstances, the most unusual meeting was over a non-stick teflon pan while frying breakfast one morning. An elderly lady – formerly from Australia now living in Kiwiland – was frying pancakes (albeit rather badly), I tried to cook them too. It worked out somehow as we formed a mutual understanding of sharing leftover bacon fat.

I moaned over the loss of the red rental car and the freedom to visit everything at a whim. Forced to rely on only the feet and my oft-complained-about walking speed, I covered the city centre over and over again, trying to convince myself that Aussie fashion wasn’t as bad as it seemed, ending up buying chocolates and household cleaning products instead to bring back.

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And I went whale-watching again, seeing in less spectacular fashion, humpback whales’ blowholes and not much more from a distance of 100m. Squashed together with a strange (and sometimes stupid) group of people, the boat’s left propeller got caught in a fishing trap, rendering it nearly useless; we limped along the coast drearily and essentially stopped whale-watching at that point, saved from boredom by jumping dolphins who saved the day once more. Although I say goodbye today, the lack of regret and longing that accompany the end of every trip is unusually absent; my only gripe being the long flight back. Sydney, like London, felt intimidating the more I read about it in the travel guides, until you actually step foot and realise that – with some help from the very genial people in the visitor information booths – it’s sort of manageable.

Suddenly, there was too much to see: a potential day trip to the Blue mountains, a day down Bondi among (fake?) tanners, or to go to the Manly shore to do ‘manly’ things like swim with sharks in Ocean world, go for a performance at the Opera house instead of just walking around it.

Cheerios Oceania, I’ll definitely miss you.

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AustraliaDestinationsDown under

Sydney the great

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Ah, Sydney, the consummate city, to which I was introduced not via its famed beaches and tacky surfing stereotypes but via the bad traffic and even bad-der drivers.

“I don’t have to give you any way, you’re in my lane,” the old lady driving the van vented defiantly at another van as she wove her steady way through Sydney’s frustrating crawl. The ready expression of frustration was a welcome reprieve after screaming children monsters (indicative of stupid parenting as well) on the way-too-long 3 hr flight into Sydney from Christchurch.

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I laughed and thereafter, she launched into a rapidfire list of sights to cover, ending with a certain place that she thought had great pizzas, which to my surprise, was just next to Sydney YHA The Rocks hostel.

YHA @ The Rocks is an amazing place, built on the site of Australia’s oldest European settlement in 1788, itself creatively constructed as a series of interconnected buildings raised on pillars above the archaeological ruins with the Big Dig Archaeology centre just in front of my room. It is at the same time,  built for sustainable development, with a spacious rooftop that overlooks the harbour.

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A short walk downhill is Circular Quay which yields the most urban-picturesque scenes imaginable.  and where most tourists with large cameras set up camp.

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Bereft of the car, my feet were my salvation, taking me through to Sydney Central, past Hyde Park, backtracking into the Art Gallery of NSW and into their Biennale exhibition. A jaunt into the shopping district, a walk across Harbour Bridge (the least I could do after realising that the coveted Harbour Bridge climb costs a whopping $218+) and I was quite done with the day.

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DestinationsDown underNew Zealand

Memories

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Kathryn the proprietress embodies the resilient spirit of those living in Christchurch who were badly affected by the quake yet chose to remain amidst the city’s reconstruction efforts. The long term effort, as she insists, is eventually good for the economy and employment prospects, with the added advantage of social bonding in the years to come. Yet she believes that she’ll probably not live to see the day the remodelled Christchurch is ready once more; her own property repairs will take as long as 5 years.

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Driving to Christchurch, one seldom encounters smooth road surface; the land shifts constantly and containers lining rockslide areas attest to that. Half the street down where I stay fell through during that time and is now one-lane traffic. It is a sombre and shocking experience even though the tragic event is months behind us: the once-beautiful city centre as I remember it, is now almost akin to going through a war-zone and a mild inconvenience for me was a reminder of how thousands lost everything.

I bid goodbye to NZ on that fairly mournful note. Christchurch is just thankfully a night’s stopover.

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DestinationsDown underNew Zealand

Whale of a time

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Tourist tours thrive in Kaikoura, a small coastal town with a huge variety of marine life to boast of – it was for this reason that I wanted to see whales, after being severely disappointed that the tours had been cancelled for a few days. With nothing else to do, the seal point at Point Kean became the regular hang-out to look at seals who were probably just as bewildered to see humans staring at them. Some looked hung-over after a delirious frolic, others looked apprehensive at the increasing number of visitor vehicles and all of them were plain smelly.

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The snow-capped tops of the Kaikoura range came into view early this morning slightly after sunrise, peeking out majestically as much as they could underneath pockets of blue sky and thunderous grey cloud.

Excitement was palpable when I finally, finally signed up for the whale watch tour and we ventured out to a rough sea as though the world had been washed out and righted once more after days of heavy rain. Both macho men and skinny women fell miserably seasick clutching sickbags while the brave sea crew wore nothing but short-sleeved t-shirts and shorts. Whales and their tails and pods of friendly dolphins came by on this sighting (the latter did a bit of show-jumping), and I think I did not stop smiling for over 3 hours each time a fin came into view. Whale Watch – hilariously located on Whaleway – was absolutely brilliant; even the usually grumpy co-driver of mine looked a tad bit emotional and swore to stay off tuna after observing the delightful dusky dolphins.

Now that I’m in the wrong time zone, I’ve been watching Olympics repeats rather obsessively, discovering that the kiwis are so in love with sculls, only flicking randomly to other sports like a side concern, calculating the number of gold medals per number of people per country which is funny.

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Juggling the Olympic obsession means, unfortunately, going out for shorter tramps in the “countryside”. Being constantly downwind of cow manure notwithstanding, Kaikoura does indeed offer fantastic coastal walks along the peninsula, particularly when the fading light hits the rolling hills against low-hanging stormy clouds. I started the walk off Point Kean yesterday, completing the other half of it down at South bay today.

How it is possible that a country so small can pack so much punch? I’m just swaying in dizziness with what it has to offer and thus far, I’ve met so many people (mostly hosts or proprietors who, being immigrants themselves probably think it’s the greatest country on earth – wait a minute, or maybe that woozy headache is just the remnants of finding stable footing on land after being on choppy waters for a while.

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DestinationsDown underFoodNew Zealand

Cloudy bay, cloudy skies

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I’ve never driven onto a ship before until yesterday and it was fairly disconcerting not only to see huge 20-wheelers on board parked next to my tiny rental, but also to be treated like cargo freight for a moment.

The miserable weather remained miserable just like an irritable old man on the road from the moment I departed Wellington for the South Island at the unholy hour of 7am. The 3.5 hr long ferry ride across the Cook straits in the massive, lumbering hunk of an Interislander ship that was thought to be one of the most scenic rides in the world turned out wet and cold. The boat slowly wound its way through the Queen Charlotte sound – a drowned river valley and finally docked at Picton, a feeder town that seems to exist because of the sheer volume of tourists that pour out of the boats.

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The constant drizzle was an annoying baggage in Blenheim as well, a small wine-producing area that’s got some of the biggest names in the world, 30 min drive from the ferry terminal in Picton. Most of the wineries are clustered around the small towns of Blenheim, Grovetown and Renwick; it’s easy to zip around in a car as they aren’t any more than 20km apart from each other. Seresin, Auntsfield and Forrest were the first few we tried, but their main draw really are their fantastic bistro lunches – Hans Herzog and Rock Ferry – which aren’t too expensive considering the nature of the region and its emphasis on organic, near-gourmet fare. Other places that were quite unimaginable and so beautifully furnished in the contemporary style that I love: Wairau River’s cafe and Spy Valley for its Mission Impossible/spy thriller decor.

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An attempt to drive to the Marlborough Sounds – having been here for 3 days I can finally think of Marlborough without imagining a cigarette packet – was quite literally, a complete washout. The constant rain and the rockslides on the way made it difficult to go around the incredibly windy road; it got progressively worse down the Kenepura Sounds. I conceded defeat and went back not without a growing headache.

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DestinationsDown underNew Zealand

Maori legends that tail us

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“The grumpy ones all last the longest,” Dean said gloomily as he looked at Calvin the cat.  Calvin is an old irascible ginger who obstructs the way just so that you can’t walk through a doorway, who glares and stares for longer than is polite, and bites when he gets cross. But he seems to like human company as long as they constantly stand about 5 metres away from him.

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Dean (along with his partner Jeff) is our latest English-turned Kiwi proprietor up on Majoribanks St/Lawson Place with an acerbic sharp tongue and a dramatic flair who is first in line to shoot odd but bloody hilarious comments on the Australians. Australia, he lamented, would be a really nice place to live without the Australians, and is fairly resentful of the New Zealand government’s attempt to make the slow, genteel country more like its larger, richer rival. He hated the heat in Brisbane and moved to Wellington where the weather was “just perfect”, and is hell-bent on covertly building a mini BnB empire in the city while running a cafe in Lower Hutt.

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It was in that fashion that we ended our journey round the East cape and Hawkes Bay – 1234km so far in the trip. A short stop at Te Mata peak has given me some bragging rights after going up those cliffs. In a Maori legend of food and love, the giant Te Mata O Rongokako decided to woo a chieftain’s beautiful daughter who set him many impossible tasks which he needed to accomplish, one of which was eating his way through a nearby hill. Alas, nature overpowered him in the most innocuous of ways; he choked on a large rock and lies till today, in the undulating landscape.

Then it was a long but fairly easy straight road onto Wellington – NZ’s capital city – for the next 300 or so km but not before a short art gallery stop at lower Hutt. It’s compact, arty and windy and built into the surrounding hills, which makes walking both enjoyable and tiring.

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Several museums later – the impressive City Gallery and the Te Papa Tongarewa – walking became quite the cross to carry after we spent the day making it up to the cable car station, down again, and back up to Mt Victoria lookout through some steep slopes. It’s nevertheless, an attractive city, with walks to die for at dusk along the oriental parade where the coast bends enough so that the glittering lights of the city shine from the opposite banks.

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DestinationsDown underNew Zealand

Heading East

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The Pacific Coast Highway (SH 35) is a motorway that stretches the entire rugged East Cape of New Zealand’s North Island, and also touted as one of the most scenic drives in the world.

We completed our journey along this magnificent but incredibly difficult 420km stretch (possibly longer, since we started off at Rotorua towards Opotiki) first to Gisborne and later completing the other stretch to Napier the next day, and got looks of disbelief from several people after recounting this crazy move of ours for trying this in a day or 2. It was for most part, a completely isolating drives in one of the most remote parts of the country with nary a shop or petrol station – I think I could have been the only one with human hair for miles – but also one of the most varied and at times, the most spectacular.

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It was dusk before we hit Gisborne, and still racing through the end of the last 50km towards the city when night fell. Craig and Tracey Williams are chatty, social and wonderful hosts with the added advantage of having 2 kittens in their care. With much gratitude I fell into bed not long after dinner at The Rivers.

This route quite possibly encompasses all that one might need to be initiated into what I might term the “grown-up” driver: all manner of roadkill, numerous potholes to avoid on high speed, hairpin turns, corkscrews, stupid idiots masquerading as drivers, washed out roads, a maori on a galloping horse, unmarked lanes, single lane bridges, nice cafe owners and finally curious cows/sheep that are surprisingly loud in the valleys. Look ma, no hands! I think I’ve just grown up.

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Napier is the last stop on the east coast on my itinerary before I head to Wellington the next day. Levelled by an earthquake and fire in 1931, the entire town was rebuilt in the Art Deco style that was characteristic of the zeitgeist defining the early decades of the 1900s. Walking through the city centre is like finding oneself displaced in a Miami-vice set with Al Capone calling the shots behind all the businesses while flapper girls rush out in frilly dresses to soothe Indiana Jones’ frazzled nerves.

My visit to the East Cape however, coincides with the Olympics 2012 and more often than not, I found it hard to decide between staying in, watching swimming events and going out to explore a new town. The tough 15 minute walk a steep uphill to my accommodation is certainly incentive enough not to move?

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DestinationsDown underNew Zealand

Eau de Rotorua

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We sped in to Rotorua (as fast as we could given the 3-hr journey that was supposedly meant to last only 1.5 hrs)  and stepped out to the disturbingly familiar fart-like presence heralding geothermal activity. A hasty lunch of Fish and Chips at Oppies – which is a bizarre fast food stand that is a melange of Chinese food and British street fare -, I dragged my poor co-driver to the Polynesian spa and we happily dunked into the geothermal lake pools for a short roll around in hot waters overlooking Rotorua Lake.

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The bay of plenty is a region of lakes and gorgeous forests. A tip off from the proprietress at BnB Redwoods got me going down to the Redwood forest for a half-hour hike among the redwood trees and a further drive down the same windy road brought the Tarawera landscape into view, shaped by the 1882 volcanic eruption that killed over a hundred people and altered the surrounding vista.

In times past, Maori high priest Ngatoroirangi is said to have been caught in a blizzard in his climb up Mt Ngauruhoe; his plea for help was answered by his sisters who then sent fire to him, leaving a wake of geothermal spots in its path. Hell’s gate is such a site of the sisters’ leftover gift, now a tourist spot that is a drive down the state highway 30 off Rotorua, in place of the Maori sacred site that it was in pre-European times.

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Visiting the park was, to the romantic imagination, like visiting a primitive, geologically-young earth or for those who are more spiritually inclined, like plunging into the several levels of hell without the privilege of death.

The awful stench of rotten eggs (unfortunately) became a familiar acquaintance. I surreptitiously sniffed myself and my armpits after the hour-long visit – there was thankfully nothing too offensive.

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DestinationsDown underNew Zealand

An eternity in …

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An eternity in hell, I swear, is akin to sitting for an interminably long time in a plane to goodness-knows-where. Forget the fire, brimstone and the false preachers folks, the aeroplane, the A380, the 777…cattle class, coach, economy, is the new hell. An eternity in the plane later with no sleep and a rushed stopover in Sydney, the sprawling city of Auckland came into view as a series of inlets and bays that have cut deep into the land, housing what appears to be a sizeable Asian and Polynesian population.

Tired and jet-lagged (accompanied with the typical symptoms of gritty eyes, a generally bad disposition and stinky armpits), there was very little to do after a surprisingly decent drive across the city centre – boats seem to be a way of life here – towards the northern part of the city in Bayswater where the studio apartment was.

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All the action was shunted to the day when, after a quick jaunt to the Auckland Art Gallery for a glimpse of Home AKL, an irrepressible urge to visit the West Coast led us to the Waitakere Ranges onto Piha to visit the black sand beaches and Lion Rock. A quick but great dinner in the very cool Grey Lynn’s Delicious and I was finally sleep-bound once more.

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AustraliaDestinationsDown underItineraryNew ZealandPlanning

Down Under in Winter

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A 6-month layover and I’m ready to roll again – to a destination that I visited nearly a decade ago.

For one moment, it appeared that there were no air tickets available under $1900 – whether to Europe or Canada, or anywhere down Down Under. A listless search on the internet one Saturday morning last week had me quivering in excitement when Scandinavian Airlines offered a ridiculous price for a 2-week sojourn in the far north, while Qantas offered – only with a 3-week advance booking – something similar price-wise for a traipse through New Zealand with a stopover in Sydney.

It was surprisingly, a very difficult decision to make: the chance for another driving trip with boxes of chocolate biscuits stashed in the back or the joy of riding in the Scandinavian trains? The cool temperate forests of Sweden and the chic of Copenhagen, or the winter temperatures and the lack of crowds in New Zealand? Long flight vs not so long flight?

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The latter won out and since I’m leaving in three bloody weeks – such is the nature of somewhat-impulsive decision-making -, the first few days in between have been filled with an intensity in researching and reservations – rivalled only by the same emotive outpouring associated with the  consumption of chocolate – and will go on for a few more days yet.

On the list of things-to-do in NZ – a list which I’m sure will grow and get less childish as the days go by :

1. Spot a kiwi (the bird, not the resident of NZ)
2. Whale-Watch at Kaikoura; other sea mammals can join the ride
3. White-water Rafting (again)
4. Look at geothermal mud spots (again)
5. Observe a Haka
6. Look at snow-capped mountains (not too difficult)
7. Visit some art galleries

I can’t wait.

Itinerary: Auckland – Rotorua (Taupo) – East Cape from Opotiki to Gisborne – Napier, Wellington – Blenheim – Kaikoura – Christchurch – is the itinerary for New Zealand. An additional 3 days in Sydney (How cool is this? My hostel’s YHA Sydney Harbour at The Rocks, facing the Opera House) as a stopover is the crowning glory. 

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